The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

Gary Grossman

March 9, 2014

Not going to give up

During a community service function in late February, someone passing me in a hallway asked if the newspaper would ever get the list of charges behind the sudden departure of the Midd-West School District superintendent.

“Yup,” I replied.

Former Superintendent Wesley Knapp left his $118,400 a year post abruptly at the end of October, even though three more years remained on his contract.

Using Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law, Daily Item reporter Marcia Moore obtained a separation letter that made passing reference to withdrawing charges against Knapp if he would voluntarily resign with a severance package of $70,682.

In February, nearly four months later, those “charges” were still undisclosed.

“How are you going to get that?” asked the inquisitor.

“We are not going to give up.” By that, I meant that we were not going to stop seeking specifics, nor was anyone going to give up on an agreement called the public trust.

For all our differences, we citizens share a deeply ingrained consensus about each others’ rights and responsibilities. Tea Party objectors and Wall Street occupiers may rarely see eye-to-eye on policy and progress, but both the movements, their members and many of their expressions are flip sides of the same coin.

We — all of us — are owners. In order to build this union more perfectly, we need to know what is going on and take responsibility for it at the polls. For some, there may be a busy-body curiosity about what happened at Midd-West. For others, seeing that elusive list of “dropped charges” was a duty attached to a job title — “American citizen.”

This applies significantly to public property, public space, public service and public office.

We snagged that secret list of “charges.” It was the subject of a news story Tuesday. The document can be found online at dailyitem.com or here: http://sunbury.info/pdf/MWSB.pdf.

You can read the list and make of charges what you wish. This is your democracy.

I read the litany. My initial reaction was that it adds up to a big bundle of small resentments. Some of it is puffed up in legalese to appear momentous-ish, but there are no dollar signs on the allegations and nothing that appears serious enough to fingerprint.

It looks like a bunch of people were tired of catching an earful of attitude from each other and by the time they got around to resolving that, there was not enough flexibility left in the relationship to avoid a breakup.

Frankly, if they could have kept the secret going a little longer, it would probably have been better for newspaper sales. Everybody loves a coverup.

The mystery here is why no one — among the educated and/or elected — realized that the trust relationship between administration and school board was going south in time to save it.

These kinds of situations — with payout, recruitment, opportunity lost in ramp-up time and aftershock effects within the institution — are very expensive.

How well or poorly this divorce was allowed to develop, how it was addressed and why it ended as it did is relevant to the quality of governance in the district. That is your school board, your employee, your personnel expense and your money. Because of state funding, all of you are included.

You have an acknowledged right to know what is happening and whether it is all still trustworthy.

On this page, you can find a column by Susan Schwartz, a reporter for the Press-Enterprise who is the legislative committee chairwoman for the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition, as well as the Project Sunshine chairwoman for the Society of Professional Journalists.

Ms. Schwartz’s essay poses a series of examples of how Pennsylvania could be more open and forthcoming with public records. You can determine whether these are essential or marginal concerns. Newspapers would like the maximum possible amount of access.

Personnel disputes may be a breed apart. The law takes that into account. But when it comes to signing the checks, your Right to Know Law needs to be there. This time, it was.

That separation agreement that Marcia Moore reported using the Right-to-Know-Law is what first revealed there was a $70,682 mystery to solve.

Now you know. 

Gary Grossman is the publisher of The Daily Item and The Danville News.

 

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