The school board denied an Open Records request by an Avon Grove taxpayer for information about the labor and healthcare costs for the teachers. The information that was presented to the public was not consistent with information from other sources. The matter was appealed by the Board to the Court of Common Pleas after the State ordered the board to release the information.
In December 2014, after the teachers' contract had been ratified, AGSD Superintendent Marchese announced that teachers would receive "overall salary increases of 2.7 percent during the length of the contract." The final contract is similarly portrayed in a very selective manner in news articles here and here. Outside observers questioned this, and estimated that teacher salaries would actually increase by approximately 14% for the 3-year life of the contract. Jamie Cox, a woman in Landenberg, asked the board for the budget data to find out for herself what the overall increase would be. In January, Jamie Cox requested information about the budget for teacher salaries and healthcare costs.
The board originally denied her request, saying the documents she requested did not exist!
Ms Cox then filed an "Open Records" request on January 15, which would force the board to release public information. The board then denied that request on February 15, explaining that the labor cost information was privileged information under contract negotiations, despite the fact that the contract had already been approved. (Under Pennsylvania law, information that is included in an active negotiation for a teachers' contract may be kept confidential until the contract is signed.) However, by the time Ms Cox made her request, the contract had been approved and was in force, so no confidentiality requirement existed.
Ms. Cox filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Office of Open Records on February 26. They agreed with her and on April 29 ordered the school board to grant her request for the budget information.
The board appealed that decision on June 2 and the matter was presented to the Magistrate Court of Common Pleas. The final outcome of that appeal is described here. At this point, the school board is spending taxpayer money on lawyers to prevent taxpayers from knowing what will be spent in the future.
One has to wonder why the board is so intent on keeping this information from the public. The teachers' contract has been signed and is legally binding. Why are they afraid to release this information? Why spend taxpayer money on lawyers rather than simply provide information that should be available to the public?
The natural assumption, based on their strong efforts to keep this information from the public, is that the costs are increasing much more than the board had claimed. How much is the actual increase? The school board originally said it was 2.5%, but later "corrected" this figure. Ms Cox estimates it may be over 14%, but nobody outside the school board knows for certain because the board refuses to release the information.
At issue here is not specifically the cost of the teachers' contract but rather the fact that the Administration, with the support of the Board, is unwilling to share that information. They chose instead to hide behind a smokescreen around negotiations which were long since completed at the time of the request. There surely was a way to convey the financial cost of the contract without revealing past or future negotiating strategy without expending tax dollars on legal fees to hide information about basic operations. If the school board was willing to put this much effort into hiding this information, how can we trust that they are making sound decisions for the future?