QCSD Caught In The Act Of Ignoring Sunshine Act

The Free Press    January 17, 2008

Part 1 of 2

It's a new low. Any pretense our school board majority, and administration, spouted about being open with the community has totally vanished in a chaos of improper private sessions, inexcusable excuses, and unauthorized contracts. All in one night...

January 10, 5:45 pm. Trumbauersville Elementary School. A board meeting to discuss the Sunshine Act. What? You didn't know? That's because there was no public notice. President Kelly Van Valkenburgh, VP Linda Martin, Nancy Tirjan, Kathy Mosley, and Zane Stauffer continue to prevent the community from hearing about the years of illegally ignoring the Sunshine Act by again ignoring the Sunshine Act! But this time they were caught in the Act.

This column revealed that on November 20, the directors misused an unadvertised, private "Conference" to discuss how to influence the media; to draw attention away from improper board conduct, like 40 other private sessions over the last three years. When director Paul Stepanoff tried to inform the community at the December 3 meeting, Van Valkenburgh cut him off, claiming that it would be discussed publicly in the future.

On December 21, the directors received a "confidential board update" saying that there would be a "Public Conference" on January 10 at 5:45 pm (prior to the 7:00 regular meeting) with an attorney referred by the PA School Boards Association. But there was no public notice as is required for meetings. The only place it was announced was in the confidential board memo. There is no such thing as a "Public Conference", but, apparently, board members hoped to avoid the legally-mandated advertising for a "Meeting", despite promises in November to make the discussion public.

It was a brilliant plan. The directors would hear only one side of the issue, from the guy suggested by PSBA, which advocates for school boards, not residents. No embarrassing public questions. No pesky newspapers. Sweep it all under the rug. Not surprisingly, only three residents showed up: a school employee, and two friends of directors. But it didn't work...

When the PA Newspaper Association was informed, their attorney, Melissa Bevan Melewsky, who deals regularly with the Sunshine Act, wrote to the board "In my opinion, if the board holds the planned session without proper advertising, there may be serious Sunshine Act implications. Ironically, this meeting is being held as a result of allegations concerning your prior violations of that Act. This just adds fuel to arguments that the board is keeping the public in the dark".

Melewsky further explained "If a quorum is present, and there is discussion, the Sunshine Act applies...It doesn't matter what terminology is used to describe the meeting. If, in fact, this session will be theoretically open to the public, but not advertised, it constitutes not only a potential Sunshine Act violation, but just bad government.   How is the public served by holding a public meeting that no one knows about? The right of the community to witness, and participate in, their local government is the principal goal of the Sunshine Act. As a public agency, the Quakertown Community School Board is accountable to the people, and is entrusted with great responsibility. Violations of the Sunshine Act damage the board's integrity and reputation. I urge you to comply with this state law, and all laws which govern your agency." (Note: The entire PNA letter is reprinted below).

Alas, not only did the board majority fail to comply, they found new ways to violate. Like escaping questions about their conduct by twice literally fleeing into improper private executive sessions, claiming to be discussing " agency business which would violate a lawful privilege if discussed in public". The same information that they had promised to discuss publicly! Unless Van Valkenburgh, Martin, Tirjan, Mosley, and Stauffer expected to be sued (which they deserve), the executive sessions were a sham.

Mosley added to the circus by absurdly claiming that the attorney had been hired as the board solicitor, although four directors confirmed that there had been no such vote (which must be public), or even any such thought. He had merely been brought in as a speaker by Superintendent Lisa Andrejko, who, by law, has no authority to hire a solicitor, or even sign contracts. And ethically-challenged Martin delivered the biggest slap at the community by asserting that notice of the meeting was on the QCSD website. Aside from the fact that PA law clearly requires publication in a newspaper, not on a website, let's see what she meant...

Nothing on the home page. But on the board's first page, it says "An informational meeting is scheduled for the second Thursday of each month at 7:00. See Meeting Schedule". The schedule page twice says that meetings will be held beginning at 7:00. The following page says "The next meeting of the Board will be held at Trumbauersville Elementary School on January 10, 2008, at 7:00 ", with a link for the agenda. The top of the agenda says, in large letters, in a box, January 10, 2008, 7:00. Anyone see a pattern here?

