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Sunshine questions go beyond legalities to morality

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
There’s the facts, and there’s the truth — and sometimes you have to know the difference.

As regular readers of The Times know, we reported on accusations that the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education may have violated Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act. Some agree, others do not — it is fair to have a robust debate on the subject.

Board members — and their solicitor — Jack Merrick, feel they were in the right and political motivations have ginned up these charges.

I won’t lie — I have strong feelings on the matter. In my opinion, discussions involving the potential closing of an elementary school — a decision that could impact hundreds of district families should be discussed in the open. If it doesn’t violate the letter of the law — then it shreds the spirit of it. As for politics — I know and genuinely like all of the candidates — I’ve interviewed all of them, each brings value and would serve well. I frankly have no axe to grind.

My issue is the issue.

But now justification is being made by the individual who provoked the entire situation (his verbal jousting with Kris Hoover on this site led to her threatening a Right To Know complaint, which then led to the various versions of the presentation being released, which in turn led to claims about Sunshine Act violation): Board Member Keith Knauss.

Attempting an end-run with seemingly revisionist history, now Knauss would justify holding these discussion in private because “contract negotiations” were under way — and to be sure, under the Sunshine Act, discussions relating to contract negotiations are an appropriate topic for discussion.

Under negotiations the following is permitted under the law: “To hold information, strategy and negotiation sessions related to the negotiation or arbitration of a collective bargaining agreement or, in the absence of a collective bargaining unit, related to labor relations and arbitration.”

How a presentation on reconfiguring the district’s elementary schools — or closing one — fits that description seems tenuous at best. But I leave it to you to decide.

To be sure — Knauss and I disagree. A phone discussion this evening with raised voices (okay, mine — I admit to being passionate about this subject) did nothing to resolve this disconnect. Knauss suggested that I sue the school district — a curious choice for someone so allegedly dedicated to keeping down expenses — and maybe additionally more so, as he’s sued the district himself.

Let us set aside that no where in the 46-page presentation was anything related to the labor talks mentioned. And let us set aside the argument that if the mere act of being in contract negotiations gives public bodies a virtual carte blanche to discuss anything in executive session, it is a terrifying prospect for fans of democracy. And, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, the entire topic is so politically hot that the community would have been in an uproar — which sometimes is the price of democracy — so one must wonder whether fear of the public reaction was a factor in the decision process.

But, in keeping with the spirit of the season, let us consider the truly scary alternative that the board did not violate the letter or spirit of the law and that as a negotiating tactic it was actively considering closing an elementary school as a weapon in contract negotiations.

Should we consider the possibility that the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education was in full “destroy this village to save it” mode?

If you subscribe to that — and let’s be honest, I’m pretty sure that at least the majority of the board has a lot more common sense than that — that sort of takes the whole cramming a mere $70 million high school renovation down the community’s throat and puts it in perspective. That, at least, was done in a public vote.

Knauss assures us that the school closing wasn’t considered as a negotiating tactic, which then begs the question: was it really and truly related to contract negotiations?

And that’s the problem here. We don’t know. We can’t know.

How did board members — our elected representatives — react? We don’t know and can never know because a discussion that could have impacted so many of us took place in private.

In less than two weeks, we go to the polls to decide which candidates represent us most closely. Sadly, we have no fair measuring stick to measure the reaction, input and thoughts of those already on the board because we don’t know, the door was closed. I keep hearing about transparency from this board — but you can’t see or hear through a closed door.

Maybe, just maybe, the letter of the law was technically observed. Maybe. I’m not convinced, but one can, as Knauss has, make that argument.

But the spirit — the trust of the community — was again violated.

When we educate our children, we don’t just teach them algebra and gerunds. I hope we teach them right and wrong, not just legal and illegal — and suggest that right comes from fairness, honesty and openness, not just whichever side prevails in court.

Whether the board of education acted based on the former or just the latter is up for the community to decide. I think it’s pretty evident where I stand.

Editor’s Note: There will be, understandably, strong opinion on this matter — and we will publish it. I ask that the personal attacks (beyond those on me — I’m an old editor and I have a thick skin) be kept to a minimum. I prefer that the response be in the form of a letter to the editor, as comments tend to quickly devolve into less worthy debate.

