District's plans might be decided in Pa. courtroom

September 30, 2004|by DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - The language of Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act indicates a judge need not overrule the Chambersburg School Board's decision on a $116 million debt resolution, even if the law was violated, according to one local attorney.

Last week, a notice of intent to file a lawsuit against the board was filed in the Franklin County Prothonotary's office. David R. Yoder, the attorney representing the four district residents named as plaintiffs, said the suit will allege the district failed to properly advertise the Aug. 25 special meeting at which the board authorized advertisement of the debt resolution for a vote at its Sept. 1 meeting.

The meeting was advertised in The Record Herald, a Waynesboro, Pa., newspaper, according to Rick Vensel, the district's business manager. The legal advertisement was faxed to the Public Opinion in Chambersburg, but Vensel this week said he never received confirmation that it ran.


Clinton Barkdoll, a Waynesboro attorney not involved in the case, said a court must first determine if a violation occurred. Secondly, it has to determine the proper legal remedy, he said.

"A judge could say the school district substantially complied with its duty to advertise the meeting," Barkdoll said. A court also might decide the district should have confirmed the ad ran, he said.

"Even if they proved they faxed it to the paper, I'm not sure they're off the hook," Barkdoll said.

The Sunshine Act states notice of a meeting should be published "in a newspaper of general circulation ... which is published and circulated in the political subdivision where the meeting will be held."

As far as legal remedies for a violation, the law states a court "may in its discretion find that any or all official action taken at the meeting shall be invalid."

"It sounds like there is some wiggle room there," Barkdoll said. There also is room to argue whether the authorization on Aug. 25 constituted an official act, he said.

"I don't know how, by throwing out a meeting that was a workshop, it affects the vote at another meeting," school board member Craig Musser said Wednesday.

"Their argument will probably be that it was only a technical violation of the act, because the primary action was taken on Sept. 1," Yoder said Tuesday.

"Our response is that deciding to engage bond counsel and authorizing the preparation of a resolution is not technical, but the kind of official action that the act prohibits," Yoder said. "What this will come down to is a court deciding which is the correct view."

Should a judge rule a violation occurred and the action be voided, Musser said the board might have to submit the $116 million plan for a new high school and two elementary schools to a voter referendum.

A number of Pennsylvania school districts took action before Sept. 3 to borrow money or pass debt resolutions to meet a deadline imposed by the state's new school property tax reform law. Otherwise, districts could be required to submit budgets to a referendum if tax increases exceed an inflationary index set by the state.

Even if the lawsuit succeeds, Musser said he doubts it will change the minds of board members, who voted 6-3 in favor of the debt resolution.

"If we vote on it again, I'm confident it will be the same vote," he said.

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