Commonwealth Court sides with newspaper, reporter in case involving school records

By Jon Campisi | Mar 1, 2012

A state appellate court panel has upheld a lower court’s ruling that ordered a charter school to turn over certain school records to a reporter for a regional newspaper.

Commonwealth Court on Feb. 29 affirmed an earlier ruling by the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas that ordered the Chester Community Charter School to produce a number of salary and contract documents to Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Dan Hardy.

The trial court had affirmed a decision of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records that had declared that the requested documents were subject to disclosure even though they were in the possession of a private party that had contracted with the charter school.

The charter school, which operates two elementary schools and one middle school in Chester, Pa., contracts with Charter School Management Inc. to operate the schools on a day-to-day basis.

Hardy had submitted his written request for the desired salary and contract information back on Jan. 30, 2009.

On March 9, 2009, the appellate court’s decision states, the charter school responded by saying Hardy’s request was nothing more than a “blatant and improper attempt to circumvent the discovery process” in a defamation suit that the organization had earlier filed against Hardy, the Inquirer and the paper’s parent company.

The charter added that it felt many of the materials were not subject to disclosure under the state’s Right-to-Know Law.

Hardy appealed the decision to the state’s Office of Open Records, which sided with the newspaper reporter in May 2009, ordering the school to produce the requested documents.

The charter school appealed the OOR decision, but Delaware County Court upheld the OOR’s determination in April 2010.

The court soon vacated its decision, but reinstated it after oral arguments in June 2010.

The charter school then appealed that June decision.

One of the issues had to do with discrepancies over what is, and what isn’t considered a public record.

The charter school had argued that the records sought by Hardy and the newspaper are not public because they don’t directly relate to the governmental function of the charter school, but rather constitute private business records of management that are unrelated to the operation of the charter school.

“Charter School argues that requiring disclosure of Management’s business records will have a chilling effect on private contractors doing business with charter schools,” the appellate court decision states.

Hardy had argued that the charter school essentially waived this argument when it failed to state this in its March 9, 2009 letter that was sent to Hardy in response to his initial request.

Hardy had also argued that the charter school failed to prove that the records do not directly relate to the governmental functions of the charter school.

The Commonwealth Court judges agreed with Hardy, writing in their opinion that the school did, indeed, waive its right to argue that the documents in question are not public records.

“Charter School was required to specify the grounds for its denial, with specific reference to legal authority,” the ruling states. “Charter School’s March 9, 2009, letter did not do so, and it has waived the right to raise this issue now.”

The court further stated that while some of the records sought by Hardy and the newspaper “may reach beyond the governmental function performed by Management,” the charter school failed to specify them in their initial 2009 letter in response to Hardy’s request.

The court further asserted that the charter school is an “agency” as defined by law, and as such is subject to the provisions of the Right-to-Know law.

“As such, it is bound by the directives of the legislature for all agencies, and whether those directives are fair or wise is beyond the court’s proper field of inquiry,” the ruling states.

The majority order was signed by Commonwealth Court Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.

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