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10 Comments

  1. Moe Integrity says:

    Three cheers to Mike for mentioning right and wrong, openness, honesty and fairness!! These are Board of EDUCATION discussions; aren’t these essentials we should be teaching by example?

  2. Observing says:

    In reviewing the video meeting, I stand corrected on the issue of who made the statement. I confused the issues becase the canddidate made this an issue in pushing for a write-in primary vote. My apologies for any mis-statement.

    I never said or meant to imply that work sessions are video-taped. My reference was to Mr. Murphy’s denial of the fact that there was “a plan to reconfigure the schools” was on the tape of the May school board meeting.

    I don’t see how the topic lacked for discussion. It was raised at every (or almost every) board meeting (plus some workshop meetings) from May onward.

  3. Andrea Pandolfi says:

    First, I’ll say that I am the parent who started the email firestorm in May when I emailed friends and neighbors about the May 9th work session presentation. My email was intended to be informative and had no political motives. I’ve never been a candidate for School Board. I was a concerned parent who had just observed a fiscally conservative Board’s budget discussion, followed immediately by a presentation on how the District could eliminate a number of teaching positions if they reconfigure the elementary schools. I didn’t intend to start a firestorm and I don’t feel responsible for it. I conveyed the information as I understood it from the presentation. Mr. Murphy’s comments were exaggerated, unnecessary and did not provide benefit to the discussion of this topic. Maybe he didn’t say “never, ever”, but he certainly was adamant in his deflection.

    Second, let’s get real about how information regarding this reconfiguration topic was provided to the public.
    1. The presentation first made on May 9th was done so during a work session. The presentation was not on the agenda for the work session, there is no video tape for work sessions, and minutes of work sessions are recorded for only specific voting items. If a parent wanted to keep informed of issues potentially impacting their family, how would they have done so?
    2. Much was said about this topic during the May 16th Board Meeting (mostly by residents), but the topic was not presented in substance. It took nearly 3 hours into that meeting, and only upon direct questioning, for anyone to acknowledge that a full presentation was given in Executive Session.
    3. Despite Mr. Murphy’s denials and broad-brush labeling of the topic as “rumor”, it remained in the forefront. The next presentation was on October 10th at a Finance committee meeting. This time it was announced publicly ahead of time. But again, no minutes, no video tape. Was this topic not deserving of presentation at a Board Meeting?
    4. The discontent bubbled up last week and one resident requested that the Executive Session presentation be made public. Keith Knauss said that it is on the website. At that point the only presentation on the district website was from the October 10th Finance Committee presentation. Mr. Knauss indicated that the 2 presentations were substantially the same. The October presentation is 12 pages long. It includes 4 pages that are not part of the 44-page Executive Session presentation (and all 4 of those pages serve to smooth things over). In addition, the title pages aren’t even the same. The title of the March Executive Session presentation is “Elementary Reconfiguration Analysis” and the presentation from October is titled “Elementary Building Utilization”. 7 of 12 pages doesn’t seem substantially the same to me.
    5. Various dollar amounts have been thrown around regarding how much the District would save by reconfiguring. When I asked Mr. Knauss where those dollar amounts came from he said the numbers “are ballpark numbers mentioned by different people verbally at work sessions, committee meetings, and one-on-one conversations”. One-on-one conversations… At the October Board Meeting, Ms. Trigg indicated that revised numbers had been provided to the Board by the Administration. When was that meeting? When was the public informed about that?

    Since May 9th, Board Members have been so busy running away from and dismissing this topic that no one could get a full answer. I would rather disagree in full light than not be afforded an opportunity for opinion on subjects because they are discussed behind closed doors.

  4. Get the facts straight says:

    Observer…before you tell others to get their facts straight and throw around the accusations, you should get your own facts straight. The woman at the meeting was not, and never has been, a candidate for school board. I happen to know this woman personally. She also wasn’t spreading any rumor. She simply reported to other parents of children at the school what she had just heard at a school board “working session”. Interestingly, school reconfiguration was NOT on the published agenda for this session. Also, “work sessions” are not video taped. The reason there is such an uproar about this is that there are a large number of little coincidences that all serve to indicate an effort to keep things as quite as possible…items discussed not on the agenda, changing presentations with all the changes serving to “soften” the message, and on and on. Usually, where there is smoke, there is fire…

  5. Observing says:

    “And observing: the piece said “opinion” so…what part of objective is an opinion supposed to be? Also — didn’t these guys swear up and down (it took me a month to get Frank Murphy’s flop sweat out of my shirt) that reconfiguration was never, ever discussed and attacked some woman in the audience for spreading a rumor.” I’m not saying Mike’s not entitled to an opinion but it needs to be put into perspective and based upon facts otherwise it’s not one that should be given much credibility.

