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Texas Paper Denied Access to Administrators' Files

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A Texas judge has rejected a Houston newspaper's request to grant reporters access to city school administrators' academic transcripts.

In an Aug. 29 ruling, a Harris County judge held that the Houston Chronicle lacked legal standing to seek an order forcing the Houston Independent School District to turn over the records.

The newspaper sought to obtain the documents after it had reported that at least five and as many as 25 Houston administrators purchased mail-order doctoral degrees from an unaccredited California university.

Lawyers for the newspaper have argued that the school officials' records should be made public under the provisions of the Texas Open Records Act.

Two Suits Merged

At the Houston district's request, the Chronicle's lawsuit has been merged with a second suit that questions whether teachers' academic records also fall under the state open-records law.

That case, Chapman v. Mattox, was filed in state court by employees of the Klein Independent School District earlier this year following a federal appellate ruling in 1987 that a Klein teacher's college records were not protected by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which prohibits the release of students' academic records without consent.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Chapman decision last April.

The question of whether school employees' academic records should be open to the public has also been raised in Washington State, where a superior-court judge ruled in August that newspapers should have access to personnel records when a teacher's certification is revoked. State education officials have appealed the ruling.

Lawyers for the Klein school employees and State Attorney General Jim Mattox agreed on Aug. 15 to postpone action in the Chapman case in order to allow the legislature to address the issue when it meets in regular session next year.

Newspaper Will Appeal

Tony Pederson, managing editor of the Chronicle, said last week that the agreement in that case has effectively denied his newspaper a hearing on the merits of its suit and gives the Houston district time to seek legislation that would keep administrators' records from public view.

"The effect of this is the Chronicle doesn't get a hearing, doesn't get an opinion, and doesn't get the records," said Bill Ogden, the newspaper's lawyer. He said the paper planned to appeal the county judge's ruling.

Larry Yawn, a spokesman for the Houston district, said Superintendent of Schools Joan Raymond had already provided the newspaper with the names, colleges, degrees awarded, and certifications held by each of the system's administrators.

He also said that the district does not keep information on file that would indicate whether an administrator received a degree from an unaccredited institution.

The news articles in the Chronicle have prompted Commissioner of Education William N. Kirby to recommend that the state board of education specify that degrees required for administrative certification come from accredited colleges and universities.--nm

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