Bucks DA's Warning Should Hit Home In QCSD

August 13, 2012

"The school board is there to serve the public. They need to be as open as they possibly can. They need to not sit on the inside thumbing their noses at people on the outside." - Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler, July, 2012.

Heckler was specifically addressing the mess down in the Central Bucks School District, where a community group called Central Bucks Engage has been embroiled with the directors over several issues, including middle school scheduling. But when you read his comments, he may as well have been looking directly into the eyes of QCSD Superintendent Lisa Andrejko, and old-guard board members like Linda Martin, Kathy Mosley, Kelly Van Valkenburg, and Nancy Tirjan, who, for years, virtually shut the public out of participation in school board meetings.

Local governing bodies around the state, like township supervisors, borough councils, and school boards, have routinely ignored the state's Sunshine Law. Meetings were improperly advertised, or not advertised at all. Elected officials discussed issues in private, and failed to properly advise the community about the reasons for closed executive sessions. The QCSD board even went so far as to renew Andrejko's contract in secret last year (and kept that renewal hidden for months) despite a prior written warning from the PA Dept of Education that the vote had to be taken in a public meeting.

But in early April, Heckler served notice on all Bucks municipalities and school boards that his office would no longer tolerate such shenanigans. He convened a grand jury to look into allegations that the Perkasie Borough Council had violated the Sunshine Law by meeting in private executive session on March 6 to discuss the possible sale of an old power generation building. The grand jury concluded that council indeed broke the law, which allows such secrecy to discuss a purchase, though not a sale. But Heckler determined that there would be no criminal prosecutions, because council members were simply following the incorrect advice of their solicitor and borough manager.

Following that episode, Engage members contacted Heckler's office, complaining that the CB board had similarly violated the Sunshine Law by making the decision on middle school scheduling after their February 27 meeting, rather than during it. Heckler's investigation found that there had been no secret meeting, but that "there were definitely a couple of technical violations."

The Intel reported that Heckler stated "The board did some things that were counterproductive -- certainly some things that reflected the administrators' view as much as the school board's of 'Hey, come here. We're not inviting you to participate in the discussion. The longer you yak, the longer this is gonna go. So sit back.' I don't blame the citizens for taking umbrage."

Heckler went on to describe some of those "technical violations". If these issues seem familiar to you, they had been going on for years in QCSD, until the old guard majority was finally voted out last November:

>Moving all public comment to the end of school board meetings.

>Providing vague agendas.

>Going into executive session without providing details about the purpose of the executive session.

>Producing "highly deficient" minutes of the meetings.

As with Perkasie, Heckler decided not to prosecute the CB directors, in part because when he met with them in May, they had already addressed some of the problems, and promised to fix the others. Ironically, the current QCSD directors who ousted Martin, Mosley, and Tirjan, may have saved them (and Van Valkenburg) from prosecution, because the new board repudiated, and is replacing, the old illegal policies. But the evidence against them is still there.....

On February 15, 2007, this column pointed out that QCSD had repeatedly failed to follow the state law on executive sessions: "I found on the district's own website that for years their executive sessions have apparently violated the Sunshine Act, keeping important public information from you. Here's how:

Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court summed up the Sunshine Act requirements: 'The reason given, of course, must be meaningful. It must be more than some generalized term which in reality tells the public nothing. To simply say 'personnel matters' tells nothing. The reason stated must be of sufficient specificity to inform those present that there is, in reality, a specific, discrete matter or area which the board had determined should be discussed in executive session. When a board chairman tells a citizen he may not hear the board discuss certain business, he is taking liberties with the rights of that citizen, and the reason given for this interference must be genuine and meaningful, and one the citizen can understand. To permit generalized fluff would frustrate the very purpose of the Act.'

But since January, 2005, board minutes show 29 executive sessions - all identified in exactly the way that state law forbids: Fifteen stated merely 'personnel'. Six were labeled 'legal matter'. One 'negotiation'. One 'real estate'. There was no reason at all given for six! We have absolutely no record of what occurred in 29 board meetings at a time when teacher salaries, tax increases, budgets, surveys, and Integrated Math were controversial topics."

For several months after that story appeared, the directors did give at least minimal reasons for their private sessions, but soon they fell back into the same old - illegal - pattern.

The accuracy of the QCSD agendas and minutes has long been a problem, all the way back to the unannounced vote on the disastrous early-bird teacher contract in late 2005. On November 20, 2007, the board held an improper, private "Conference" to discuss how to keep negative information about the district from the media. At their December 3 meeting, then-President Van Valkenburgh claimed that she had announced the Conference at the November 8 meeting. When Director Paul Stepanoff pointed out that it wasn't in the minutes as required by law, and attempted to bring up the Sunshine Act violations, Van Valkenburgh cut him off. There was no public disclosure of anything.

In February, 2008, the board voted to (illegally) grant Andrejko the right to make all district contracts up to $25,000 by herself, in private - no public comment, nothing on the public agenda or minutes. State law is clear that the limit is $100. The PA Auditor General ordered QCSD to reverse its policy.

At a 2009 Finance Committee meeting to begin drafting the 2010-11 budget, Mosley tried to claim that the administration's budget proposal was "confidential", and that the community had no right to see it. When Stepanoff objected, pointing out that this was a public meeting, and such secrecy would violate the law, she reluctantly backed off. But the committee agreed not to comment on the numbers, so as "not to alarm the community unnecessarily"!

Meanwhile, for years angry families were forced to sit for hours through an entire meeting in order to be given a few strictly-timed minutes of public comment at the end. President Martin would get up from her seat, and stand intimidatingly directly in front of the speaker. To make matters worse, in 2010, Andrejko stated (but kept out of the minutes) that she was not going to allow "misinformation from public comment" to end up in the press, so she was going to immediately be "correcting" people during their comment period.

The new board now permits unchallenged public comment at the beginning of the meetings, and is close to formalizing a firm, community-friendly policy.

Mosley, Tirjan, and Martin are likely still steaming over their ousters from the school board, but the new directors may have saved them from that face-to-face with D.A. Heckler.