School board members must walk a fine line between transparency and school safety in response to a new law.
Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, that allows school boards to enter executive session to discuss safety and security matters was approved by Gov. Tom Wolf on June 22.
While school board members welcome the opportunity to discuss sensitive information that could ultimately wind up in the wrong hands, open meetings advocates are wary of the law’s implementation.
“It does not give school boards unfettered discretion to discuss everything behind closed doors,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
Melewsky said she’s observed “issues of overapplication and misapplication” pertaining to executive sessions, which should be used “only when absolutely necessary.”
School board members interviewed by LNP say they support the measure and will be careful not to violate the Sunshine Act, the state’s open meetings law.
“As a school board president, I want to be very cautious that we don’t violate the Sunshine Act,” Elizabethtown Area school board President Terry Seiders said.
However, there are certain safety and security measures that shouldn’t be discussed in a public setting, he said.
Security protocols and training, he said, are a couple topics school board members are often hesitant to discuss because releasing the information may increase the chances of a threat.
Security measures such as adding secure vestibles or shatter-resistant glass to a school building should be discussed publicly because it will ultimately cost more, Seiders said.
Merle Esh, Conestoga Valley’s school board president, said the board tries to be as transparent as possible, but disclosing the wrong information could be detrimental to school safety.
“Your disclosing that information to would-be criminals who would have better information to bypass that security,” he said.
Esh said he plans not to “blatantly overuse” the new rule. One example where the board could go into executive session would be to discuss the location of security cameras.
Anything that requires taxpayer money or topics such as safety drills, he said, would be discussed “in the sunshine.”
School code package
Cutler’s bill, which started as a five-page proposal to implement a college comparison tool, was amended, packaged and passed as the school code bill. The now 31-page act includes, among others, legislation to delay the use of Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement until 2020-21.
State Rep. Mindy Fee, of Manheim, authored the original bill to allow school boards to discuss safety matters in private. The bill stated boards may do so if discussing security measures in public would impair the effectiveness of those measures or jeopardize the safety or security of an individual or school.
The law requires school officials to give the reason they’re holding the executive session.
“I’m glad both issues got accomplished,” Cutler said of his and Fee’s original proposals. “It was nice to have it done and have it done early with such agreement.”
The law was passed 50-0 in the Senate and 193-1 in the House. State Rep. Bernie O’Neill was the lone no vote. Cutler said O’Neill’s opposition targeted a charter school-related item in the bill.
Pennsylvania School Boards Association spokeswoman Annette Gray said the law “strikes a commonsense balance of transparency and safe guarding of sensitive, security-related information.” PSBA, she added, will issue best practices guidance to school board members as they adjust to the new law.