Judge reverses email ruling; Lehighton doesn’t have to give communications
A Lehighton Area School District board member will not get the thousands of emails he requested from multiple administrators last year after Carbon County President Judge Roger Nanovic reversed a state Office of Open Records decision.
On Wednesday, Nanovic issued an order sustaining the district’s denial of director David Bradley’s request due to lack of specificity.
Bradley requested emails from May 25 to July 10 for Sue Howland, high school principal; David Hauser, assistant high school principal; and Jonathan Cleaver, superintendent.
Lehighton’s information technology department compiled the statistics for the emails requested. During the time period, Howland sent or received 2,354 emails, Hauser 1,864 emails and Cleaver 3,490 emails.
Nanovic cited a Commonwealth Court case involving the Pennsylvania Department of Education v. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in which the court set a three-part balancing test to determine whether an RTK request is sufficiently specific. The three parts include the subject matter of the request, the scope of the documents sought and the time frame for the records.
“Under the Pittsburgh Post Gazette tripartite test, Bradley clearly identified the scope of the documents sought (emails), and a finite period of time, between May 25 and July 10, 2018,” Nanovic wrote in his decision. “Significantly, however, the subject matter of the request is notably absent. This information, in this case, is critical to letting the school district know what information and what documents are being requested among thousands, which emails to look for, and to determine whether each email is a record within the Right To Know Law’s meaning of that term, and, if so, whether it contains exempt, privileged or otherwise objectionable material and, if affecting third parties, who else has to be notified.”
During a court hearing in November, Bradley did not testify, but did tell Nanovic in a closing statement that he is seeking transparency and felt the specificity of his request was adequate.
“What I seek is transparency in government,” Bradley said. “The system within Lehighton Area School District for dealing with an RTK is broken. All of the efforts to improve transparency in the district have been met with major obstructionism.”
Asked his comments on Nanovic’s ruling, Bradley said, “when the government of the Lehighton School District decided to spend money and appeal the state Office of Open Records’ Final Determination that was in our favor, the battle for district transparency was headed uphill. During the appeal, five government school directors authorized a second law firm to consume an unlimited supply of our educational funds to attack us for requesting transparency; we had no choice but to withdraw this request for transparency. The Court of Common Pleas was very patient and did a great job listening to the witnesses. I am eager to read the transcript.”
Lehighton solicitor William Schwab said the opinion backed up the district’s stance.
“The opinion fully supported the position of the district that the request for 7,700 emails without a subject matter was burdensome to the district to search, redact and produce,” Schwab said.
Lehighton called six witnesses during the court hearing, including its Right To Know officer, Melanie Windhorn.
Windhorn estimated it would take three months of her doing nothing but reviewing the emails requested just to determine which pages would need redactions. Asked by Nanovic to provide an estimate of how much that would equate to in terms of her salary, Windhorn said around $10,000.
If an RTK request requires the release of a document where a third-party is discussed, such as a staff member or parent, Windhorn said she typically notifies that individual, who then has the right to object to its release
Nanovic called the burden of reviewing and examining thousands of emails to determine if any information should be redacted under the law, an “unnecessary and unreasonable one resulting from the breadth of the request and the number of documents involved, and not from the manner in which the school district maintains or organizes its information.
Bradley filed a motion in late December, trying to withdraw his RTK requests and have the case dismissed as moot.
“I am taking these measures because the Lehighton Area School Board passed a resolution on a 5-4 vote at its Nov. 19, 2018, meeting,” Bradley said. “The resolution makes clear that I am to be targeted for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation retaliation for making Right To Know Law requests. As a person of limited means, I have to conserve my resources to protect myself from the coming governmental attack on my statutory and constitutional rights.”
Nanovic denied his motion, writing that the appeal “should be decided on its merits and not dismissed as moot.”