Forums have potential to violate Sunshine Act, expert says
In an effort to garner more discussion on various issues between both board members and the public, the Upper Perkiomen school board said last Thursday they may host an electronic forum to reach out via computer or cell phone.
At the end of a very brief meeting, School Director John Gehman said he would like to see the board consider such a forum. Gehman, citing a previous attempt about 14 years ago that was unsuccessful, and a Facebook page last year that saw some success, said he thought the forum might be helpful to get around the state Sunshine Act.
That law doesn’t allow board members to meet in majority to discuss subjects except in a public setting, with a few exceptions. The law was enacted to protect the public from business being conducted outside its purview.
Gehman and others blamed the laws for being unable to communicate effectively with their fellow board members concerning an option to pass a budget with a true zero tax increase during recent budget talks for the current school year.
“The Sunshine laws really screwed that up this time,” Gehman said.
Director Jennifer Allebach disagreed, saying she and others felt ambushed by the motion.
“On June 7 we said we didn’t need another meeting,” she noted of the budget process. “It was well-thought out and well-intended [the proposition for a zero tax increase], but if we don’t have discourse among ourselves it has potential to fragment the board.”
Director Raeann Hofkin apologized, saying it wasn’t intentional and that she worked for weeks on the proposal but didn’t have time to reach out to everyone before the meeting.
Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said that regardless of the type of forum, if a quorum is met, the board has the potential to violate the law by discussing business like the district budget in an unadvertised meeting.
Gehman, though, said he thought the option could also be used as a q-and-a for the public concerning anything in the school district.
“An electronic forum could be opened up where anybody could ask questions…That’s certainly not circumventing the sunshine laws,” he said. “I think a lot more people would participate.
“I participate in a lot of trade discussion groups and they are very informative. It’s information you don’t get anywhere else.”
Gehman, while noting he thought the move would raise “all kinds of red flags” from the district’s legal counsel, said he would like to give the forum a try.
Superintendent Dr. Beth Yonson, stating she is very pro-communication, said she believed it might be better as an administration-run program. She noted the administration will be working hard to start with a zero-based budget for next year and to get all that entails out to everyone.
Discussion on the issue will continue, school officials said.
In other news, officials presented Emily Jett, a longtime teaching assistant at Upper Perkiomen Middle School, with the Above and Beyond award. Jett served the district for more than 27 years.