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In West non-vote, did the SRC violate the Sunshine Act?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

At its meeting on Wednesday May 26, the School Reform Commission suddenly and without voting withdrew a prepared and printed resolution on pairing West Philadelphia High School with Johns Hopkins/Diplomas Now as a Renaissance School. Chairman Robert Archie said only that "certain facts" had come up that needed to be checked out.

It later became known — but not through the SRC — that the resolution was withdrawn over complaints that some members of West’s advisory council were employed or paid stipends by the Philadelphia Education Fund, which is a local partner for Hopkins.

During the ensuing uproar from members of the West community — especially the School Advisory Council that had approved the match with Hopkins and were eager to get on with the turnaround process — Archie never explained exactly how the decision to withdraw the resolution was made.

Then in a press conference on Friday, June 4, Archie first said the commissioners had voted during the executive session. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman corrected him. Archie then said he had polled the commissioners in private during the public meeting, and that a majority said the resolution should be withdrawn.

And that, said one prominent media lawyer, is problematic, because of requirements that the commission do its business in public.

"It certainly raises the issue of Sunshine Act compliance to have a private poll take place during a public meeting," said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania Newspapers Association. "The Sunshine Act is there so we can witness and participate in decision-making. Obviously, that’s not what happened here."

As the "investigation" into the parent ties with PEF continued, Ackerman on June 2 pulled West from the Renaissance Schools list for next year. The sequence of events has caused turmoil among teachers who had already been looking for other jobs, exposed bitter rifts in the West community, and created uncertainty about what next year will look like — all in the name of school turnaround.

Certainly, this SRC, not to mention its predecessors and the Board of Education before it, have long loosely interpreted the Sunshine Act. Technically, the Act exempts only labor agreements, personnel matters, and legal issues from full public airing. It is clear that much crucial business that doesn’t neatly fit into any of these categories is done routinely behind closed doors at executive session.

But the bizarre events on that Wednesday pretty much demand that any self-respecting media organization concerned about transparency lodge a protest, especially given the consequences of the action on one school community.

At tomorrow’s SRC meeting, members of the West SAC plan to make a presentation and demand that the SRC approve the match that they had voted on in good faith under the close supervision of the District itself.

Perhaps then the SRC members will publicly state their position on the issue, and let the public know when, how, and on what basis they agreed that the original resolution should be pulled.

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