Trib appeals Highlands’ refusal to identify high school teacher placed on unpaid leave
Highlands School District is refusing to identify a teacher placed on unpaid leave in February or disclose the charges approved against the employee.
The Tribune-Review filed a Right to Know request for the employee’s name, job title or position, length of employment and salary with Lori Byron, the school district’s business manager, after the school board’s Feb. 18 meeting. The Trib also requested a copy of the charges.
In its response more than five weeks later, the district withheld the employee’s name and statement of charges but released the employee’s title, length of employment and salary.
The employee was a Highlands High School special education teacher who had been employed from March 16, 2005, through March 18, 2019, according to the law firm of Weiss Burkardt Kramer, which acts as the district’s solicitor. The person’s salary in the 2018-19 school year was $64,310, the law firm said.
The Tribune-Review filed an appeal with the state’s Office of Open Records, arguing that the Right to Know and Sunshine Act laws require the employee to be identified by name.
While the law does not require access to the charges, the employee’s name should have been announced before the school board voted so the public can understand and offer comment, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
The school board cannot deny public comment on the basis of it being a personnel matter, she said.
“They can’t deny public comment on any issue that is up for a vote. Such a prohibition would clearly be inconsistent with the plain letter of the Sunshine Act,” Melewsky said. “If the board is proposing to take action, any action, the public gets to comment — meaningfully — before the vote.”
A reporter attempted to place an objection on the record that taking the vote without identifying the employee constituted a violation of the Sunshine Act, but the school board would not allow the reporter to do so because he is not a resident of the district.
Not allowing the objection was a possible Sunshine Act violation, Melewsky said. Under the act, any person has the right to raise an objection at any time to a perceived violation at a meeting.
“The limitation to residents and taxpayers is only permitted during public comment. An objection … is not ‘public comment’ and the act does not allow agencies to limit the right to object,” she said. “Now, the board is potentially liable for at least two Sunshine Act issues.”
The district was required by state law to respond to the newspaper’s Feb. 18 request within five days. When it did, it invoked a 30-day extension, which is provided for in the Right to Know law.
In saying it needed another 30 days to respond, the district cited four reasons — that the records require redaction, staffing limitations, legal review and that the district could not respond within five days because of the extent or nature of the request.
Previous employee identified
While the district has refused to identify the employee it charged and placed on unpaid leave in February, it previously identified another employee charged and placed on unpaid leave in January.
On Feb. 28, the district responded to the Trib’s Jan. 22 Right to Know request and identified the employee as Iesha Griffin, a payroll and benefits secretary, who had been hired effective Oct. 16, 2018. That came after the school board voted to fire her at the Feb. 18 meeting, and after district Solicitor Ira Weiss confirmed Griffin was the employee.
The district denied the newspaper’s request for the charges against Griffin. Weiss said she was fired because of job issues he would not specify.
Third request pending
At the school board’s March 18 meeting, the board also approved a settlement and release agreement with Highlands High School teacher Andrew Kotyk, effective that date. As of Wednesday, Kotyk remained listed on the school district’s website as an emotional support teacher at the high school.
The Trib filed a Right to Know request for the agreement and Kotyk’s employment information on March 19.
The district, through its law firm, responded on March 22 and again invoked a 30-day extension, citing the need for a legal review. The firm said it will respond on or before April 26.
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .