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Highlands School District accused of violating state Sunshine Act

| Thursday, June 11, 2009, 12:00 p.m.

The Valley News Dispatch, a Trib Total Media newspaper based in Tarentum, sued the Highlands School District on Wednesday, accusing it of violating the state Sunshine Act.

The suit charges that the school board violated the Pennsylvania Open Meetings Law, commonly known as The Sunshine Act, on Monday following its public meeting at the district's administrative center in Harrison.

The suit claims that the board met in an executive session -- closed to the public -- with representatives of the Heights Plaza Shopping Center in Harrison to discuss a possible property tax assessment appeal. Heights Plaza is one of the district's largest taxpayers.

"Executive sessions can be held on employment matters, collective-bargaining matters, to consider the purchase or lease of real estate and other specifically defined reasons under the Sunshine Law," attorney David Strassburger said. "You can also talk to your attorney or other professional adviser about litigation, pending or that might be filed.

"What you can't do in private is meet with the opposing litigant under the guise of consulting with your lawyer," Strassburger said. "Consulting with your lawyer is a private thing. Meeting with your opponent is not."

The suit in Allegheny County Court asks a judge to issue an injunction against the district ordering it to comply with the Sunshine Act in the future.

Acting Superintendent Lou Baldassare and board president Debbie Beale said the board met upon the advice of district Solicitor Ira Weiss.

Beale said the matter being discussed would appear on Monday's meeting agenda, but would not say what it is.

"The board met and discussed litigation with the representative of Heights Plaza," Weiss said. "They were talking about the plans of Heights Plaza to seek a court order allowing the (assessment) case to be reopened. If that is not identifiable litigation, I don't know what is."

Valley News Editor Jeff Domenick said the paper previously has expressed concerns that the school district violated the Sunshine Act.

"We went through this with Highlands two years ago when they had a closed-door meeting to hire a consultant," Domenick said.

"At that time, we sent them a letter citing case law ... and told them the next time it happened, we'd file a suit."

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