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Sunshine Act said to cover school board's e-mail writings

March 14, 2001 

In tiny Avonworth School District in Pittsburgh's north suburbs, the use of e-mail has created a controversy that mirrors a growing issue facing school boards and governments across the nation: Does electronic correspondence among a quorum of governing board members violate open-meeting laws?

Gary Short, an Avonworth school board member and an attorney, opened up the Pandora's box at the board meeting Monday night, distributing printed copies of five e-mails sent recently to other board members by Betsy Radcliffe, the school board president.

The e-mails discussed ideas from Radcliffe that likely would have been controversial -- if they'd been presented in public.

Among other suggestions, Radcliffe proposed putting casually dressed substitute teachers surreptitiously in school bathrooms to help catch smokers, and paying rewards to students who report other students' bad behavior.

Short said he believed that such electronic discourse was a violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act and case law.

"Deliberation of the school policy by a quorum of school directors at a prearranged meeting of school directors without notice of the public is a violation of the act," he said.

Corinna Wilson, general counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association in Harrisburg, agreed.

Donald Owen, an attorney for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said, however, he wasn't so certain.

"No one knows for sure if it's a violation of the sunshine law," said Owen. For a clear answer, he said, e-mail guidelines would have to be set by the General Assembly, or by the court. He added, though, that he advises school board members that "chat rooms might be a violation of the sunshine law if five or more board members are gathered together in cyberspace."

Owen said that he has received inquiries on the question from about 100 districts around the state.

Pennsylvania's Sunshine Law, created long before e-mail was invented, requires government bodies to hold prearranged meetings, discussions and votes in public. Only a few topics, including personnel, real estate or litigation, are exceptions to the law and may be discussed in closed session.

Wilson insisted yesterday that "whether it's an e-mail to all members of the board, or a daisy chain where one members notifies the next board member, that is circumventing the sunshine law. You can't just have conversations and not give the public notice."

Radcliffe, who called Short's decision to release the e-mails was "unprofessional and rephrehensible," said that school district policy was not being made in the e-mail correspondence. She said that the e-mails were directed to school administrators, with copies to the school board members.

Excerpts from the e-mails, all sent between Feb. 20 and March 5 by Radcliffe include an outline of a plan for monitoring school bathrooms:

"If agreed, just hire a female for next week (have her dress VERY casually and in sneakers)...have her mill around...until she spots some kids moving toward the girl's cafeteria bathroom... Simply have the monitor slowly enter the doorway and watch which stall they enter. If they're headed for the last three stalls, it's pretty certain what they're going to do.

"If another kid is stationed at the center of the sinks and is looking in the mirror, that's the kid who's doing the outlook. That kid should be nailed too.

Another e-mail handed out by Short at Monday's meeting calls for seniors to be rewarded for catching school students violating the policy:

"Perhaps the $50 fine could be doled out as follows: $5 would go to the individual, $40 would go to the senior class, and the remaining $5 be put in the kitty for a reward each month for the student who has caught the most kids."

In another, she suggests asking janitors not to clean the bathrooms for a week to determine if that would encourage students not to litter the bathroom with cigarettes:

Short said, "These particular e-mails are an attempt to line up a vote in advance of any meaningful public discussion about the issue. It is not only arrogant but overlooks the fact that the public, who has elected the board, may have something to contribute to this deliberations."

Board member Susan Ambramowich disagreed that the practice of sharing ideas via e-mails was wrong. "Sharing e-mails is like having a conversation -- sharing information, balancing ideas. I have not heard that this is a violation of anything," she said.

But board member Lynn McGrath said she no longer wanted to receive e-mails concerning school policies and upcoming meetings.

Other states, including Florida, have more expansive public records laws, and the e-mail correspondence of public officials is open to the public.

Rhonda Miller is a Post-Gazette staff writer. Matt DeReno is a free-lance writer.

Copyright © 1997-2001 By Rhonda Miller and Matt DeReno, PG Publishing

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