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Chester County Press

U-CF School District backs off right-to-know challenge

01/15/2019 01:25PM ● By J. Chambless

By JP Phillips
Correspondent

During their Dec. 3 meeting, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board voted to contest a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR) that allowed part of local resident Mark Stookey’s Right-To-Know information request to move forward.

During the Jan. 14 board work session, the district changed course and announced that it will not dispute the decision. Board president Jeff Hellrung explained the board’s reversal. 

“At our December meeting, this board -- relying on the advice of our attorney -- voted to appeal an Office of Open Records decision,” Hellrung said. “After conducting additional due diligence and prior to filing the appeal, our attorney advised us to forego the appeal and produce the requested documents. While still believing that the district has a strong case, he did not want us to undergo a lengthy and expensive appeal process and take on the risk that our appeal could be unsuccessful.

“I’m hopeful that the release of these documents has discredited any accusations that the district is hiding information or behaving inappropriately in any way in regards to our Long-Range Facilities Plan,” he continued. “I can only hope that our administration will now be able to move on from this costly and time-consuming distraction and redirect their energy where it matters most -- our students.”

Pennsylvania’s Right-To-Know law states that all government agency records are public information, with a few exceptions. These exceptions are generally designed to protect confidential information, investigations, or the public should the release of data compromise safety. 

The Chester County Press sat down with Stookey to better understand the concerns that led to three Right-to-Know requests concerning the Outdoor Facilities Plan. Stookey became concerned last June when the school district’s consultant, K&S, presented an Outdoor Facilities proposal. K&S estimated that the plan, if fully implemented, would cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million over the next ten years. It included such items as artificial turf fields, new tennis courts, redesigned roadways, a new field house, an outdoor classroom and walking trails. Over the next several months, the board made it clear that each item in the plan would be individually considered and they would incorporate all, some, or none of the items into the district’s Long-Range Plan.

Stookey did not think the information presented at public meetings was enough to justify the cost of these projects. He was also concerned that the extra wear-and-tear from facilities usage by outside groups – especially on the sports fields – was the reason for some of the priciest items. 

Based on a January 2018 resident survey distributed and analyzed by the district, roughly half of respondents thought that the current outdoor facilities were adequate. It also showed that outside groups accounted for 66 percent of the usage on fields deemed “overused.” 

Over the next few months, Stookey filed three Right-to-Know requests related to the outdoor facilities project. According to Stookey, the district provided a small part of one request, fully denied another request, and did not respond to the third. Stookey subsequently filed three appeals with the Office of Open Records. Eventually, it took five months from his initial request, but he is satisfied that the district provided most records. He claimed he has not received all records listed in his other two requests.

“The project is the big thing that got me going,” Stookey said, referring to the Outdoor Facilities Plan. “I was worried about $10 million without justification. We’ve made huge progress by making people take a much harder look at the project, and it’s down to much more reasonable levels. There’re still questions about what it really ought to be, but the whole freight train has been slowed down and we are in a much, much better place. But in the process of doing this and trying to understand the project, what I found was a very unacceptable situation in the district’s implementation of the Right-To-Know law. And frankly, that’s something that needs to be changed.

“One thing they could do is communicate better if something does become too difficult; they don’t do that. Secondly, they need to organize their records in a way that they can be accessed.”
The district’s Communications Coordinator, Christa Fazio, explained some of the district’s challenges in an email. She said Stookey submitted a total of seven requests since July 2018. All totaled, these requests had 169 questions to be answered. In response, the district provided approximately 25,000 pages to Stookey.

Fazio also said the district made great efforts to communicate and meet with Stookey to no avail. District superintendent John Sanville extended invitations for Stookey to meet, both via email and at public meetings. Hellrung has met with Stookey once and offered to meet regularly to keep him apprised of school district business.

Stookey said that, based on documents he has seen, there are outside for-profit groups that do not always pay to use school district facilities. It also does not appear that all non-profit groups make donations. He feels that the district policy regarding charging outside groups, policy 707, should be either changed or followed. 

The district’s statement said that in the fall of 2018, the policy and fee schedule were reviewed and they determined it was not followed as written. “While it is well-documented that we have collected tens of thousands of dollars in usage and impact fees from outside groups – far exceeding any charges incurred – our financial systems are not equipped to implement 707AG as currently composed,” the statement read. “Administration recommends a full revision of 707AG (facility use schedule) for both ease of use and record keeping.”

In the meantime, Stookey soldiers on. He said he has spent countless hours and more than $10,000 in legal fees to pursue his RTK requests. 

He felt it was his civic responsibility to ask questions. “This is exactly why we have a Right-To-Know law,” he said. “This is the exact reason why they [district administration] need to produce these records. This is our money. They have no right to say that you can’t see the way your money is spent.”


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