A Dane County judge on Monday ordered the Madison School District to turn over more than 1,000 sick notes submitted by teachers who didn't come to work in February during mass protests over collective bargaining.

Dane County Circuit Judge Juan Colas said the district violated the state's Open Records Law by issuing a blanket denial to a request for the notes from the Wisconsin State Journal rather than reviewing each note individually.

Under the records law, government agencies must make public the records they maintain in most circumstances.

State Journal editor John Smalley said the court ruling was a victory for open records and government accountability. He said the newspaper was not planning to publish individual teacher names but rather report on the general nature of the sick notes the district received from employees.

"We felt all along the records were an important part of an important story in our community," Smalley said. "Now we'll be able to review and better understand how the school district handled the delicate matter of dealing with all these sick notes."

The State Journal asked for the sick notes in an open records request submitted in May. After the district denied that request, the newspaper asked for the sick notes but with the teachers' names removed. Again, the district refused. The newspaper filed suit in June.

The district had argued that the notes contain medically sensitive information and would cause "embarrassment and annoyance" to most of the teachers involved. 

District superintendent Dan Nerad said Monday that the district is weighing an appeal.

"Because of the sensitive nature of medical information, we felt we had a duty to support our staff and protect these records," Nerad said in a statement. "At this point, we are reviewing the decision and our options, including whether or not we would seek an appeal."

Coordinated sick-out

Schools in Madison were closed for four days in February as teachers coordinated a sick-out to attend protests on the Capitol Square of Gov. Scott Walker's curtailing of collective bargaining rights for most public workers. The district required absent teachers to submit notes from doctors if they were legitimately sick. Those who didn't were docked pay.

Of the 1,769 teachers who took one or more days off without an excuse, 84 submitted sick notes that the district deemed fraudulent because they appeared to have been handed out by doctors at the Capitol protests. Of those, 38 received suspensions because they didn't rescind the fraudulent notes when given the chance.

Overall, the district received more than 1,000 sick notes, but not every teacher who missed work submitted a note.

In responding to the State Journal's records request, Colas said, the district should have reviewed the notes individually and weighed the competing interests between public disclosure versus keeping the notes private. A blanket denial of the records, he said, is not a sufficient reason to deny their release.

The district will have 10 days to turn over the notes. In addition, the district will be responsible for paying the newspaper's legal fees. Those costs weren't immediately available Monday.

The state Medical Examining Board decided last week that seven doctors who handed out sick notes at the protest would receive reprimands, while another two received administrative warnings.


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