School district appeals right-to-know decision

In the opinion of Chadds Ford resident Mark Stookey, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board is trying to emasculate Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. School board directors Monday night voted to appeal a decision of the Office of Open Records that partially upheld a right-to-know request Stookey filed this past summer.

That request was for documents pertaining to a study by K&W for a possible athletic field facilities upgrade that was estimated at the time to cost $10 million. Stookey filed the right-to-know request with the district but was denied the documents he asked for. He then appealed to the Office of Open Records, which “largely upheld my request,” Stookey said.

But the board has decided to appeal that ruling because of financial concerns.

“There’s a substantial economic value to the taxpayer in the process of making a statement about what right-to-know means and what it doesn’t mean under the Open Records law,” said Director Vic Dupuis. “So, this is an important step for us to take as a district, not just on behalf of our taxpayers, but also on behalf of all school districts in Pennsylvania. All of us will be living under the results of this ruling.”

The appeal would cost about $7,000-$8,000, he said, adding that complying with the order would cost more. There’s a “values aspect” to the decision, Dupuis said.

“Making a stand on what right-to-know represents and what it doesn’t represent, from a legal precedent standpoint. But there’s also an economic aspect. It’s been estimated by our administration that if we were to fully honor those things which we are appealing, it would result in 183 man-hours of work on the part of the administration to fulfill the requests that have been made in this appeal. That’s a substantial cost to the taxpayers.”

Board President Jeff Hellrung said, “We believe the ruling in favor of Mr. Stookey was incorrect…We believe we will be successful should we appeal this,” Hellrung said.

Director Steve Simonson, who was elected board vice president during the re-organization portion of the board’s Monday night meeting, said “right-to-know requests come with the obligation to use them responsibly and we all suffer the consequences when they’re not. One of the consequences of excessive right-to-know requests is diversion of our resources from our educational mission.”

For Stookey, however, it’s a matter of transparency and he said the board was less than forthcoming concerning his request. They gave him about 10 percent of what he asked for.

“They sent me a little bit, a very little,” he said in an interview. “I asked for 20 items, they sent me parts of two.”

Stookey’s original request was made in July and his follow-up with the Office of Open Records came in August. That office ruled “largely” in his favor, he said, but was denied in other areas because part of his request was not specific enough. “But the Office of Open records did not, in any of its responses say, ‘This is not an appropriate question for the Right-to-Know or that it was an exception of the law,” Stookey said.

He was motivated to get the documents because of the, then, anticipated cost of $10 million. Stookey didn’t believe it was a necessary expenditure.

“I had a lot of concerns about this plan that was being put forth and the basis for it. The district was not at all forthcoming. Their documents and their presentation were very one-sided. I didn’t trust,” he said.

One of the requests was for the results of a district-wide survey conducted earlier this year in which residents were asked what they felt about the proposal to upgrade the athletic fields.

“That survey said by and large that people were satisfied with the facilities...Either a majority or a plurality people said things are basically adequate. A few people said they thought we should consider more of an investment, such as bigger fields but, overall, they were saying things are OK. Despite that, K&W went ahead and said that’s what we need. We need $10 million,” Stookey said. “I wanted the survey results to see what people said.”

According to Stookey, such results are a matter of public record, but the district refused to provide that information to him. He thinks the whole process was “highly flawed,” that the board’s decision to appeal is wrong and that the cost in man-hours being too expensive is just an excuse.

“Legally, they’re on very thin ground and if they were to prevail, they would gut the Right-to-Know Law,” Stookey said.

When asked for a comment, the district office sent the following:

“Over the years, the district has received hundreds of right-to-know requests. The majority of these requests are granted in full. The district spares no expense in fulfilling right-to-know requests. As a public agency, it is our obligation to do so. The unfortunate reports that the district is withholding public documents from Mr. Mark Stookey are false - there are no secrets.

“Since July 2018 Mr. Stookey had made seven right-to-know requests that included dozens of separate requests. In response, the district has provided Mr. Stookey with thousands of pages of documents. The only documents we have withheld are ones that are legally excepted by the Right to Know Law. We have provided all the documents Mr. Stookey is legally entitled to.

“According to the law, not all records are public records. The law contains exceptions that permit us to withhold certain records. We have the duty to deny release of a record if it falls within one of the exceptions designed to protect information that is confidential or may jeopardize safety or investigations.

“Additionally, according to the Office of Open Records, Right to Know requests should not be absurd or unreasonable. The law was not intended to be weaponized against a school district or agency.

“The district is not suing anyone. We are appealing a decision made by the Office of Open Records. The OOP disagreed with the district’s position on several points and we are appealing that decision to the Court of Common Pleas.

“We have spent tens of thousands of dollars on hours and materials to fulfill Mr. Stookey’s requests and we will continue to do so in order to remain open, honest and transparent with our community and citizens.”

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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One Response to “School district appeals right-to-know decision”

  1. Holly Manzone says:

    For years, people have been complaining about property taxes and the ability of school districts to increase taxes as much as they want. The state legislature responded by enacting Act 1 to provide property tax relief and, two years later, Act 3 – a new Right To Know law. Together, these laws strengthen the ability of citizens to ensure that their tax dollars are spent responsibly. The UCFSD doesn’t like having their hands tied as they conspire to spend money on wants instead of needs. They are determined to spend millions of dollars on athletic fields that we don’t need. We are fortunate to have residents like Mark Stookey who follow the actions of the UCFSD in an effort to provide some oversight. The district is resisting Mark’s efforts to acquire information that will show that the proposed facilities plan is not needed for our educational plan and is a waste of taxpayer money. The simplest and most cost effective response to would be to simply provide the information to Mark. What are they hiding?

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