Manheim Township High School file

Students walk into the front entrance of Manheim Township High School in this file photo.

The Manheim Township school board met behind closed doors twice in December.

It didn't disclose any details of the meetings afterward.

And nearly a month later, the board president wouldn't even confirm when, exactly, one of the meetings took place.

"We had an executive session on personnel back in December," Bill Murry said at a public work session Thursday.

And that was it.

The most recent executive session continued the board’s six-month-long pattern of convening behind closed doors and providing little information to the public.


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LNP was able to confirm the most recent meeting date with Jennifer Davidson, the school board secretary and a district employee. The executive session was held Dec. 17.

LNP found it was the 11th such meeting, called an executive session and allowable by Pennsylvania law under certain circumstances, since May.

The lack of transparency — the board must provide some details of why it is meeting in secret — has raised concerns among Sunshine Law experts.

Melissa Melewsky, an expert on the state Sunshine Act, which calls for transparency in government agencies, said the Manheim Township school board hasn’t been providing adequate explanations for why it is meeting in executive session.

"That's not enough. Both the timing and the explanation are not enough," said Melewsky, the media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

The law requires government bodies, such as school boards, to meet openly unless they are discussing specific topics, such as employment agreements, collective bargaining and current litigation. Official actions on those topics must occur in public.

Closed sessions must be announced either at a public meeting beforehand or at the next public meeting. The announcement should include the date and topic of the session, beyond a one-word explanation, said Melewsky.

Donald Gilliland, a board member for the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, said it is "sometimes prudent, and in the taxpayers' interests, for school districts to be circumspect about personnel issues" to avoid future lawsuits.

But it's equally important, he said, that school officials are as transparent as the law requires.

"Cutting corners on the side of secrecy rarely results in better government," said Gilliland.

During the Manheim Township work session Thursday, Jed Kensinger, an LNP editor who specializes in open meetings law, objected to the board's practices.

"The board has held frequent executive sessions over the past few months and the minutes merely state the reason for executive sessions was 'personnel.' That’s unacceptable," Kensinger said in a public comment period at the end of the meeting.

An LNP review of board minutes found that 11 executive sessions were held May through December 2015. During the same period, the board has paid more than $66,000 to an outside law firm to investigate an undisclosed personnel issue.

An electronic copy of the district’s contract with the Levin Legal Group, obtained through a Right-to-Know request, is titled “6-10-2015 Signed Engagement ltr FROM Mike Levin Re. Superintendent Harassment.”

The board has taken no public action in the case even after taxpayers have been billed for more than 300 hours in legal fees at rates of up to $190 an hour. Murry and the district solicitor refused to say last week if the investigation has concluded.

For nine of the executive sessions since May, the reason given was "personnel." For two, no reason was given in the minutes.

Said Kensinger in his comments to the board: "My request is simple: If Manheim Township school board held an executive session 'back in December' to discuss a personnel matter, then the public has a right to know specifically what matter was being addressed in that session and in those other sessions."

Murry told an LNP reporter after Thursday's meeting, "I don't have to say anything beyond 'personnel.' "

Melewsky said by phone Friday that Pennsylvania courts have been clear on the issue: "One-word reasons are not legally sufficient. The agency needs to do more. Just saying personnel doesn't really tell the public anything," she said.

After Kensinger spoke Thursday, Murry thanked him for his comments. Then he adjourned to an executive session.

He gave no public explanation for the session.

Staff writer Susan Baldrige contributed to this report.

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