The following letter was addressed to Unionville-Chadds Ford school directors and received for publication:
At last month’s meeting, you authorized the District to sue me to overturn a ruling by the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records. The time window for the suit has now passed, so I guess I will not be sued, despite the vote. I think this is a good move by the District, as its legal position was extremely weak and pursuing this would have been a further waste of taxpayer dollars.
While you have elected not to sue me, the District’s behavior in Right-to-Know matters continues to be one of extreme delay and bad faith. Here’s an example. In July, I requested financial records related to payments made by third parties for use of district facilities. The District responded by providing a three-page document from the scheduling system. The District acknowledged that financial records are public under the law, but claimed that these three pages were all that existed, even though the Public School Code requires the District to maintain financial records for six years.
Not until December 21—more than five months after my Right-to-Know request—did I receive access to the relevant records. I reviewed hundreds of pages of records—not just three. Each payment was recorded with a detailed voucher in the District’s financial records, and all were credited to a single account—Rentals. I can conceive of no reason why these records were not made available within days of my request, rather than months. Remember, there was no dispute that these are public records.
And what did I find when I reviewed these records? I found what appears to be a major breakdown in governance and internal controls as well as ample evidence of mismanagement, if not malfeasance. Problems can be found in all areas of facilities rentals, not just lack of payments by URA and SCCSA for field use. Here are some examples:
1. District policy provides favorable treatment for non-profit groups, at least three-quarters of whose members are UCFSD residents. This does not appear to be enforced consistently. A number of groups who appear not to meet this test have been given favorable treatment nonetheless.
2. District policy requires that for-profit groups be charged for facilities use. This appears not to have been consistently applied either.
3. Most disturbingly, the financial management firm that employs one of our Board members has used District facilities for meetings, apparently without charge, on more than one occasion. I think it is reasonable to expect Board members not to benefit from the District’s lax enforcement of Board policies.
I have made an additional Right-to-Know request in an effort to shed light on these apparent lapses. However, the District first requested 30 additional days to respond, and then failed to do so. This is the third time that the District has done this. Pennsylvania Courts have treated this kind of behavior—asking for additional time and then failing to respond—as evidence of bad faith and have sanctioned agencies doing this, and awarded court costs and attorneys fees to requesters.
Given all of this, I recommend the following:
1.The Board should engage the District’s outside auditors to review these implementation shortcomings and to examine whether there has been malfeasance.
2.The Board should further ask the auditors to work with the District to put in place new processes and controls for facility rentals. Simply changing the policy will not fix the issue. Controls need to be put in place.
Without an external review, I cannot see how the Board or the public can be confident that this mess has been fixed.
Finally, I expect the District to complain about the costs of fulfilling my requests. I am not moved by this.
1. First, I have incurred my own costs—more than $10,000 in legal fees to date--just to get the District to follow the law.
2. Second, if the District would simply have complied with the law, it could have saved all the legal fees it has wasted in resisting my requests.
3. Third, what I am doing is exactly why we have a Right-to-Know Law. I am inquiring about use of taxpayer dollars and uncovering what appears to be mismanagement. With all due respect, the District has no leg to stand on.
This weekend’s Wall Street Journal had a quote from Walter Cronkite that rings true to me: “Not only do we have a right to know, we have a duty to know what our government is doing in our name.” I wish the District and Board would recognize this, rather than fighting transparency every step of the way.