Op/ed: School board needs more sunshine

In the last 16 months, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board has held at least three closed meetings — members call them retreats — to discuss items of district business. In response to my query about these meeting, both the superintendent and board president have written that no deliberation occurs and that therefore the Sunshine Act does not apply. The Superintendent cites an exception for meetings that are purely “informational.”

However, we know from statements of district officials and board minutes that at these “retreats,” the board made decisions about the district budget and budgeting process, discussed “the merits of going forward with the strategic planning process,” and planned to discuss and “brainstorm” 2016-2017 District goals.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has stated that deliberation occurs “where agency members weigh the ‘pros and cons’ of the various options involved or otherwise engage in comparisons of the different choices available to them…even if the decision is ultimately reached at a later point.” Using this definition, the weight of the evidence strongly suggests that the Board “deliberates” at these meetings.

In responding to a reporter’s inquiry, Board President Vic Dupuis declined to comment because, he said, it’s a “legal issue,” even though no litigation has been filed.

Perhaps some documents would shed light on these secret meetings, but the district has denied my Right-to-Know request for such records. Superintendent John Sanville said the records are exempt from disclosure, even though there is no such exemption in the Right to Know Law.

So where is the accountability? There is none. The school board has created a sort of super executive session, where the board can meet secretly at any time or place to discuss any subject they wish, without disclosing anything about the meeting. Even for executive sessions, the subject must be disclosed — and of course the topics of executive sessions are severely constrained by law.

These “retreats” make a mockery of the district’s oft-stated commitment to transparency, and set a very poor example by an agency that should be teaching good citizenship to our children. It is time for the board to change its behavior and adhere to the Sunshine Act and Right to Know Law in both letter and spirit. From whom are they retreating anyway, the public? Their constituents? The press?

It has been said that sunshine is the best disinfectant. A strong dose of sunshine is long overdue at U-CFSD, where officials consider secret meetings an institutional entitlement rather than an abrogation of public trust.

Mark Stookey
Chadds Ford Township

* The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to: editor@chaddsfordlive.com

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