Peters Township School District has denied a Post-Gazette Right-to-Know request regarding two district employees who were fired last week, and the newspaper says it will appeal the action to the state Open Records office.
The newspaper had filed a request under the state's Open Records Act, asking for the names of two employees who were fired by the school board at a meeting Oct. 15. During the meeting, the employees were identified by number.
The newspaper's request was denied by the district's open records officer and business manager, Vincent Belczyk, who said he was advised to do so by district solicitor Jack Cambest.
In letters dated Oct. 18, Mr. Belczyk said he believes the district is exempt from disclosing the employees' names based on a section of the Open Records Act that exempts "information regarding discipline, demotion or discharge contained in a personnel file. This subparagraph shall not apply to the final action of an agency that results in demotion or discharge."
Because the employees were discharged, the exception doesn't apply, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association.
The section cited by Mr. Belczyk "expressly makes public the names, position, salaries, length of service, other compensation and payments, and employment contracts of public employees," Ms. Melewsky said.
"The Right to Know Law does not require the school to announce the reason why an employee is fired, but the record showing that a public employee was fired is public," she said. "Moreover, the Sunshine Act requires the agency to publicly announce the name of the employee being hired or fired before the vote so that the public has a meaningful opportunity to comment before the vote takes place. This right to comment is required by the Sunshine Act. The school district's actions in this case raise Sunshine Act and Right to Know Law compliance issues."
With regard to one of the employees, Mr. Belczyk cited a criminal investigation as an additional reason he felt the record was confidential.
But Ms. Melewsky said the same principles apply, specifically, that terminated employees must be named even if the reason for their dismissal is kept private.
Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone said his office has not received a request to investigate anyone from the district, nor has the Peters police department, according to its chief.
"We do not have an active case on the matter," Chief Harry Fruecht said.
One of the employees was terminated due to a violation of Section 514 of the Pennsylvania School Code, which allows districts to fire employees due to incompetency, intemperance, neglect of duty, violation of any of the school laws or other improper conduct.
School directors cited Section 1122 of the code in firing the other employee, which provides for discharge due to immorality, incompetency, unsatisfactory teaching performance, intemperance, cruelty, persistent negligence in the performance of duties; willful neglect of duties, physical or mental disability as documented by competent medical evidence, advocation of or participating in un-American or subversive doctrines, conviction of a felony or acceptance of a guilty plea, persistent and willful violation of or failure to comply with school laws.
Mr. Cambest said last week he could not comment further about the firings except to say that an investigation is ongoing in the latter case and that both employees waived their rights to hearings before the school board.
The Post-Gazette will appeal the denials.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.