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Vanaski: Stone wall up in South Fayette

| Wednesday, July 23, 2014, 10:36 p.m.

When it comes to the details of expanding school buildings, most of us are novices.

But when it's happening in your school district, you'd likely be interested in finding out what school board members have in mind, right? You'd probably think you have a right to the information that's in the hand of board members who are talking about expanding the high school.

You'd be right … but wrong.

At a recent board meeting, officials discussed the possibility of expanding South Fayette School District's high school. It's anticipated that it will reach its capacity of 800 students in about two years, so expansion is necessary. The panel talked about design and construction ideas, along with possible costs.

At the end of the meeting, a Tribune-Review reporter asked the board president for a packet of information. He gave her the design and construction information, but nothing about costs.

“I am not giving incomplete, indecipherable financial information to a novice who won't understand it,” Leonard Fornella told her.

That's not a misprint — he really said that. It's good to know an elected representative of the school board has no qualms about insulting a reporter doing her job. Fornella didn't respond to my request for comment on the issue, either.

Fornella encouraged the Trib to file a Right to Know request; the school district denied it when we did. It reasoned that the information on expansion plans is “predecisional” (not a word, by the way), and so it's at the discretion of the board to share what it wants. Technically, that's right. But many things a school board discusses can be described that way. Does that mean that taxpayers don't get to be in on plan that will affect them until they're “decisional”?

It's nice for the board that it could keep the Trib from sharing information with taxpayers who foot the bill. But parents can't have that information, under the same reasoning. That means board members can openly discuss a project that could affect parents financially — but they don't feel obligated to inform them.

The board isn't getting much public pressure to release information. At a subsequent meeting, one parent complained about not having access to the information. She presented a compelling argument.

“I don't know why this is such a deep, dark secret,” South Fayette resident Natalie Cooper told the board. “I don't feel like I have to even complete a Right-to-Know request to get that information. I fill out a Right-to-Know request at the end of every August when I pay my taxes.”

But it is the policy of the district not to address remarks made during the public comment portion of meetings.

So they said nothing.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, nvanaski@tribweb.com or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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