The Manheim Township school board acknowledged Monday it violated a Pennsylvania law requiring transparency in government agencies, but called it a "clear oversight" and "not intentional."
In a written statement, board president Bill Murry also vowed that “from this point going forward, we will make sure to provide the public more information” about the board's closed-door meetings.
The Lancaster County District Attorney's office, which initiated a review of the board's use of executive sessions based on LNP's reporting, said it would not prosecute the board because it found "no indication of an intent" to violate the Sunshine Act.
But in a letter to the board, the district attorney's office put Manheim Township on notice that it would launch an investigation and potentially charge the school board if it found evidence of such a violation in future.
"Now that you have been notified of the potentially unlawful nature of the failure to give a reason for holding an executive session/failure to give an adequate reason for holding an executive session," the office wrote, "upon the complaint of a subsequent failure(s) in this matter we will initiate an investigation of the alleged Sunshine Act violation as such action would have been taken with full knowledge that the action was potentially unlawful."
The board's acknowledgment followed LNP’s reporting last month that its members met in closed-door sessions 11 times between May and December with little or no explanation provided to the public.
The state Sunshine Act requires government bodies, including school boards, to meet openly unless they are discussing specific topics such as employment agreements. Closed-door sessions must be announced either at a public meeting beforehand or at the next public meeting.
The announcement must include the date and topic of the executive session, beyond merely a one-word explanation.
For most of the executive sessions LNP reviewed, Manheim Township school directors stated "personnel" as the only explanation. For two, no explanation was given.
In a statement posted to the district website, Murry said that pattern was "a clear oversight, not intentional."
The board believed a one-word explanation was "sufficient and customary," but going forward, directors will provide more information, he said.
"We have consulted with the district attorney and our own school district solicitor, and have come to the conclusion that we need to provide more information as to the nature of the personnel executive session," Murry said in the statement.
Murry, reached by phone, said advice from the board’s solicitor, contact from the district attorney’s office and repeated requests for information from LNP forced the board to change the policy.
"I've been on the board 12 years and that's all we ever had to say," Murry said, referring to the one-word descriptions the board has been giving to explain executive sessions called in 2015.
Following LNP's initial reporting about the meetings, Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman assigned a prosecutor to look into the issue. Stedman's office concluded the violations were not intentional and won't initiate prosecution, a spokesman said Monday.
"We're hopeful (the board) will act in accordance with their public statement," said Brett Hambright. "If they are in compliance with the act, from here out, we would have no reason for further correspondence."
Violating the Sunshine Act is a summary offense punishable by a fine of at least $100 and up to $1,000 for a first offense, plus court costs, and up to $2,000 plus court costs for subsequent violations.
The board had been meeting behind closed doors amid a six-month-long investigation of an undisclosed “personnel issue” in the district that has cost taxpayers at least $71,000.
Board members have not publicly disclosed the nature of the investigation, but an electronic copy of a district contract with the investigating law firm was titled “6-10-2015 Signed Engagement ltr FROM Mike Levin Re. Superintendent Harassment.”
The superintendent, John Nodecker, resigned his position on Jan. 21. His resignation was effective Friday.
The district will pay Nodecker $160,000, plus one year of medical and retirement benefits, according to a separation agreement obtained by LNP through a Right-to-Know request.
The board will hire an outside firm to conduct the new superintendent search, Murry said. The process likely will take three or four months.
"Once we have a plan in place, we will discuss our timeline, the search process, and how we will move forward with the process of recruiting," he said.
Murry said the board will then go into executive session to interview interim superintendent candidates.
Staff writer Susan Baldrige contributed to this report.