Only if you then read through five more pages of agenda do you find, at the very end, "Dates for Board Members Calendar, January 10 6:00 pm Board Conference - Sunshine Law". Board Conference, not "Public Conference". Is this public notice to you??? Openness with the community??? On the ninth web page??? It is to Martin, Van Valkenburgh, Tirjan, Mosley, and Stauffer of the Quite Commonly Secret District. They blindly defend themselves, and the indefensible, just as they did with Integrated Math, the midnight teacher contract, hidden survey results, and 50+ percent tax increases.

In the end, they improperly met privately. No "Public" Conference, despite Van Valkenburgh's promises. No one was permitted to advocate for the community. Since all of the controversy could have been avoided if the board had merely placed an ad in the paper, as they do for all other meetings, there is just no excuse. Where is the openness? Once again, the old-guard majority has shown that their respect for the residents is as low as their respect for the law.

Next Week - Part 2: Questionable Legal "Representation"

January 9, 2008

Quakertown Community School District

President Kelly Van Valkenburgh

600 Park Avenue

Quakertown PA 18951

Re:     Sunshine Act Compliance

Dear President Van Valkenburgh,

I am a media law attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the state-wide trade organization for the newspapers of Pennsylvania, writing in support of Richard Woldow, a freelance reporter with The Free Press, to urge you, and the Quakertown Community School Board, to comply with the Sunshine Act. In my opinion, if the board holds the planned session without proper advertising, there may be serious Sunshine Act implications. Ironically, this meeting is being held as a result of allegations concerning your prior violations of that Act. This just adds fuel to arguments that the board is keeping the public in the dark. I hope you will revisit this issue, and reconsider your position.

As I am sure you are aware, the Sunshine Act, 65 P.S. § 701 et seq., requires all official action, and quorum deliberations, of agency business to take place at an open, properly advertised meeting, unless an exception applies. There are few exceptions to the general rule, and the requirements are intentionally very specific.

As I understand the facts, the school board has advertised its first regular meeting for January 10, 2008 at 7:00 p.m. However, board members have been called to meet prior to the regular session for a "conference" presentation on the Sunshine Act given by an attorney for the PA School Boards Association.   It is my understanding that the meeting will be open to the public, but the board has not advertised because they believe that conferences do not have to be advertised. There are several issues here that the board should be aware of.

First, there is no blanket exemption for "conferences". There is a conference exception that allows agencies to receive training from state or federal agencies on matters of agency business.

But, as a private non-profit organization, the PA School Boards Association does not qualify as a state or federal agency.   Furthermore, no discussion of agency business is permitted during a conference. If a quorum is present, and there is discussion, the Sunshine Act applies. It doesn't matter what terminology is used to describe the meeting. The moment discussion takes place, a possible violation has occurred, and since QCSD board members have already expressed their intentions of asking questions, and discussing the issues, this session should be properly advertised to the public.

Likewise, the litigation exception does not apply. Just because an attorney is presenting information does not create a valid litigation executive session.   The litigation exception is only appropriate when the board is getting legal advice from a professional regarding pending or threatened litigation.   The fact that litigation could result someday is not sufficient because, arguably, anything the board does could result in litigation.

If, in fact, this session will be theoretically open to the public, but not advertised, it constitutes not only a potential Sunshine Act violation, but just bad government.   How is the public served by holding a public meeting that no one knows about? The right of the community to witness, and participate in, their local government is the principal goal of the Sunshine Act. As a public agency, the Quakertown Community School Board is accountable to the people, and is entrusted with great responsibility. Violations of the Sunshine Act damage the board's integrity and reputation. I urge you to comply with this state law, and all laws which govern your agency.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.  

Sincerely,

Melissa Bevan Melewsky

Media Law Counsel

Pennsylvania Newspaper Association