The Souderton Area School board convened its first action meeting of the year on Thursday. Action meetings are forums for official activities such as adopting or revising policies, entering contracts, and addressing matters involving the use of tax dollars.
School boards typically hold committee meetings to discuss and review items that will be voted on at action meetings.
The Souderton School Board voted last week to approve several actions, including financial statements and check listings, requests to attend conferences and workshops, the amended Health and Safety Plan, the second reading of Policy 251, a professional services agreement, change orders for Franconia and Indian Valley outdoor surfaces proposal, a letter of intent for developing a guaranteed energy savings agreement with Site LogiQ Energy Services, Inc. and ICS, and a guaranteed energy savings agreement (GESA).
At best, sections of certain documents may have been featured in a slide presentation during the January committee meeting. Nevertheless, a significant number of taxpayers and parents have been unable to access any portion of these documents.
“The public has every right to have this information and if the district won’t provide it, we’re going to use every tool available, including the Right-to-Know process, to get the information out there,” said Stephanie Barnett Jamison, a Souderton parent and taxpayer. “Maybe, eventually, the district will get the hint and start posting this information on their website like all the other districts around us.”
Nearly every public comment at Thursday’s meeting pertained to transparency.
“At the January 10th committee meeting, the audience was told that the roof was not in the original scope of work due to the cost,” said Alex Wisser, a parent in the district. “So, I need to wonder how the district is now able to afford to fix the situation, especially as there are no attachments to tonight’s agenda regarding the details of how the situation will be remedied.”
Corinne DeGeiso of Upper Salford also asked for the ability to see documents. “I’m asking the board to please make the necessary changes to encourage more parental engagement at a district level by implementing the following: one, include the presentations and other materials as attachments with the meeting agendas on board docs; two, record the committee meetings and post them on the district website; three, archive all meeting recordings instead of just posting them for 30 days.”
“I just wanted to come and encourage live streaming of the board meetings and also recording the committee meetings, if possible, to make them more accessible,” said district resident Rosemary Buetikofer, a member of the Souderton Area For Responsible Leadership slate, who ran for the school board in November.
“We have this great program, BoardDocs. I don’t think we utilize it enough,” said John Waldenberger, a parent from Telford. “For example, tonight we approved a second reading of a policy. I don’t know if it’s a good policy. I don’t know if it’s a bad policy. I see nothing about this policy on BoardDocs other than it exists and, we just passed the second reading, but I didn’t hear any reading of the policy.”
As a public service, Waldenberger frequently brings his own equipment to livestream committee meetings that aren’t recorded, as well as action meetings that don’t post until the day after the meeting and remain available for only 30 days.
Despite being called out by parents and taxpayers about the lack of transparency, and in sharp contrast to all neighboring school districts who readily and regularly provide all documents, the SASD Board hasn’t budged and constituents are robbed of the opportunity to review countless records.
“A school district should be proactively transparent with parents and taxpayers,” said Joy Ramsingh, an attorney who specializes in Sunshine Act and Right-to-Know law.
“When communication breaks down, Pennsylvania RTKL safeguards the people’s legal right to remain informed despite a district’s unwillingness to respond to community concerns.”
Ramsingh’s website provides tips to help the public write effective Right-to-Know requests.
“I can think of no greater form of trust than the trust that it takes a parent to send their child into the arms of strangers – as well intentioned, qualified, and capable as they may be – for their children to be nurtured, led, and educated out of their line of vision,” Ramsingh said. “It’s unacceptable for a school to argue that public transparency is too burdensome or expensive.”