Northeastern spent more than $23K on open records requests

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Northeastern School District paid its lawyer more than $23,000 while responding to Right-to-Know Law requests in 2022.

School board president Mike Redding told fellow board members at their Jan. 2 meeting that there were 29 requests in the past year. He added that one person, Ryan McCarthy, submitted six requests that by themselves accounted for more than $18,000 of the money spent handling requests. 

McCarthy requested financial records between the school district and the Anti-Defamation League and made multiple requests for materials related to the No Place for Hate Program for all grades. 

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One of his requests, which asked for emails between three board members and a former board member from January 2022 to June 6, 2022, added up to $9,010. The report said the IT department helped collect the information and shared it with the law firm. 

The requests revolved around mailroom records concerning a postage meter lease agreement, bargaining agreements, purchasing records, a copier contract/ lease agreement, and copies of the “detailed real estate tax collector’s monthly reporting to taxing the district.” 

The Northeastern School District Administrative Center in Manchester, Wednesday, June 2, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

In another case, a parent requested any records surrounding an assault on a bus that involved students who were punched. That request was denied because it violated the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. The report states that Appel, Yost and Zee LLP helped draft a response letter and charged the district $200. 

Another involved a request for a copy of the Right-to-Know request log from January 2021 to January 2022, which was granted and emailed to the requester. 

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And a person also requested a list of any books banned by the district, which was denied. 

“No records exist,” the report said. 

The York Dispatch submitted two requests for emails between former board members Jamie Lagana and BJ Volkert regarding Diversity Day. The first, which cost $2,016, was rejected because it was deemed too vague because of the use of the term “official emails.” A second request was filed and granted. That cost was not billed. Redding said that the cost is expected to exceed the first. 

Redding said five requests about the high school renovation cost about $1,500 to fulfill. 

In total, the legal support cost was $23,102; however, bills are still being filed. Redding pointed out that those bills don’t reflect the time, effort and unbilled hours that went into filling the requests. 

“To me, that’s a lot of money that’s not going to our kids,” he said. 

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said the amount of money the district spends on Right-to-Know Law requests "depends on the nature of the request."

She said that when districts get complex requests, the districts may need to resort to outside help, such as from law firms. Otherwise, their Right-To-Know officer or other district staff can do the work in house.

However, she added, if an agency requests outside help for everything, even simple requests, that might suggest a problem, such as its open records officer not being as familiar with the law as they should be.

In Northeastern's case, not all of the requests needed to go to the law firm, according to the district.

The law firm representing the district — Appel, Yost and Zee LLP — has a team of education lawyers dedicated to helping schools by advising boards on matters such as Title IX, training or assisting the school districts in labor relations, according to its website.

Melewsky pointed out that the legal fees cited by Redding are themselves subject to the state's Right-to-Know Law. Because the fees are a part of open records, the public can request a breakdown to learn more information, such as how much the law firm charged per hour and how many hours were spent on each request.

The York Dispatch has filed a Right-to-Know Law request for that information.

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The board also took a moment at the Jan. 2 meeting to recognize Conewago Elementary School Principal Melinda O’Brien, who recently died. Superintendent Stacey Sidle said O’Brien’s funeral was child-friendly, as per O’Brien’s wishes. 

“It was beautiful,” Sidle said. “It was personal and it definitely highlighted (O’Brien’s) love for education and her dedication to her students and families.”

Sidle said O’Brien will be missed and remembered as a Bobcat. 

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.