Friday, September 24, 2010

Residents Victorious in Fight with EASD over Sunshine Laws

The residents will speak at all public meetings.

Posted by: Noel Jones

Several residents, including two students, showed up at the Easton Area School District school board meeting last night to speak up during the public comments portion of the agenda to protest last week's declaration by board president, Pat Fisher, that public comment would no longer be allowed in the public workshop meetings that precede each board meeting. 

Express Times article by Colin McEvoy

The Morning Call article by Christopher Baxter

Fisher made this declaration with the support of the EASD's solicitor, Alan McFall, in direct violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, which guarantees all citizens the right to offer comment in public meetings. The idea behind this law, is that the EASD's budget is funded by voting taxpayer dollars, so it logically follows that voting taxpayers should have a right to weigh in on how their money should be spent. Two residents, Troy Renard and Larry Porter, were silenced at last week's meeting. Troy was escorted back to his seat by an armed guard, an obvious intimidation tactic by the board president, meant
to discourage input from any other residents who might want to speak, which happens to be in direct violation of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act. 

Chapter 7 under the heading "Objections" states that a citizen has the right to object at any time during any public meeting if they perceive their right to speak during public comment is being compromised. This violation is punishable by fines and other penalties. 

Almost as shocking the board president's declaration, was the revelation that the decision was made without a vote from board members. Board members Jen Holzberger and Kerri Leonard-Ellison were outspoken in their opposition to eliminating public comment. Pat Vulcano was vocal in his support of the idea, because he said the meetings go too long when public comment is allowed. Also of interest was Kerri Leonard-Ellison's passing comment to Alan McFall that "I know the PBSA (PA School Board Association) advised you on this." (Very strange, when you consider that the PBSA is a tax funded organization that is supposed to be representing all "members," who include school board members, school administrators, teachers, and, one would think--the tax payers who pay their salaries and benefits. Strange that this organization would be advising school boards in our state to exclude taxpayer input in violation of state law, when we are the ones paying for their jobs, and the district budget is funded with out money. To get an idea of just how much taxpayers are paying these people to shut us out from deciding how our tax money should be spent, check out their web site staff directory, and scroll for a while. Big Government, anyone? The great irony here, is that if a taxpayer were to sue the district for violating the Sunshine Act, the district would be getting legal services from PSBA, so taxpayers would be paying for legal services on both the plaintiff's and defendant's side of the case. And then if the citizen were to "win," the taxpayers would have to pay themselves, all potentially resulting in higher taxes.) 

Well, residents quickly obtained copies of the PA Sunshine Act after the meeting last week, shared the information among themselves and a call was made by an ACLU attorney to the EASD solicitor yesterday. Last night, residents got up one after another to fight for our right to speak, and board member Kerry Myers proposed returning to the original format of having four standing committees where public comment is allowed, rather than just one workshop meeting prior to the board meeting. The board voted for the change, and now public school district meetings will go back to the old format, with committees meeting as follows:

1st Thursdays: 6:30--Academic Committee, 7:30--Policy Committee
2nd Thursdays: 6:30--Athletics Committee (as needed)
3rd Thursdays: 6:30--Finance Committee, 7:30--Buildings & Grounds Committee
4th Thursdays: 6:30--Regular School Board Meeting

Aside from this singular issue, there was so much other drama that presented itself at the meeting last night, that deliberations ran well past 11pm, and I will have to address them in individual posts, but here are a couple of highlights:

1. The EASD somehow, without ever putting it to a vote by our elected school board, agreed to pay the legal costs (with our taxpayer dollars!) of a personal lawsuit against the solicitor, Alan McFall.

2. The EASD somehow, without ever putting it to a vote by our elected school board, agreed to let a for-profit day care open in March Elementary School, without paying rent, and without ever having verified that the day care had gone through the appropriate city codes and permits process (which they haven't) and that day care has already handed out applications to parents and accepted registration fees for a program that is supposed to start on Monday.

Both of these matters were brought to light by the independent research of resident taxpayer, Curt Ehly, who spoke during public comment (which may explain why some administrators and board members tried to limit public comment...) and was rebuffed by Asst. Superintendent, Joe Kish, in the rudest treatment of a taxpaying citizen that I have ever witnessed--suggesting that he must have been operating under someone's instructions and couldn't have done it himself--so rude, in fact, that the entire audience broke out verbally in outrage. Remember, Joe Kish, the one who negotiated the teacher's contract? More on him later.

Stayed tuned, and post your comments on last night's resident victory here!


noel jones said...

two other issues that got a lot of debate last night:

class sizes--there was concern expressed that the minimum class size of 15 is too high, because you would have to get up to 30 students before you could split the class...

reinstating the jr. high wrestling "white" team as either a "club" rather than a "team"--residents in the community raised $4K for the team and the coach was asking the board for the remaining $2K, even though he had already announced that he had a donor that was willing to write the check for $2K. the board said no to the money because it would mean opening the door for all the other teams that got cut from the budget to come back asking for partial funding, but they did reinstate the "white team" as a club, to avoid any potential legal issues...the coach seemed very disappointed in this, saying kids would want to be on the team, and not the club, and kept trying to guilt the board into approving the money by saying things like "if that's what you feel MORALLY is right, then ok", etc.

