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Details kept quiet in Burnham probe

| Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2002

Shaler Area School Board is moving ahead with an investigation into the departure of former Athletic Director Earl Burnham, but district officials are declining to reveal the investigator's identity and payment.

A media law specialist said that might violate state public record laws.

Burnham was hired in September by the Upper Merion School Board in Montgomery County as the district's director of athletics and student activities. Burnham, who is being paid $78,000 a year at Upper Merion, was due to make $64,181 this year at Shaler Area. Shaler Area approved a five-year contract extension less than a month before Burnham took the Upper Merion job.

Burnham was the only black administrator at Shaler Area, which has a minority enrollment of 2.2 percent. Some school board members said he was the victim of unfair treatment.

Board member Lynn Fezza said Monday that she understood a school district committee has hired someone to assist in the investigation into Burnham's departure.

Board President Kenneth Wineberg could not be reached for comment but previously said that person's identity — and the amount he or she will be paid — will not be made public.

He said the board fulfilled its obligation regarding public disclosure by discussing and voting in October on the resolution to launch the investigation.

Teri Henning, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said hiring someone using tax money in this manner could violate the state's Sunshine Act.

"I think the general rule is whenever the board takes official action or a committee takes official action, it must do so at an open meeting," Henning said. "They can authorize themselves to take some action at a later time, but they can't authorize themselves to take official action in private."

School district Solicitor Ted Brooks said yesterday that the move is acceptable because the board, in the future, could vote publicly to approve the hiring.

Or, Brooks said, the board could show its approval by approving the payment of the outside counsel's bill. That would not involve publicly saying who that person is or what the person was paid, but the public could glean that information from district billing records, which are approved publicly at the school board's monthly meetings.

"At some point, they've got to approve the hiring or approve the payment of a bill," Brooks said.

Henning said that approach cuts the public out of any knowledge about — or input into — who is hired. She said that violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the state's public information law.

"If the person is hired, presumably they plan to pay him, and the public has a right to know that at the time that it's done," she said.

Brooks, who serves with Wineberg and Superintendent Donald Lee on the informal committee conducting the inquiry, declined to say whether anyone had been hired to assist in the investigation. Lee declined to discuss the inquiry.

Henning said she thinks such secrecy goes against the Sunshine Act.

"Whether you call it an informal committee or an ad hoc committee, if it has been authorized by the board to render advice or take official action, then it is a committee subject to the Sunshine Act," Henning said. "It's a common misconception that committees are not subject to the Sunshine Act."

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