U-CF School District fights resident's right-to-know request
● By J. Chambless
By John Chambless
In September, the Unionville-Chadds
Ford School District unveiled its Outdoor Facility Study in a
presentation to the school board.
The report, prepared by K&W Associates, contained possible improvements to the athletic facilities and grounds at Unionville High School, Patton Middle School and Unionville Elementary School. Some of the improvements were fairly routine and inexpensive, but options ranged up to a new fieldhouse at the high school, and extensive additions and rearrangements of fields already in place. The public reaction was swift, and sometimes negative, with the theoretical price tag of the improvements getting the most speculation.
Board members emphasized that the plan was more of a wish-book than a plan of action, and that they – and school boards in years to come – could use the outline as a possible guide as money became available. By November, the suggested list of changes to the outdoor facilities had been trimmed considerably.
During public comment on Nov. 12, township resident Mark Stookey told the board, “The outdoor facilities plan is much improved. … As far as outside groups using the school fields, I've tried to get revenue information from the district for this, and I've been stonewalled. The public school act requires school districts to maintain financial information for six years, and you claim you don't have it. To me, that's unacceptable. ... I think the vast majority of the public does not believe it is appropriate for the school district to subsidize outside groups.”
Stookey's complaint came from the district's admission that some groups are offered reduced rates for rental of the fields at the schools, because they fundraise or otherwise give back to the schools.
Board member Gregg Lindner, in his comments at the end of the Nov. 12 meeting, said, “About outside groups using the fields -- if you try to schedule every available hour that URA Baseball might end up using the fields, the grand total would be about $4,000. What ends up happening is that days are rained out, coaches decide not to hold practices or whatever, so if you look at that, it's about $2,500 for URA Baseball in a given year. The dollars that come back to us through in-kind contributions from these community organizations for things such a scoreboard -- those organizations understand the need to provide dollars to the school district, and they do that willingly.”
That, however, did not satisfy Stookey, and at the school board's Dec. 3 meeting, the board announced that they would be fighting Stookey's right-to-know request in court.
Board president Jeff Hellrung commented, “The district is very well aware of our right-to-know responsibilties, and we field a great number of requests for us to release documentation that has to do with school board business. Normally, this is straightforward and we release the documentation.
“From time to time, we feel requests are made that are not covered under the provisions of the law, and information should not be released for various good reasons. This has happened. The citizen [Stookey] has appealed to the Office of Open Records, and we received a decision from that office that's partly favorable to the appellate and partly favorable to the district. We believe the ruling in favor of Mr. Stookey was incorrectly decided under the law. We're quite experienced with this. Our attorney has represented us three times before in appeals of decisions from the Office of Open Records. We feel confident that we can prevail.”
Board member Thomas Day said, “I think that, as we go through the budget for 2019, we make the public aware of the amount of money we spend for these types of requests, and the volume of requests that come from a small number of individuals. It's quite substantial, and I think it should be brought to the public. It takes away from dollars that could otherwise be spent on children.”
Hellrung agreed, saying, “I'd like the public to be reasusred that we're using good judgment in this case.”
Board vice-president Victor Dupuis added, “There's an economic aspect to this. It's been estimated by our administration that if we were to fully honor the things which we are appealing, it would result in 183 man hours of work on the part of our administration. That's a substantial cost to the taxpayers, and it's legally questionable whether this material is covered under right-to-know. We will expend some funds to execute this appeal in the vicinity of $7,000 to $8,000. For me, there's a substantial economic value to the taxpayer in making a statement about what right-to-know means, and what it doesn't mean, under open records law.
“This is an important step for us to take as a district -- not only for us, but on behalf of all the districts in Pennsylvania,” Dupuis said. “All of us will be living under the results of this ruling.”
Board member Steve Simonson said, “I think our board has been very transparent in the issues we've been dealing with. When governing occurs outside of the view of the public, there is a risk of bad governance. In our situaion, transparency facilitated by open records is a mechanism for verification. But right-to-know requests come with the obligation to use them responsibly.
“One of the consequences of excessive right-to-know requests is diversion of our resources from our educational mission,” Simonson added. “The zone of appropriateness, or appropriate use of right-to-know requests, is gray. We've reached the point where we need to help define the boundaries of appropriateness by following the appeal process in this case. We hope to gain clarity from this appeal.”
The board voted unanimously to appeal the decision of the Office of Open Records.
The day after the meeting, Stookey issued an email response to the Chester County Press and residents of the district.
“The district plans to sue me, not only to continue to keep details of its facilities plan and planning process secret, but also to make new law to dramatically narrow the application of the Right-To-Know Law across the Commonwealth,” he wrote. “You will recall that earlier this year, in a highly flawed process, the district’s consultant, Kurowski and Wilson (K&W), developed a $10 million plan focused on dramatically expanding outdoor athletic facilities, mainly at the high school/middle school campus. This summer, the plan was well on its way to being adopted by the board when several of us vociferously questioned the need for such 'gold-plated' facilities and the process that led to such an extravagant recommendation.
“I made a number of Right-to-Know requests related to the proposal and to the district’s facilities in general,” Stookey continued. “As appears to be the district’s practice when confronted with Right-to-Know requests that might reveal something less than flattering, the district first delayed its response and then denied most of my requests. I appealed the denials to the state’s Office of Open Records, which rejected most of the district’s arguments for failing to provide the records. The district has now been ordered to provide records, or at least conduct a thorough, good-faith search for them.
“Apparently the district is concerned about what the records might reveal, as the board has now authorized the district to sue me to overturn this order,” he continued. “In its legal filings before the Office of Open Records, the district takes the stance that only records shared with the school board are public records. This would mean that only the already-sanitized records that reach the board could be obtained through a Right-to-Know request. ... While this theory is without basis in the law, and should not prevail in court, it shows the lengths to which the district is prepared to go to bar public access to records, and demonstrates that the district’s much-ballyhooed professions of transparency are hollow. If courts were to adopt this principle, the Right-to-Know law would be gutted.”
Stookey also outlined some of the background of his ongoing complaints.
“While the district’s compliance with the Right-to-Know law has been slow and spotty, I have received some of the financial records I requested (after a four-month wait),” he wrote. “These records indicate that the district has not been charging numerous outside groups for use of the outdoor facilities, in violation of district policy. Outside groups account for about half of the usage of many of the district’s fields, so this is an important issue. The district now claims it will remedy this failure in the future. Many questions remain unanswered, such as who is being held accountable for these violations of policy, and how much revenue has been lost, but without the Right-to-Know law, this mismanagement would remain hidden from public view.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.