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Agency: Charters ignore most records requests

| Friday, May 17, 2013, 10:32 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Charter schools, funded with about $1.1 billion a year in tax money, ignored citizens' requests for records about 87 percent of the time and didn't participate in nearly three of four appeals to the Office of Open Records, agency records show.

In 103 appeals by citizens, charter schools hadn't responded to 90 requests. In 76 of the appeals, charter schools didn't participate, the office's director, Terry Mutchler, said Friday.

The high percentage of charter schools refusing to release records over five years is “egregious,” Mutchler told the Tribune-Review.

David Strassburger, a media law expert in Pittsburgh, called the numbers “stunning.”

Mutchler provided numbers to elaborate on testimony she gave on Monday to a Senate committee. The figures underscore testimony from supporters who say the open records agency needs enforcement power.

It's part of a debate at the Capitol over strengthening the 2008 Right to Know Law.

Charter school officials this week continued to express dismay about the allegations.

“The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools has been a strong advocate for Right to Know legislation,” said spokesman Kenneth Kilpatrick. “We consider transparency an essential part of achieving accountability in public education, which is part of our core mission.”

Mutchler's statements during the Senate hearing “are the first we heard from any source that there exists any problems with charter schools complying with the RTK law,” he said. “We look forward to working with the Office of Open records to resolve this situation.”

Mutchler's office produced a February 2012 letter to the coalition noting a “surprisingly high number of instances” of charter schools not responding to requests or to appeals.

Charter schools are public schools specifically covered under the law, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, sponsor of the law and a current bill to update it. They are self-managed schools approved by local school districts. A Department of Education website lists 175 charter schools.

The General Assembly needs to address the fact that Mutchler's office “is not able to enforce its own rulings” when people are denied records, said Kim de Bourbon, director of the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition.

The office has one enforcement mechanism, which it has not used: seeking a so-called “mandamus” order in court forcing an agency to comply, Arneson said. There's a $500 per day fine for ignoring a court ruling. Mutchler said her office “doesn't have the resources” to do so overall, but will “pick a handful of cases” to seek court orders.

Strassburger, a Downtown lawyer who represents the Tribune-Review, said charter schools are not alone in noncompliance with the Office of Open Records, though figures were not available for other agencies.

Strassburger said he “cannot imagine other agencies ignore requests to this degree.”

“There was no other agency that was close,” Mutchler said.

A possible solution is to extend the civil fine for noncompliance from court orders to failing to follow Office of Open Records decisions, Strassburger said. “That adds up pretty darn fast. That's $15,000 a month,” he said. Another idea is to assign a full-time open records lawyer to enforcement pursuits, Strassburger said.

“Mr. Strassburger raises an interesting idea and certainly one worth considering,” Arneson said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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