Twenty years ago Thomas Woznicki successfully fought to block release of his New Richmond School District personnel file.
Last month a St. Croix County judge ordered that the 17-year-old file be released, but because the former teacher is appealing the case, that hasn’t happened yet.
After reviewing Woznicki’s personnel file, in an order dated Aug. 18, Judge Eric Lundell upheld the school district’s decision to provide to Citizens for Responsible Government the file for the time Woznicki was employed by the district.
On Sept. 9, Woznicki gave notice that he is appealing Lundell’s decision to the District 3 Court of Appeals.
Woznicki’s attorney, his wife Anne-Marie Woznicki, had asked the judge to restrain the school district from providing access to the requested records and order the district to destroy them.
“Wisconsin’s public records law surely was not intended to facilitate a private citizen’s harassment of a former public employee,” said the attorney.
Though the information was requested by CRG, the Woznickis claim the actual requester is John Batchelor, who has sent them numerous emails, some with a threatening tone, claiming the former teacher may have sexually abused Batchelor’s sister.
The alleged abuse occurred between 1990 and 1992 while the young woman was Woznicki’s student at New Richmond High School and between 1992 and 1993 while she was a university student.
Releasing the records would allow Batchelor to use the law to continue to intimidate and harass Woznicki, claimed the attorney.
The Woznickis also asked that the personnel records be destroyed, claiming the district should comply with its records-retention schedule and state law, which say records should be kept for at least seven years.
In response, the school district’s Minneapolis attorney, Michael Waldspurger, claimed the “personnel file contains records relating to allegations of misconduct with students and related grievances and arbitration decisions.”
Waldspurger said the district considered the relevant factors, applied the balancing test and decided to release the records after redacting Woznicki’s home address, financial and medical information and private student data.
“Wisconsin legislative policy has consistently favored the broadest practical access to information regarding the government,” argued Waldspurger.
He said Wisconsin courts have routinely recognized that the public interest in access to records of public employees, especially records of misconduct, far outweighs any public interest in secrecy.
Waldspurger said Woznicki’s arguments that access to the personnel file should be denied to protect his privacy and reputation and prevent harassment are “meritless.”
The allegations of future injuries is “purely speculative and a red herring,” insisted the attorney, who responded to Woznicki’s claim that the real requestor is Batchelor by saying that the requestor’s identity and the purpose of the request are not a proper part of the balancing test.
Waldspurger referred to a court decision that records concerning alleged misconduct by public employees should be open whether the charges are proven, dismissed or unfounded.
The intent of allowing access to personnel records is both to monitor the performance of accused public employees and to monitor the performance of the officials who investigate allegations of misconduct, maintained Waldspurger.
He added that the school district retention schedule is a recommended minimum not a maximum, noting that the New Richmond district is prohibited by law from destroying records that have been requested.
Woznicki was employed in New Richmond as a teacher from August 1987 to July 1997 and most recently as superintendent of Boscobel Area Schools from July 2013 to August 2014 when he resigned.
According to its website, CRG is a “non-partisan, fiscally conservative, grassroots political action group.”
A law commonly known as “the Woznicki fix” is a result of court action regarding similar claims against the man 20 years ago.
In 1994 he was charged in county court with having sex with a student 16 or older, but the charges were dismissed three months later.
Woznicki asked the court to block release of his school personnel records that had been acquired by the district attorney who was planning to make them public.
The case made it to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which held in 1996 that state law must allow the subject of a public records request to seek judicial review of a custodian's decision to release them.
In subsequent years, local governments notified anyone identified in a requested record, not just the main subject of the record, and gave them all a chance to argue that release would harm their reputation or privacy interests.
In 2003, the Wisconsin Legislature passed “the Woznicki fix,” which limited who could challenge the release of public records and set deadlines for taking such actions.