Pa. official: Charter schools flout public-records law

Posted: May 15, 2013

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's 180 charter schools routinely ignore the state's Right-To-Know Law even though as publicly funded institutions they are bound to comply with it, the chief of the state's Office of Open Records told a Senate committee on Monday.

Executive director Terry Mutchler said her office had received 239 appeals in cases in which charter schools either rejected or failed to answer requests from the public for information such as budgets, payrolls, or student rosters. She said her office ruled in favor of the schools on just six of those appeals.

"They don't feel they should be subject to this law, or, candidly, subject to you," Mutchler told senators on the state government committee, which is considering legislation to amend the five-year-old law. "They are a cancer on the otherwise healthy right-to- know-law."

Mutchler, hired in 2008 by then-Gov. Ed Rendell to head the newly created office, also found herself on the defensive Monday, taking issue with a proposal to keep her from speaking publicly about pending cases.

Lawmakers, though, focused on the charter-school issue, asking Mutchler what she thought they should do to get the schools to comply.

Mutchler said, "We could go to the courts and ask to fine them, but we can't do that in 67 counties. We don't have the resources."

Together, so-called cyber charter schools and brick-and-mortar charter schools educate 73,000 students and receive $1 billion in public funds each year.

A spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter schools, which represents 140 schools, said it was the first his group had heard of Mutchler's concerns.

"The witness never shared her concerns, and I can't comment beyond that," said spokesman Ken Kilpatrick. He said Mutchler may have been "painting with a broad brush."

The dozen witnesses at Monday's 31/2-hour hearing generally testified in favor of the bill's language expanding the scope of the Right-To-Know Law to include, for instance, police departments at the four state-related universities.

When the law was crafted in 2008, those schools - Lincoln, Pennsylvania State University, Temple, and the University of Pittsburgh - were exempted because of their quasi-public status. Though they receive hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid, they are not state-run.

That exemption came under fire from Mutchler and others thanks to the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2011, when Penn State refused to disclose records of a 1998 campus police investigation of the former assistant football coach, now in prison for molesting boys.

The bill pending in the Senate would also amend the law to say the Office of Open Records "shall abstain from public comment about a pending proceeding."

Mutchler said she opposed that language and noted that those proceedings sometimes drag on in court for months or years.

Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), said Pileggi had included that provision because of the Office of Open Records' role as essentially a judicial agency. He said Mutchler had made no initial objections to that language.

On Monday, however, Mutchler said she was concerned about the potential impact on her free-speech rights, and about what she called the "chilling effect it would have" on her ability to bring cases to light.

Arneson said that Pileggi, as author of the Right-to-Know Act, had worked closely with Mutchler and was committed to working with her to allay her concerns.

Mutchler and others, including the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association (formerly the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association) and the ACLU, took issue with other parts of the bill, such as a section that would allow government agencies to turn down information requests they deem "unduly burdensome." Mutchler said that would give agencies and local governments too much latitude to skirt the law's intent.

"They could say two requests a week for the mayor's salary" is burdensome, she said. As it is, Mutchler said, localities and school boards sometimes cite administrative burden as a reason to reject fairly routine information requests.

Emily Leader, a lawyer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said some requests do amount to "broad fishing trips" that present a hardship for school districts with limited staffs.

The bill also would set up a separate system for requests from prison inmates. Mutchler said these requests account for about 30 percent of appeals to her office and sometimes seek information on subjects such as the brand of underwear worn by prison guards.

Mutchler and the ACLU were at odds on that issue. "We are concerned about carving out a group of people because the agency finds them irritating," said Andrew Hoover, the legislative director the ACLU of Pennsylvania.


Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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