Shredding investigation clears Fox Chapel Area School District
An independent audit of document disposal by Fox Chapel Area School District found no wrongdoing by staff or administration, an attorney said at the Sept. 9 board meeting.
Thomas Breth, a Butler-based attorney, spearheaded an investigation into record shredding by the school district that was presumed to avoid disclosure of potential Right-to-Know documents.
“We were unable to identify any evidence that records were shredded inappropriately,” Breth told an audience of about 75 people.
The district follows a record retention schedule recommended by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Board President Terry Wirginis said. Documents with confidential information, like those for special education or employment, are routinely destroyed – but no logs are kept to detail which papers are sent and when, he said.
the cost of Breth’s investigation is expected to be about $15,000.
Breth told the board and audience that he combed through more than a dozen Right to Know requests filed with the district since January 2019. Many of them sought payroll information, test referrals or other similar information. Of the 15 requests, most were granted, he said.
Three were unresolved as of Monday, one of which was a request for a shredding log that doesn’t exist, he said. Another was about test referrals and a third was expected to be resolved this week.
Breth also interviewed about nine district employees and the shredding company; conducted a search of district email; and reviewed employment contracts, compensation plans, annual salary adjustments and stipends.
The ruling did little to assuage board member Edie Cook, who has previously questioned board transparency. She said the shredding investigation was not handled properly and undermined the unity she wants the board to work toward.
“I don’t think the investigation was conducted with the school board acting as one,” Cook said.
The issue began June 18 when an anonymous source notified Cook about records being removed from the district administration building. The source believed it was being done stealthily to destroy documents associated with current or future Right to Know requests.
Recognizing whistle-blower implications, Cook said she sought the counsel of the state Attorney General’s office and later reached out to the district Solicitor Paul Giuffre.
Cook said she sought an impartial investigation of the events and believed a decision would be made by the board as a whole, but, instead, she said it was handled by Superintendent Gene Freeman and Wirginis.
“I brought these allegations to the board to make a decision, not for one person to decide,” she said.
Cook questioned why Wirginis singlehandedly approved the investigation and said information used for and garnered from it was not shared with all board members.
Most significantly, Cook said the timing of when other board members learned that documents were destroyed was telling.
Cook said she believed the records may have been kept intact after questions of impropriety were first raised in June.
An employee with the shredding company initially reported that documents had not been destroyed but Breth said that was a mistake. A certificate of destruction was dated June 18.
Cook said she learned of it Monday night in an executive session prior to the board meeting.
“At which point did you know the documents were shredded and why did you not call a board meeting to discuss it?” she asked Wirginis.
In turn, Wirginis accused Cook of hindering the investigation by not relaying information to Breth. Cook said she was trying to protect her source.
The contentious manner of the meeting appeared to unnerve several people in the audience, with one resident saying he was concerned about the tone of mutual distrust.
Freeman, who is set to retire in June 2020, called for an investigation of his own.
The superintendent said Cook inferred on social media that he coerced district staff into improper shredding.
“I want my name cleared,” Freeman said.
The board meets next at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 and 14.
Tawnya Panizzi is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tawnya at 412-782-2121 x1512, [email protected] or via Twitter .