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New Ken-Arnold music instructor fired after suspension for drug, gun episode

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Saturday, June 7, 2014, 1:16 a.m.

The New Kensington-Arnold School Board recently fired a music teacher, about a year after he was suspended while awaiting disposition of criminal charges of illegal gun and drug possession.

Joseph Edward Melnick, who will turn 30 this month, was charged in June 2013 by Harrison police with having marijuana, a drug pipe and a loaded sawed-off shotgun when they searched the Natrona Heights house he shared with his brother.

The district suspended him without pay after the April 2013 incident, which was the result of a police search for his brother, Ryan Melnick, 26, who allegedly was involved in a hit-and-run car crash.

An Allegheny County judge in February found Joseph Melnick not guilty of having a prohibited offensive weapon.

For the two misdemeanor drug charges, Melnick was sentenced to two years of “probation without verdict,” which means he could clear his record once he successfully completes his sentence.

At his trial, Melnick testified he inherited boxes of guns and ammunition from an uncle. He said he didn't know why the sawed-off shotgun was found in his bedroom or how the marijuana came to be in one of the boxes.

“I don't do drugs,” Melnick testified. “I'm a schoolteacher.”

In addition to teaching music at Valley Middle School, Melnick was a choir director and previously had directed the district's marching band.

His attorney in the criminal case, Phillip DiLucente, noted during the trial that Melnick did not live alone and the items could have been placed there by someone else.

Superintendent John Pallone in February said the district would await official word from the court on Melnick's case before reviewing his employment status.

The school board unanimously fired Melnick at the May 22 board meeting. He was not present and could not be reached for comment. DiLucente did not return a call for comment.

It was not known whether Melnick would appeal his termination.

According to school board meeting minutes, he was hired in July 2008 and was tenured two years later. His salary during the 2012-13 school year would have been about $44,000, but he did not receive the full amount because of the suspension. He was not paid during the 2013-14 year.

Pallone declined to say why Melnick was terminated. In fact, he and school district Solicitor Tony Vigilante initially refused to say whom the school board had fired — they identified him during the public meeting only by an employee number.

Sunshine Act question

Melissa Melewsky, a media law attorney with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the school board likely violated the state's Sunshine Act by not identifying Melnick during the meeting.

“If the public has no idea who the board is considering terminating, they can't possibly exercise their right to give meaningful comment prior to the board's vote,” she said.

She said the board's meeting minutes likewise wouldn't reflect the employee's name, also an apparent violation of the Sunshine Act.

The Valley News Dispatch had to file a request through the state's Right to Know Law before the district would release the employee's name, an action Melewsky said should not have been necessary.

Melewsky said other boards that have committed similar Sunshine Act violations have opted to vote again on the issue at a subsequent meeting.

“They should publicly acknowledge the mistake and vote again after announcing the name and allowing public comment, at a minimum,” she said.

Pallone, who is an attorney, and Vigilante did not respond to requests for comment on the apparent violation or whether they would advise the board to vote again.

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