During the winter of 2019, it was announced at a public school board meeting that two specific teachers were being placed on unpaid disciplinary leave. A newspaper reporter filed a request with that school district, under Pennsylvania’s Right to Know Law (RTKL). The reporter request sought the release of personal information regarding the two teachers. The school district refused to give the teachers’ names or statement of their charges to the reporter.
Background: In 2019, the Highlands School District (District) Board of Directors identified “employee #5381”and “employee #4367” at public meeting as being placed on unpaid disciplinary leave. Brian Rittmeyer and the Tribune-Review Media group (Rittmeyer) filed RTKL requests with the District in the spring of 2019. These requests sought the names of the educators, job titles, length of employment, salary and a statement of charges regarding these two employees. In both instances, the District provided Rittmeyer the employees’ job title, length of employment and salary, but denied their names and the statement of charges.
Rittmeyer appealed the District’s denials to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR). The District argued Section 708(b)(7)(viii) of the RTKL contains an exception that permits it not to release teacher names prior to “final action” on pending discipline. OOR, however, agreed with Rittmeyer. It ordered the District to release the names as the District already had published all employee names on their website.
The District chose not to comply with the OOR order. Instead, the District appealed the OOR order to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Judge Obrien heard both parties present their positions during a trial. The District argued Section 708(b)(7)(iii) precluded disclosure. Rittmeyer argued the Public School Code of 1949 and Sunshine Act took precedent over the RTKL. In his ruling, Judge Obrien relied specifically upon Section 708(b)(7)(viii). He determined this section forbids release to the public of a public employee’s discipline process unless it is the agency’s final action resulting in “demotion or discharge.” As a result, on January 6, 2020, Judge Obrien issued his opinion agreeing with the District.
Issue before Commonwealth Court: Rittmeyer appealed to the Commonwealth Court. His issue was whether or not the requested teachers’ names are exempt from disclosure under the RTKL.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association intervened before the Commonwealth Court because both educators were members. An intervention occurs when a party is added to a court proceeding at a later stage with the permission of the Court.
Opinion: The Commonwealth Court acknowledged that Rittmeyer argued Section 1127 of the School Code controls this issue, not the RTKL. Section 1127 requires school directors to issue a statement of charges to an educator scheduling a hearing to discuss possible discipline. Rittmeyer’s counsel argued to the Court Section 1127 is proof the District is required to release the educator’s identity to the public prior to any final decision. In addition, Rittmeyer stated the Sunshine Act requires “official action” by a board of directors must be performed at an open meeting.
The Court saw this point differently. Judge McCullough wrote that Section 1127 does require a notice to an educator that his/her employer is considering imposing discipline. However, until the school entity makes its final decision, the educator is presumed innocent and the school entity may not publicly identify the educator in question.
Importance: The District in this case went to considerable effort and expense to protect their two teachers. To give credit where credit is due, the District fought Rittmeyer in three different forums to avoid releasing the names of the educators before it’s Board of Directors had made a final determination of the pending discipline actions. 6-12-21
Highlands School District, Highlands Education Association v. Brian Rittmeyer and Tribune-Review (2020 WL 7061810 Commonwealth Court of PA, decided 12-3-2020)
Jordan Lee Strassburger, Pittsburgh for Rittmeyer.
Amanda Jewell, Pittsburgh for Highlands.Mary Joanne Miller, Pittsburgh for Highland Education Association.