Why the PaFOIC Appeal Process Works and is Needed

HomePennsylvania Open Government ForumOpen Discussion on Open GovernmentWhy the PaFOIC Appeal Process Works and is Needed

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    Governor Wolf Pleas for State Tax Increases for Education
    State College Area School District Buys $2,000 Vanity Advertisements
    March 7, 2016

    Summary: In February 2016 the State College Area School District (SCASD)(Pennsylvania) published another full page, full color, glossy vanity advertisement in a local coffee-table magazine. The ads are extravagant and superficial. The first ad cost $2,000, the second $895, plus about $1,000 (total compensation) for staff preparation.

    Watchdog requested the State College Area School District (SCASD) provide documents that authorized the expensive vanity advertisements – How much, who authorized, and how approved.

    The SCASD responded promptly with one cursory record of cost but ignored, without explanation, two other requested documents. Watchdog appealed partial denial to the SCASD Open Records Officer. The appeal was not acknowledged. Watchdog next appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, copy to the SCASD. The SCASD Open Records Officer called the same morning and provided the missing information with an explanation why one document would not be immediately available but would be provided quickly. After identifying the approving official, Watchdog withdrew the appeal.

    This RTK routine occurs all too frequently within Pennsylvania public schools and, I opine, is encouraged by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association — ignore and delay guidance. It is increasingly a tactic used in the state-wide charter school war. A copy of this particular right-to-know request may be read at: https://www.scribd.com/doc/302647773/State-College-Area-School-District-Buys-2-000-Vanity-AdvertisementsFOIA-Article-Final

    Background: In January and February 2016, the State College Area School District (SCASD) used public funds to purchase full page, 4-color, glossy vanity advertisements in the local State College Magazine. This at a time when Governor Wolf called for constrained spending pending record setting state increases for education.

    Watchdog submitted a right-to-know request for public documents and records which showed all costs for preparation and publication, the approving authority, invoices, and payments. The district replied within a few days providing an email exchange between a district employee and a magazine employee revealing only the cost ($895). The name of the approving authority (the school superintendent O’Donnell) and other documents were not provided nor was an explanation why not. Watchdog quickly responded with an appeal to the district ORO again asking for the information and explaining that an appeal to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records would be submitted within the 15 working-days deadline – March 1st if the issue was not resolved.

    There was no acknowledgement or response from the district after 17 days. Subsequently, an appeal to the Pennsylvania ORO was submitted by Watchdog on February 29. District communication lines opened immediately when the ORO-Business Manager called Watchdog.

    The ORO argued correctly that Watchdog initially mentioned a March 1st deadline. It was opined by the ORO that Watchdog’s appeal would cost the district considerable funds to pay the solicitor (extravagantly) to respond. Funds were critically short, the ORO explained. (However, funds not so short as to preclude purchasing magazine ads.)

    Watchdog offered a very low cost solution – who approved the expenditure? “Superintendent Robert O’Donnell approved.” Where is the invoice and voucher? “It is late from the vendor but will be sent immediately upon receipt.” There you go, problem solved, no solicitor needed, appeal withdrawn.

    A note to other ORO – when you receive a notice of an appeal, acknowledge it within five working days albeit the full reply may take 15 days. If there is an issue, communicate with the appellant before the deadline. Note to Watchdog: upgrade computer software for leap year before 2020.

    Because Watchdog’s RTK was predicated on the district wasting tax dollars for senseless institutional aggrandizement, The ORO volunteered and opined that State College charter schools were proselytizing too many students thus causing district funding to hemorrhage. The ads were intended to help stop the hemorrhage of student enrollment to public-charter, private, and parochial schools by explaining the advantages of the SCASD, attrubutes apparently not immediately obvious or convincing to parents.

    Never mind that the district collects about $20,000 per student – calculated total expenditures/average enrollment. However, the district pays charter schools only $12,000 per student. The SCASD considers its public charter schools a $5 million extravagant expense (4 percent of budget) yet their charter schools operate at 60 percent of the cost of district schools. The argument that 500 charter school students create fragmented class sizes within the district is senseless.

    The school board should place as much emphasis collecting tuition required by federal law ($4.5 million in State College), tuition due from foreign students here on Penn State-related Education Visas, as they do complaining about the similar cost of charter schools. They could also recoup about $105,000 total compensation by eliminating the new position public relations director.

    State College is not Philadelphia, this is an affluent university town. Parents are voting with their feet and the PSEA and PSBA are fighting over every student. Over the past several years, 18 percent (about 1,500 students) of the district’s school age population are enrolled in non-traditional schools. This includes children of school district employees. SCASD enrollment continues to decline. See: “Enrollment is Shrinking” http://www.scribd.com/doc/238531651/State-College-Area-School-District-Criticism

    I asked the ORO, who is also the business manager, why he thought this occurred. His gisted reply: first, the non-traditional schools provide after school care that district taxpayers will not approve for traditional schools. Translation: Charter schools have longer school days at a cost of $12,000 per student than do the traditional schools at a cost of $20,000 per student. Secondly, charter schools are not as financially accountable as is the district. However, the most recent Auditor General audit found the only charter school audited was 100 percent accountable and compliant, not so the district itself.

    Perhaps Superintendent O’Donnell and school board members should spend more time observing and asking parents why non-traditional schools are so popular – it is called better and more parental responsive education versus glitz. Instead of listening and then hearing, the superintendent refutes. Students continue to leave.

    There is much more to this story called the Charter School War. Watchdog has an affiliation with his tax dollars but no affiliation with charter schools.

    The RTK request follows:

    • This topic was modified 3 years, 3 months ago by  Watchdog7.
    • This topic was modified 3 years, 3 months ago by  Watchdog7.


    The State College Area School District would do better to spend its funds training its administrators how to better educate rather than paying for advertisements to compete with its own charter schools. Summary: “PSSA scores reported in the fall showed a statewide significant decrease from 2014 to 2015 that administrators partially blamed on Pennsylvania Common Core — a more rigorous set of standards determined by the state.”

    Responding to the article in the Centre Daily Times, Statewide decrease in PSSA scores spurs extra training for teachers. State College Area School District Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said in October: “Last school year was the first time the commonwealth based the test on [rigorous] PA Common Core Standards.” “It is unrealistic expectations that left students with poor grades and teachers unsure of what those specific standards were. The state is working though changes and scrambling to give us direction,” Translation: last year was the first year PA schools were measured on reasonable and rigorous. modern world, standards. The results were not impressive.

    Read more here:http://www.centredaily.com/news/local/education/article65682077.html

    • This reply was modified 3 years, 2 months ago by  Watchdog7.
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