Pants On Fire? Souderton School Board’s Promise Of Transparency Goes Up In Smoke

The school district's defense is that's how they've been conducting business for years — which amounts to largely keeping parents and taxpayers in the dark.
Photo courtesy of Souderton Area School District.

John Waldenberger, a Telford resident, parent, and taxpayer, questioned the Souderton Area School Board during its January 10 committee meeting about why district documents, including proposals and contracts, aren’t posted online.

“We post documents the way we’ve been posting for years,” said Michael Taylor, secretary to the Souderton Area School Board, in response to Waldenberger’s question.
“That’s what the point of that whole BoardDocs site is to do … other districts utilize it for that reason,” Waldenberger added.
Taylor went on to say, “this is what we do,” referring to the board’s practice of providing slide presentations where only select pages and portions of proposals, contracts, and various other documents are revealed to the public during school board committee and meetings.

“Okay,” Waldenberger said. “It’s not very transparent and the most dangerous words in history are, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.'”

Waldenberger also mentioned that he sent three or four emails to the district about an ongoing project, with one as recently as the day of the committee meeting, but received no response.

“Well, what I’m saying is we’ve had many presentations publicly, and people are more than welcome to comment, and anytime anybody asks us for these documents or presentations, we’ve been willing to answer any questions they’ve had,” Taylor replied.

Taylor’s statement of only providing visuals of documents at meetings, as opposed to housing them on BoardDocs, overlooks the fact that many individuals are unable to attend the meetings.

There are taxpayers who work at night, individuals with visual impairments who don’t drive, people facing illness or disability, as well as parents who can’t find or afford a sitter. All residents of the district should have the right to access information presented at board meetings, even if they are unable to attend in person.

The school board’s decision to exclusively display documents through slide presentations, coupled with their refusal to upload district documents—some of which are mandated by law—might be perceived as discriminatory.

By way of Right-to-Know requests, the Beacon has been able to review eleven months of district finances from 2023.

On July 7, SASD paid the Pennsylvania School Board Association $26,000, with a portion — potentially one-third of the amount — allocated for the continued use of the BoardDocs software, which is grossly underutilized.

Ironically, the district’s website refers to BoardDocs as “Paperless Board Meetings,” indicating the capability to share documents without having to make paper copies. “Dataless” would be more accurate because the district chooses not to upload documents onto the platform for public viewing. 

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A discussion about a leaky roof took place at the meeting.

Relying on old board meeting minutes and conversations with parents of children in the district, the Beacon learned that the leaks are linked to two different sections of roofing at Indian Valley Middle School.

An older portion of the roof on an existing building is leaking, and so is a section of new roofing atop new construction at the school.

Information about plans for the newly constructed addition at IVMS first appears in October 2021 meeting minutes. Mentions were also found in February and March 2022, culminating with the district awarding Penn Builders, Inc., a $10,309,500 contract for the project.
There are no documents available that provide insight into the scope of work for the project.

Additionally, there is no information about when the new roof was applied, but based on the date the contract was awarded it’s reasonable to say the work is one year old or less.

“There’s been nothing that’s been communicated officially to us from day one,” said parent Jane Spigel. “From day one, when our kids were coming home saying there’s water coming down on, you know, the brand-new choir room is leaking,” she said.Spigel then asked if the district could go back to the architect about the problem.

“That’s not something we’re going to talk about,” said Frank Gallagher, the district’s superintendent.

School board committee meetings are where board members discuss pending issues that will lead to a vote at the monthly action meeting. SASD does not livestream or record these meetings. While those attending committee meetings have the advantage of hearing discussions, they are not provided with documents that would support conclusions reached by the board.

Instead, community members at committee meetings are shown slide presentations that might be well received by someone with a degree in accounting but not the average person.

Worse, and because no hard copies are provided, attendees have no other option but to photograph individual slides for future reference.

- Bucks County Beacon - Pants On Fire? Souderton School Board's Promise Of Transparency Goes Up In Smoke

[A photograph of a SASD slide taken by a parent.]

The 2023 school board race placed all five GOP candidates from the “Keep Souderton Strong” slate into director seats, but just two months into their four year terms, they have failed to keep campaign promises of transparency.

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The next SASD action board meeting is scheduled for Thursday at 7 p.m.

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Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens is a freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including The Reporter. An avid collector of all things vintage, she resides in the Philadelphia area.

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