Highlands School District to appeal ruling requiring release of teacher’s name | TribLIVE.com
Valley News Dispatch

Highlands School District to appeal ruling requiring release of teacher’s name

Brian C. Rittmeyer
File photo
The Highlands School Board meeting on Monday, Feb. 18, 2019.

The Highlands School District wants a court to decide whether school districts can keep private the names of employees facing disciplinary actions.

The school board voted 8-0 Monday to appeal an April 30 decision by the state’s Office of Open Records in a case brought by the Tribune-Review. Board member Heath Cohen was absent.

The district’s appeal will go to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.

In February, the school board voted to put an employee on unpaid leave. The employee’s name was not released at that time.

The Trib appealed to the Office of Open Records on April 1 after the district withheld the employee’s name, claiming it was exempt from public access. The district disclosed the employee was a high school special education teacher who started working for the district in March 2005 and had been making a $64,310 salary this school year until his tenure ended March 18.

The Office of Open Records determined that the school district failed to show why the employee’s name should be exempt under the state’s Right-to-Know Law. The district was required to release the name, or file an appeal, within 30 days of the decision.

Highlands identified the employee before the Office of Open Records issued its decision in response to a separate Right-to-Know request regarding a subsequent $31,202 settlement agreement with former special education teacher Andrew B. Kotyk. District Solicitor Ira Weiss confirmed Kotyk was the employee placed on unpaid leave in February.

That Kotyk’s identity as the employee placed on leave in February was confirmed doesn’t matter as there is a larger issue, Weiss said.

Placing the employee on leave is the beginning of a process that, before a court decision in 2016, did not have to be done at the school board level.

“It’s not the end of the process. It’s not a formal determination,” Weiss said. “We believe an employee is entitled to confidentiality until their case is resolved.

“We are appealing to determine what the appropriate procedure is here,” he said. “There will be other ones.”

Melissa Melewsky, a media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the state Sunshine Act requires school districts to provide basic information about official action during public meetings so the public can offer meaningful public comment before votes are taken.

“The Sunshine Act requires a reasonable opportunity for public comment on all matters of agency business being voted on. You can’t do that if you don’t know what’s being voted on,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like their position in this case is consistent with the Sunshine Act.”

While the district has a right to appeal, “I believe public resources would be better spent on efforts to increase transparency instead of litigation to thwart it,” Melewsky said.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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