Anonymous said...

Noel - your articulate comments at the EASD SB meeting were right on task. Keep up the good work.

Anonymous said...

oops part 2 of above post - ALSO wanted to say the same to Carinne. I watched part of the meeting online and was cheering loudly when she spoke.... glad you are still at the meetings and being an intelligent advocate for common sense, true priorities and transparency.

noel jones said...

Thanks, Anon. The more that regular people take the leap, jump in the car and show up to speak (or even watch and be counted) at these meetings, the more power citizens have. Residents took action and with the help of a few good board members, reversed a ridiculous and illegal new policy.

We often feel powerless against the powers that be--and that politics is not something we can get involved in if we're not experts, but the bottom line is that residents are the voting taxpayers that elect these people and supply the budget, and all we have to do is drive over there and join the people who are speaking up, to exercise the power that We The People still do have.

With more involvement from regular people, we may have hope of getting our district's budget on track again one day..."when the cat's away, the mice will play..."

Anonymous said...

Ms. Jones:

RE: Class Sizes

As the self-appointed mouthpiece for the EASD taxpayer, are you ready to pay higher taxes to add teachers for reduced class sizes and the additional class and building space that is needed?

You were very outspoken last Fall about keeping a line on spending and taxes, and then you changed your message to keep staff at any cost. You are not consistent in your message, which leads many to believe that you are a pawn of one or more EASD Board members.

What is it, Noel, higher taxes or smaller class sizes?

noel jones said...

Anon 6:20--interesting that such a righteously indignant attack would be posted by someone "Anonymous." Do I know you?

First of all, I do not represent other residents that post articles or comments to this blog, we each represent ourselves. There is no organization here, but rather, a lot of independent thinkers who choose to share the same forum, as you have.

I will take the rest of you points one by one:

"You were very outspoken last Fall about keeping a line on spending and taxes.."


"...then you changed your message to keep staff at any cost."

Incorrect: I and several other voting taxpayers who attended most of the budget meetings leading up to the firing of 72 teachers called repeatedly for the administration and the teachers union to come to the table and agree to a side-by-side sacrifice with taxpayers--many of whom had already lost their jobs, or taken pay cuts themselves--by agreeing to forego their raises for the year. I am not opposed to cutting programs that do not meet minimum class size, as we ARE in a budget crisis, but 72 teachers was ridiculous, and absolutely unnecessary. It is the stubbornness and greed of the administration, and union management (including tenured teachers who knew their jobs were never at risk and refused to pressure union leaders to compromise for the sake of the newer teachers--some who had left good jobs to move here only a year before).


noel jones said...


"You are not consistent in your message..."

Incorrect--if you read back through past posts and articles in local papers, you will see that the above message was a consistent ask. Not that there is anything wrong with shifting one's perspective after listening to others--that is called GROWTH--I would like to see more board members and administrators do more of that--that would mean they were all actually LISTENING as opposed to just watching their laptops while residents give input.

"...which leads many to believe that you are a pawn of one or more EASD Board members."

Sounds like some wishful thinking, as you are the only person to express this sentiment and have done so publicly and Anonymously. It also, sadly, rings similar in tone to Asst. Superintendent Joe Kish's demeaning dismissal of resident Curt Ehly on Thursday night, when, after Curt presented his extensive personal due diligence (which embarrassed the administrators) Joe Kish cut him off in a very derogatory tone, and contradicted himself by saying, "since you took this upon yourself to go making these calls and looking at these files" and "which I suspect was under the direction of someone else--" all in one breath, suggesting that a resident taxpayer could not be knowledgable enough or have the personal initiative to care enough about his community (or his tax money) to have done so much research on his own. Anyone who knows Curt Ehly (and how could one not, as he is everywhere in Easton) knows how dedicated he is to this community on a daily basis, and he is a professional in his own right.

"What is it, Noel, higher taxes or smaller class sizes?"

This is my favorite pet peeve--obfuscation--an attempt to reframe months of public comment and discussion with the board as if it were the either/or situation you pose above, when in fact, the administration and union could have, but for their own stubbornness and greed, come to the table and agreed to give up their raises.

Residents also joined ad hoc committees and posed all kinds of cuts to wasteful spending--especially with regard to Buildings and Grounds expenditures.

The either/or scenario you pose is disingenuous--there are many ways to spare taxpayers without firing 72 teachers, and the administrators and teachers union need to really start viewing themselves as part of this community by taking action that benefits the ENTIRE community, rather than just thinking of themselves and protecting their raises in a down economy when everyone else is suffering, and when the budget is PAID BY US, TAXPAYERS.