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September 19, 2013

State: New Castle must release employees’ names in tuition probe

NEW CASTLE — The New Castle school district must release the names of its employees who failed to pay required tuition.

The Pennsylvania Office of Open Records issued that order late last week.

The district has refused to make public the names of those employees who had been cited in a report issued by the state auditor general’s office, which routinely audits the state’s 500 school districts.

The New Castle News filed an open records request with the district for the names, which officials denied. The newspaper then appealed to the state open records office.

At issue were employees who lived outside the district but whose children had attended city schools over the course of four years without paying the required tuition.

Although the audit covered only Feb. 2, 2010, through Sept. 12, 2012, the auditors examined records for two additional years.

The audit — which showed there had been seven non-resident children of employees for whom tuition was not paid — criticized the district for failing to obtain the required tuition. The audit found both the Pennsylvania Public School Code and the district’s policy had been violated. The names of the parent-employees were not included in the audit finding.

Charles Rees Brown, an appeals officer for the open records office, issued a determination that requires the district to provide the employees’ names, but not their addresses or the identity of the students.

The News has not sought any information about the students, but has pursued the names of those who did not pay tuition on the grounds the public has a right to know who is accountable in the matter.

As a result of the district’s failure to collect tuition, the audit noted, it will have to repay $110,664 to the state for subsidy received during that four-year time period.

Brown concluded the district is required to disclose all records containing the names of those district employees within 30 days.

Either party may appeal the determination to the Lawrence County Court of Common Pleas within 30 days.

The district hired Andrews and Price of Pittsburgh for legal advice about the tuition nonpayment when district solicitor Charles Sapienza recused himself, claiming a conflict of interest.

Andrews and Price is being paid $130 per hour.

Superintendent John Sarandrea had said previously the board was conducting hearings for the employees in question and the district was in the process of pursuing back tuition payments from them.

On Monday, he said that following an expulsion hearing scheduled for that night he planned to ask the board about the ruling from the open records office — whether to make the names public or to appeal.

He noted it also is possible for the individual employees to appeal the ruling.

“If we appeal, there’s no need for them to,” he said. “If we say we are not going to, they have to tell me or the office of open records whether they are going to appeal the decision.”

Attempts to contact Sarandrea about the board’s decision were unsuccessful.

Attempts to reach board president David DiGiammarino and Andrew Evankovich of Andrews and Price also were unsuccessful.

Paula Knudsen, an attorney and director of legal affairs at Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the association’s interpretation of the determination is that the office of open records denied the New Castle News the employees’ home addresses, but granted The News the right to the employees’ names.

“They’re saying release just the names,” Knudsen said, adding, “I think this is positive news for public access.”

Because the determination is publicly recorded, “anyone else who tracks open records through the office of open records can fight with this,” she said.

“It can only help other people.”

Access to the open records office determination is available on its website at http://openrecords.state.pa.us.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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