Smart Growth for Vernon, CT
Obtaining student addresses is illegal, even for Vernon mayor, officials say

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Thursday, April 7, 2011 12:45 PM EDT

VERNON — Mayor Jason L. McCoy has been sending congratulatory letters to honor roll students in violation of federal privacy law, while ardently denying town employees are uneducated about what constitutes public information.

Democrat Town Council member Marie Herbst broached the subject publicly Saturday at the council’s third budget hearing during a discussion of the town administration’s printing and binding costs.

She questioned the wisdom of spending tax money on form letters that students are likely to glance at before trashing.

But Republican Deputy Mayor Brian Motola immediately rebuked Herbst.

“Were you here when Mrs. Conway, the superintendent of schools, thanked the mayor for sending those honor roll letters?” Motola said. “It was a very good idea, and I think it is no matter whom the mayor is.”

Town Administrator John D. Ward also jumped in to praise the mayor’s effort, citing a note from special-education coordinator Patricia Buell.

“She emailed the mayor, thanking him profusely for sending it to a student that brought it back. … It marked to that student a tremendous achievement to be recognized for her accomplishments by the mayor,” Ward said.

But School Superintendent Mary P. Conway said Tuesday that she discovered McCoy had been obtaining the addresses of every honor roll student from school principals.

“It’s a very nice gesture, but it’s really not allowed. We will be stopping that,” Conway said.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act passed in 1974, the personal “directory” information of public school students cannot be given out — even to the mayor.

McCoy said he has not spoken to Conway and insisted she would continue to provide him with students’ addresses.

“I don’t think that’s correct,” McCoy said when told the letters were illegal. “I would call her back and check your facts again. There’s no issue at all, everything was checked out, there’s no problem with doing this. It’s perfectly legal.”

Conway said the rules changed somewhat with No Child Left Behind, which stipulated that colleges and the military could request such information from schools. Parents, however, can sign a form preventing the release of their address.

When told that her compliment of the mayor’s program was cited at the council’s hearing, Conway said she never thought about where McCoy got students’ addresses.

The Board of Education does not keep a master list, Conway said, so the town’s administration would have needed to contact school principals to have them assemble the information.

“It wouldn’t have occurred to me. … I can’t imagine a principal doing that without permission,” Conway said. “Directory information is not releasable.”

Conway queried the schools and said she was surprised when Vernon Center Middle School Principal Beth Katz informed her that former Superintendent Richard Paskiewicz had instructed her to provide honor roll students’ information to the mayor.

Conway, who took over as superintendent on July 1, said she was caught unaware. An elementary school principal who responded to her query said it is clear the law does not allow student addresses to be given out, and Conway expressed surprise that neither Katz nor Rockville High School Principal Eric Baim knew enough not to give out the information.

Conway and Baim did not return calls for comment today.

As a former teacher, Herbst said, she knew McCoy’s letters were illegal.

“I was concerned that some parent might not want their kid’s name and address out there in public and as a result, the town could be placed in the position of being sued. And that’s what bothered me about the letter, not that it wasn’t a nice gesture, it was an illegal gesture,” Herbst said today. “This is an illegal act, and the town could get in trouble.”

At the council meeting Tuesday, Thomas A. Hennick, public education officer for the state Freedom of Information Commission, confirmed Herbst’s suspicions that the release of student addresses violates federal law.

“With all the lawyers we have I would have thought somebody would have looked it up after I first mentioned it,” Herbst said.

McCoy frequently cites “pending litigation” as a justification for not releasing public documents and said again Tuesday that information requests must go through the town’s cadre of lawyers to eliminate risk.

Today, McCoy defended himself, saying he’s been sending letters since his first term in office to encourage students to excel.

“I sign them all personally. It probably takes four or five hours,” McCoy said.

When asked how he obtains student addresses, McCoy said they are provided in an electronic list, which is “probably destroyed after we use it each time.”

When asked if students whose parents signed the form precluding the release of their address are excluded from that list, McCoy replied, “I assume so.”

He dismissed the notion that the letters could be misconstrued as off-season campaigning on the taxpayer’s dime, saying that statistically, parents of school-age children have the lowest voter turnout.

McCoy has pushed for the town to use more technology to cut down on printing costs, even buying iPads for every council member at $500 apiece. But while the administration’s 2009-10 budget included only $2,225 for printing and binding, McCoy has called for $12,000 for printing and binding in his 2011-12 proposed budget.

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