Judge rules in Palmerton closed hearing
Palmerton Area School District did not violate the Sunshine Act when it locked the door during a termination hearing in January 2018, according to a ruling handed down this week by Carbon County President Judge Roger Nanovic.
In the opinion issued Tuesday, Nanovic said, “The taking of testimony and receipt of evidence in an adversarial proceeding before an adjudicative body was not in any true sense a discussion of agency business.”
Paula Husar, Palmerton Area High School principal, filed the lawsuit while she was suspended without pay beginning on Sept. 7, 2017. Her lawyer, Mark Bufalino, argued that Husar was denied her right to a public hearing when the door providing access to the Palmerton Area School District administrative building was locked during a hearing regarding her employment on Jan. 31, 2018.
Following 13 nonconsecutive nights of hearings, Husar was reinstated to her job after Palmerton’s school board upheld her suspension from Sept. 7, 2017, to June 7, 2018. Husar has since appealed that decision.
During a Carbon County Court hearing, regarding the 2018 locked door incident, former Palmerton Superintendent Scot Engler testified that it was done for safety reasons.
“During a previous hearing in the summer of 2017, it was extremely unruly and disorderly,” Engler said. “People were banging on windows, and it was an unsafe environment.”
Husar sought all litigation costs, expenses and attorney’s fees recoverable under state law in its lawsuit, but Nanovic granted the district’s request for summary judgment Tuesday.
In determining the January 2018 hearing did not violate the Sunshine Act, Nanovic said, “The hearing was more precisely the receipt of evidence which, after the parties concluded their presentations, would be discussed, evaluated, deliberated and relied upon the board in reaching a decision.”
“It is the deliberation and resulting adjudication,” he added, “which the Sunshine Act requires be held in public. Husar has failed to establish that the board took any official action or engaged in any deliberations at the Jan. 31, 2018, hearing, which were in contravention of the Sunshine Act.”
Husar was reinstated by the school board as the high school’s principal in April 2019. She is seeking a reversal of the suspension along with back pay and benefits for that nine-month period.
Of the 20 charges leveled against Husar by Engler, the school board voted unanimously that 16 of them did not have sufficient evidence to terminate Husar.
Of the remaining charges, the board voted:
• In a 5-4 decision that she was persistently negligent in the performance of her duties as stated in the dismissal charges.
• In a 6-3 decision that she did not harass and intimidate fellow employees. Only board members Barry Scherer, Tammy Recker and Josann Harry thought there was enough evidence to support termination under this charge.
• And only Scherer thought there was enough evidence in two charges: that she intentionally attempted to discredit Engler by making false and derogatory statements about him, and that she failed to comply with a board policy related to field trips and the appropriate number of chaperones.
A hearing on the appeal has been set for 1:15 p.m. Nov. 7 in Carbon County Court of Common Pleas before Judge Joseph J. Matika.