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APS refuses to release lesson plans under records request

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Public Schools and its teachers union have denied a Journal request for teacher lesson plans, contending they are “trade secrets” and exempt from disclosure under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

Earlier this month, the Journal requested a semester’s worth of lesson plans from eight teachers for a planned story on what lesson plans look like across different APS schools.

The newspaper requested lesson plans from:

  • Two geometry teachers, one from La Cueva High School and one from Highland High School.
  • Two ninth-grade English teachers, one from West Mesa High School and one from Albuquerque High School.
  • Two 11th-grade chemistry teachers, one from Volcano Vista High School and one from Cibola High School.
  • And two seventh-grade math teachers, one from Truman Middle School and one from Polk Middle School.

On Thursday, APS notified the Journal it had denied the request.

District officials initially asked the teachers for the lesson plans but concluded they were not public documents after receiving a letter from a union attorney, according to APS’ denial.

“I received a copy of a letter sent to the Modrall Law Firm (which represents APS) from Stephen Curtice of the Youtz & Valdez Law Firm stating on behalf of the teachers and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation that the requested documents were exempt from release under the NM Inspection of Public Records Act because they are teachers’ trade secrets,” APS spokesman and records custodian Rigo Chavez wrote in an email denying the request.

Gregory Williams, president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, said he was not buying the trade secret argument.

It is hard to imagine that lawmakers had teachers’ lesson plans in mind when they created the trade secrets exemption, which is meant to protect proprietary information, said Williams, an attorney for Peifer, Hanson & Mullins, which represents the Journal. And trade secrets typically protect something of commercial value.

Teachers are required to submit parts of their lesson plans to the state under New Mexico’s teacher evaluation system.

AFT President Ellen Bernstein said teachers create their own lesson plans and she considers them “intellectual property.”

For that reason, Bernstein said, many teachers also were wary of uploading lesson plans into Teachscape – a database the state used to collect information for teacher evaluations. She said teachers do upload pieces of their lessons plans into Teachscape, but what is uploaded can vary from teacher to teacher.

Bernstein also said teachers often share their lesson plans with other teachers, but that is voluntary.

Attempts to reach Curtice on Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful.

In his letter to APS, Curtice also argued lesson plans are held by individual teachers and therefore are not public records. The district agreed.

“The teachers’ lesson plans are maintained and held by teachers in their private records, and are not maintained or held by or on behalf of the school or school district, and are thus not subject to the Act,” Chavez wrote in an email denying the request.

Williams said it is hard to consider lesson plans as private documents given that teachers create them within the scope of their duties as public employees and because one would assume principals and administrators have access to lesson plans.

“APS shouldn’t be able to claim they don’t have access” to lesson plans, Williams said.

The public also has a legitimate interest in knowing what students are being taught, he said.

Bernstein said teachers would likely be OK with sharing lesson plans with parents if they asked to discuss them. She also said teachers would likely be willing to discuss their lesson plans in an interview with the Journal.

“However, teachers are aware this information could be easily misrepresented in the Journal,” Bernstein said. “In this day when teachers are blamed and scapegoated and attacked, the question is what do you really want to know?”

Journal Managing Editor Karen Moses said the story sought only to look at whether students in different schools were covering roughly the same material.

“With our graduation rates, the number of graduates who have to take remedial courses in college and the controversy over end-of-course exams, we thought that kind of story would be a service to students, parents and the public,” Moses said.