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Ruling assures access to SRC resolutions

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

The Notebook had to take the School District to court over the matter but succeeded in winning a decisive ruling that the District can’t withhold complete School Reform Commission resolutions from the public once they have been introduced at an open meeting.

Common Pleas Judge Idee C. Fox ruled last week in favor of the Notebook, which had challenged the District’s refusal to make available the full text of a set of SRC resolutions that been introduced and discussed at one of its public meetings. The District had argued that a resolution does not become a public document until it is acted on by the SRC.

The Notebook was represented by Education Law Center staff attorney David Lapp.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, called the ruling “a great decision for access.”

She said that the District’s rationales for denying the public the right to see the resolutions – that they are merely drafts and that no decision on them had yet been made – are common and “overused” by government agencies.

“This [ruling] is squarely based on the intent of the [Right-to-Know] law, to provide access prior to a vote so there can be the opportunity for meaningful public comment,” Melewsky said.

For years, the SRC has distributed one-paragraph summaries of each of the resolutions it is considering at its public meetings. The actual resolutions include a high level of detail and sometimes run several pages in length. The SRC typically holds two meetings per month; the first allows for questioning and discussion of resolutions and the second is for voting. This means that typically there is a one-week window for the press and the public to consider the items on which the SRC is preparing to act and provide input that might influence the final decision.

In October, 2009, the Notebook requested the full text of several resolutions authorizing contracts that had been introduced and discussed by SRC members at a public "planning meeting" but then withdrawn before action by the commission the following week. The request was made because the SRC had given no indication why the resolutions had been pulled. The District refused to provide the text.

The Notebook took the issue to the state’s Office of Open Records, but that body chose not to address the legal principle in the case – whether the resolutions are public records once listed as part of the agenda at a public meeting. In January 2010, the Notebook appealed in the Court of Common Pleas, with pro bono assistance from the Education Law Center.

The Notebook’s goal was to establish the right of the public to have access to resolutions once they are presented to the SRC, said Notebook editor and director Paul Socolar.

"It’s something the District could easily have offered voluntarily," he said.

“It’s still troubling to me that the School District spent thousands of dollars of their lawyers’ time to try to deny the public the right to see the resolutions that the SRC is debating,” Socolar said. “We hope they can embrace the ruling and come to see it as healthy that the press and the public take an interest in understanding the details of the items the SRC is preparing to act upon.”

In January, the SRC did begin to release before the final vote the full text of so-called “ratification” resolutions – those approving work that had already started or even been completed.

The School District had no immediate comment on the ruling, or whether it intended to appeal released a statement March 8:

The School District of Philadelphia will abide by the ruling handed down from the Court of Common Pleas for Philadelphia County. The ruling provides full text of any SRC resolution once it’s been introduced at a planning meeting. The District will support this decision unless and until the School District decides to appeal the decision to the Commonwealth Court.

According to Len Rieser of the Eudcation Law Center, the District has "30 days (from the date of entry of the decision) to file a notice of appeal."

Melewsky said that the ruling is only applicable in Philadelphia, not statewide.

“But certainly any other court that is faced with this issue can look to this decision for guidance,” she said. “I hope they would.”

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