Highlands School District’s closed meetings ignore state transparency laws, expert says
The Highlands School Board is skirting Pennsylvania’s transparency laws and violating the district’s own policies by holding private committee meetings where important matters are discussed behind closed doors, according to a legal expert and a review of district policies and practices.
At a public meeting Monday, board member Judy Wisner, who chairs the board’s policy committee, defended the practice of keeping committee meetings out of public view.
“Unless five (board members) are meeting, it does not have to be in public,” Wisner said in response to a resident’s question.
If five or more school directors show up for a meeting, Wisner said the committee either suspends the meeting or “someone has to go home” to keep the number of board members present under five.
Melissa Melewsky, a media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, who specializes in issues related to the state’s Sunshine Act on open meetings, said Wisner is wrong.
“The Sunshine Act requires public access to committee meetings because (state legislators) recognized that committees often do most of the work on a particular issue with little to no additional deliberation by the larger board. And if the committee meetings aren’t public, the public is cut out of meaningful participation in the legislative process,” she said.
School board President Debbie Beale did not respond to a request for comment. District Solicitor Ira Weiss could not be reached.
The issue over committee meetings arose Monday when the school board was expected to vote to replace its longtime transportation contractor, W.L. Roenigk, with ABC Transit.
Although the decision was postponed until a special meeting next week, numerous residents, including Roenigk drivers, questioned the board about the proposed switch. One woman said she hadn’t seen any transportation committee meetings advertised and asked how the board could make any decision without public discussion in advance.
Wisner said Highlands School Board operates as a “committee of the whole,” meaning all nine board members are members of all 14 board committees, including ones focused on issues such as transportation, instruction, finance and athletics.
On Thursday, Wisner, a 30-year board member, said she couldn’t recall the board ever advertising a committee meeting or opening them to the public. No minutes of committee meetings are kept.
A review of the district’s legal notices found no committee meetings had been advertised since at least the beginning of 2018, and a schedule of committee meetings could not be found on the district’s website.
A school board “meeting highlights” archive on the district’s website does not include any information about committee meetings since 2008.
On a section of the site devoted to the school board, only the dates of the board’s agenda and voting meetings are provided. The district used legal ads to publicize the dates of agenda and voting meetings, and last year it also advertised three special meetings.
“We don’t operate like other schools in the area,” Wisner said.
As for the committee meetings, she said: “Most of the time, ours are just a couple of people getting additional information to make a recommendation to the board about which way to go. That’s all there is to it. There’s nothing secret about it. Not everybody can meet all the time.”
Last year, when it faced public opposition to a plan to reconfigure buildings, the school board disputed that it rushed through the process by pointing to nearly a dozen committee and executive-session meetings it held between January and May.
“Committee meetings are always open to the public,” the district wrote on its website.
Melewsky said the lack of access in Highlands is “a significant Sunshine Act problem, and again, it opens the board to potential Sunshine Act liability. And more importantly, (it) denies the public their right to witness and participate in government deliberation and decisions.”
District policy on committee meetings, posted on Highlands’ website, appears to contradict Wisner.
According to the policy:
• “Notice of all public board meetings, including committee meetings and work sessions, shall be given” in the newspaper.
• “The board president can call a committee-of-the-whole meeting at any time, and public notice of the meeting “shall be made.”
• “Unless held as an executive session, standing committee meetings shall be open to the public, other board members and the superintendent.”
• “In the event that five members attend an unadvertised committee meeting, the meeting shall not be called to order and shall be rescheduled for a later date, in accordance with board policy.”
Wisner said she could not explain that information on the district’s website and said a reporter would have to ask the person who put it there. She did not know who that was.
“The past is the past,” she said. “We’re trying to move forward and do a good job of representing the community and doing what’s best.”
District spokeswoman Jennifer Goldberg did not respond when asked by email for a schedule of upcoming committee meetings, and whether they are open to the public. She referred questions about committee meetings to Wisner.
Said Melewsky: The Highlands School Board “would benefit from a refresher on the Sunshine Act and the important role transparency plays in the proper function of government.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .