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Resident questions whether U-CF School Board is violating Sunshine Act

07/18/2016 11:14AM ● Published by J. Chambless

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board held its retreat on July 15, where members presumably discussed board goals and district goals for the coming year. But did they make decisions? That's what Chadds Ford resident Mark Stookey wants to know, and he has retained a lawyer to question whether the board should be gathering in private.

“I have no desire to make this a big deal about this, but it should be a matter of public concern,” Stookey said during an interview last week. “It's a very bad habit for the board, and there's a potential for bad things to occur.”

Stookey agrees that there are valid reasons for executive sessions of the board to take place – when discussions center on contract negotiations, or when students or private details of an employee are discussed. “And I'm not against having a retreat,” Stookey said. “They can be a great way to build a team, build camaraderie – all that's well and good. … But I don't understand why the public isn't allowed to know what is discussed. Why is this board so committed to secrecy? If they are going to be discussing goals, then that is deliberation. I'm sure they discuss the pros and cons of certain issues. I'd like to make sure that district business isn't being discussed at a closed meeting.”

The board has been discussing strategic planning for almost a year, at one point considering hiring an outside firm to conduct surveys and structure a formal plan. That idea was scaled back to focus on the retreat.

At a May 9 school board work session, district superintendent John Sanville said, “At this point, what I recommend for the board to do is for us to come together in goal-setting sessions in retreat, where we can look at our plan moving forward in terms of initiatives from a board goal perspective. And in those discussions, from maybe a new starting line, we can develop a common path forward.”

Board president Vic Dupuis responded that the retreat would be a chance “to talk about strategic planning. We do have an obligation to look at board goals and district goals for next year. So this will be part of what's encompassed in that conversation, OK? And it could be that in that conversation we decide we don't want to do anything with strategic planning next year, and that's certainly our prerogative.”

Stookey filed a Right to Know request with the district on May 10, seeking “All records related to any 'retreat,' 'conference,' 'workshop,' 'training session' or similar meeting attended by a quorum of UCFSD School Directors since Jan. 1, 2014,” along with records related to the proposed upcoming retreat.

On June 3, Sanville responded in a letter to Stookey that denied his request and cited the board's right to hold private discussions if the gathering is for informational, fact-finding purposes and not for making decisions.

Sanville summed up his five-page, detailed response by stating, “The retreat will be legally proper, as an informational, fact-finding gathering. No 'deliberation' or 'official action' will take place. To my knowledge, past retreats have been legally proper gatherings. Although the Sunshine Act may not require it, the board has announced at a public meeting that a retreat will take place. There are currently no 'records' pertinent to the retreat. Any records that are created will not be subject to disclosure, for the gathering is private; the right to privacy at a gathering would be compromised if such records were disclosed.”

Stookey's attorney, Craig J. Staudenmaier, wrote to Dupuis and the board and administrators on June 16, saying that his review of board correspondence, minutes, videos and documents “has raised some serious concerns regarding how the board views the requirements of the Sunshine Act, particularly as it applies to what are referred to as board 'retreats.'”

Staudenmaier cited board minutes of April 20, 2015, which indicate that board members had “substantive exchanges” concerning strategic planning during a retreat; minutes from Feb. 22, 2016, which stated that a retreat was held which concerned “the merits of going forward with the strategic planning process”; board minutes from April 2016 which indicated that the board decided at a retreat to alter the way it approached this year's budgeting process; and a comment from board member Michael Rock from March 2016, in which he stated at a meeting, “I consider us discussing proposals to go forward with a strategic plan illegitimate. We created an activity called a strategic plan. It was never discussed at a board meeting. A motion was never made to add it. I came to a board meeting and all of a sudden we have an activity called a strategic plan. That is not very transparent. I even wonder if it's in violation of sunshine laws.”

It was later pointed out to Rock by Dupuis and Sanville that the strategic planning meetings had been announced in a public forum several times.

Stookey admitted that he had no idea whether or not the board violated any regulations regarding deliberations at the July 15 retreat. “But why are they conducting meetings in private?” he asked. “Why is there no video, no minutes, no records? … This district talks a lot about transparency, but if you ask too much, that's when the wagons get circled. We're on a slippery slope.”

The board and administration have a tentative schedule for goal setting, including a review of the results of the board retreat to create a first draft document, which will be presented to the board on July 22. The board members will review the draft document from July 22 to Aug. 8, then discuss the potential goals at the public work session on Aug. 8. An administration retreat is slated for Aug. 9, during which the administration will review the goals and discuss board input from the work session. The board will ultimately vote on board goals on Aug. 15. The approved goals will then be shared with the community.

When asked for comment last week about Stookey's allegations, Dupuis responded by email: “With regard to any discussion referencing allegations being made by Mr. Stookey and/or his legal counsel related to board governance and Sunshine Act considerations, he (Mr. Stookey) has made this a legal issue by his actions, so all inquiries and comments are now directed to and through our legal counsel, district solicitor Jack Merrick.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.


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