Opinion: right & wrong vs. legal and illegal

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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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