    In terms of your comment about Frank Murphy, again, I think you need to look at the facts. He never said reconfiguration “was never, ever discussed.” He said there was no plan to reconfigure the schools which was true (check the videotape). The “some woman in the audience” was a school board candidate who was spreading a false rumor that the schools were going to be reconfigured for her own political gain. Again, check the video of the school board meetings.

  6. SandraM398 says:

    As a parent of two wonderful, productive adult children who went through the Unionville-Chadds Ford School district and after reading all the articles on what is going on in the district today I am so happy my children are long gone! What a disgrace that the focus of the school board is clearly not on how or what is the best way for educating our children but raiher focusing on the power of their positions to finagle and undermine the people who pay their salaries. $70 million on renovating the high school and now discussing closing an elementry school? Behind a closed door session ? At who’s expense? Not just the teachers! And not just the children’s but their parents who pay the taxes in this school district.
    While our children grow up and become the next generation of teachers, superintendents and school board members it will be hopeful that they will be true to the responsibilities of their duties and keep some of the most important reasons why they are there to begin with…….EDUCATING OUR CHILDREN and keeping one of the best school districts at the top of the list ! GROW UP AND STOP ALL THE NONESENSE !

  7. Really? says:

    Mr. McGann, I must question whether your continued bluster over this manufactured controversy is politically motivated. No axe to grind? Please re-read the Unionville Times guiding principles – here is the link: http://www.unionvilletimes.com/?page_id=39

  8. Turk182 says:

    Probably a little much, there, Mike. But there’s a point in there somewhere.

    That having been said, isn’t this is same solicitor who suggested it was OK to ignore the height restrictions for the auditorium?

    And observing: the piece said “opinion” so…what part of objective is an opinion supposed to be? Also — didn’t these guys swear up and down (it took me a month to get Frank Murphy’s flop sweat out of my shirt) that reconfiguration was never, ever discussed and attacked some woman in the audience for spreading a rumor.

    Geez…i guess if she’d put out an email suggesting you all discussed closing Chadds Ford, she’d have been shot on sight.

    Yeah…just like with the teachers talks, making us so proud with this kind of behavior.

  9. Observing says:

    Mike: you are acting as though this was never discussed and just foisted upon the people. The idea has been mentioned at board meetings as recently as late 2010. It was presented to the public at a workshop meeting, discussed in many meetings, both regular and workshop meetings and extensive public input was received. The district Solicitor and Sup. Parker thought this was appropriate the whole “letter vs. spirit” of the law discussion is simply silly. The meeting violated the law or it did not. Accusing the Board of acting in bad faith is just wrong and unfounded. What gain do they have from discussing this in executive session? What is the motivation?

    Your statement, “Knauss suggested that I sue the school district — a curious choice for someone so allegedly dedicated to keeping down expenses — and maybe additionally more so, as he’s sued the district himself” makes me question your objectivity. Regardless of what Mr. Knauss’s lawsuit cost the district (or himself, for that matter) he stood up for what he thought was right and excerised his rights as a citizen. His success with the Office of Open Records proves his actions were hardly frivilous. I’ve enjoyed reading the UT but it this is what passes for editorial objectivity here, especially two weeks from an election, well, I’m disappointed, to say the least.

  10. Keith Knauss says:

    There are several issues on which that Mr. McGann and I disagree. I will only address one. The most important is whether the Board held an executive session in violation of the Sunshine Act. Mr. McGann is well aware that the Board, former superintendent Parker, current superintendent Sanville, solicitor Merrick, and the expert at the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition all agree that the session was legal. Yet Mr. McGann continues to raise the issue in a news story and an opinion piece. I hope he aware that his manufactured “destroy this village to save it” fantasy and his unique interpretation of the law serve to unravel the community trust that he purports to value.

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