Resident questions whether school board violated Sunshine Act

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Details released on March 21 executive session meeting; experts suggest presentation on reconfiguration probably didn’t meet standards for excluding the public

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com

Residents allege that a March 21 Executive Session during which the potential closure of Chadds Ford Elementary School was discussed was a violation of the state Sunshine Act.

With just days to go before a contentious Board of Education election, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District this week released multiple versions of a presentation given to the school board discussing the potential closure of Chadds Ford Elementary School — as one of a number of elementary school reconfiguration options — in March during an executive session, prompting allegations by at least one local resident that the presentation was a violation of the state’s Sunshine Act.

The presentation was released this week after Pocopson resident Kristin Hoover voiced complaints about the presentation, after an exchange of comments with school board member Keith Knauss on The Unionville Times last week. Hoover said that she informed the board and administration she would file a Right To Know request, she said, prompting the district to release the information. District officials dispute those claims.

“The Board is so intent on being right and defending its actions, they have lost perspective,” Hoover wrote in an email which she shared with The Unionville Times after the presentation was made public. “The whole thing is ridiculous.  You look bad.  Right now, the Board looks afraid that the public will find out a damaging secret.”

The executive session — a meeting of the board from which the public is excluded — was held on March 21, following that month’s regular Board of Education meeting at Pocopson Elementary School. During that meeting, in the school’s library, the district’s Director of Elementary Education, Dr. John Nolen— gave a PowerPoint presentation offering four options, including closing Chadds Ford, and having three elementary schools; having two kindergarten to second grade schools and two fourth and fifth grade schools; having three K-3 schools and one 4-5 school; two K-2 schools, two 3-6 schools and have just grades 7 & 8 at Patton Middle School.

There is no disagreement about the above — all concerned confirmed the basic details of presentation. As discussions continued through the spring, only the K-2/3-5 plan was deemed viable by the district. A subsequent proposed district goal to study such a configuration was rejected by the school board last week.

This PowerPoint slide was apparently inserted at some point after the March 21 Board of Education Executive session; but it was initially released as part of the original presentation.

The dispute, however centers on two issues: whether it was proper that the subject was was discussed in executive session and — with personnel and real estate issues cited as the reason — and that the presentation appears to have been changed prior to the initial release, with questions surrounding a specific slide that it is alleged was added after the fact, suggesting that they were “Three Scenerios (sic) not Considered Viable.”

District sources that were in attendance at the executive session confirmed that the slide was not part of the original presentation. That slide and a later release of the original presentation, minus the slide, have some in the community claiming there was a “cover-up” — allegedly an intentional effort to retroactively suggest that three of the four options, including closing Chadds Ford, were never seriously considered — a charge vehemently denied by district officials, attributing the changes to later use of the presentation for other audiences which reflected an evolution of the concepts as the discussions continued. Ultimately, the original presentation was released by the district.

While the changes of the content of the presentation remain a matter of some contention, more questions seem to be focusing on whether or not the March 21 meeting met the legal requirements for an executive session. The answer to that appears to be more clear: the content of the meeting probably did not meet the standards as defined under Act 65, experts in the commonwealth’s Sunshine Act say.

Under 65 Pa.C.S.A. § 708., a public body can only meet in private for six reasons: a personnel matter involving a specific individual, hiring/termination/performance evaluation/promotion/discipline; collective bargaining contract negotiation; to consider the lease or purchase of real estate (a specific transaction, not the decision to seek to buy or sell a property, but rather the details of the transaction of said sale/purchase, including pending offers on specific properties); consulting with an attorney on matters of litigation; to discuss matters that would violate confidentially, i.e.  specific student/parent issues; college and university boards can meet in private to discuss academic admission and standing.

The March 21 meeting would not appear to have met those standards, open public meeting experts suggest.

“Possibly, the board would say that any discussion about closing a specific school would necessarily be a discussion affecting the employment of those specific individuals who work there,” said Kim de Bourbon, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, a watchdog group monitoring Sunshine Law and Open Public Record issues in the commonwealth. “But that broad-based interpretation is not the intention of this provision. It is intended to allow discussion of specific personnel issues involving specific employees, such as potential hiring, firing, and disciplining.”

Terry Mutchler, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, confirmed that broad personnel matters — something that might mean a reduction in force — are not sufficient grounds for an executive session, but must be restricted, under the law, to specific material discussions about individuals.

The law also states that the individual elected officials are responsible for deciding whether a topic is appropriate for an executive session — and it would be those officials that would be subject to charges.

Although violations can be prosecuted — in this case the enforcement falls to the county District Attorney, Joseph Carroll in Chester County, G. Michael Green in Delaware County — a clear intent to violate the Sunshine Act is required to bring charges. Violators are subject to a $100 fine, plus court costs.

Board members say they felt were guided by district staff and were complying with the law.

“The administration requested the March executive session to present work they had done on one of their goals,” school board president Timotha Trigg said in a prepared statement. “Does anyone really think I should have denied them that opportunity and told them I didn’t trust their judgment in interpreting the Sunshine Law? The Unionville-Chadds Ford administration and legal team has an impressive track record on Sunshine issues. I believe their judgment is sound and their decision was correct.”

Board vice president Frank Murphy echoed Trigg’s sentiments.

“I believe that everything the board and (former) Superintendent (Sharon) Parker did was appropriate and it will be proven out,” Murphy said.

Parker, who led that administration at the time of the March 21 session, did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Trigg and board Murphy are seeking reelection on Nov. 8 in Region C, along with Kathleen Do, Gregg Lindner and Sharon Jones all competing for three seats. Eileen Bushelow, the only other incumbent seeking reelection is unchallenged in Region B. A single Region A seat is being contested between Victor DuPuis and Rob MacPherson.

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