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New Sunshine Law Turns Up Heat on Pa. Boards

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It took three hours and 38 votes for the Haverford, Pa., school board to pick a replacement for retiring member Nicholas Rongioine.

Those kinds of decisions used to be a lot easier. But a change in the state's open-meetings law means that short-term board appointments can no longer be decided in secret. And some Pennsylvanians are realizing that it will literally take some time to adjust.

"You don't want to compare and contrast your neighbors in public," Maureen McGuire, the president of the Haverford school board, said. "It never took this long behind closed doors."

Under the new law, school boards with open seats must interview applicants and deliberate on final appointments in public. And if no decision is made within 30 days of a vacancy, a county judge fills the spot.

Lawmakers easily passed the amendment to the open-meetings law last spring after receiving complaints that school boards treated the replacement of resigning members as a personnel issue, which shielded the process from public view. From state to state, open-meetings laws vary on the kinds of personnel decisions that must be made in public.

"I think there was an honest disagreement as to whether the law required such an action at a public hearing," said Tom Gentzel, the assistant executive director for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The issue can be especially sensitive because the people picked to finish unexpired terms have a leg up in board elections.

Mr. Gentzel predicted that discomfort with the change will fade as boards get used to the new practice.

But in the meantime, the bumps are noticeable.

Judge Intervenes

For example, a Delaware County judge was forced to pick a board member in the 3,700-student Marple Newton school system this fall when its nine-member board failed to fill a spot within the 30-day limit.

To the chagrin of local officials and some board members, the judge did not act on the board's recommendation to pick an applicant from Marple Township. By choosing a Newtown resident instead, the judge upset the historical, population-based division of board seats that had favored Marple 6-3.

"I don't think the district is fairly represented now," said Rita T. DeSanto, the president of the Marple Newton school board. "I blame the law for only giving us 30 days to decide."

But the board may have only itself to blame.

Ms. DeSanto, who supports the public deliberations, said that it was difficult to get a five-member quorum during the summer vacation season.

And when the board did convene in July, the best it could muster was a 4-1 vote for one of four applicants. Unable to reach a majority, board members relinquished their authority to the judge.

A Big Deal

While local school boards regularly replace members who leave before their terms expire, reactions to the new Pennsylvania "sunshine law" vary depending on past practices, Mr. Gentzel said.

"For some [boards], it's no big deal," he said. "It's always how they did business."

But the change was a big deal in Haverford, where the board was used to reviewing r‚sum‚s and filling board vacancies in closed sessions.

Some 150 people turned out Oct. 15 to watch the board's first public deliberation over appointing a member. They cheered when their favorites from a field of 11 applicants were nominated, beginning around 8:30 p.m. They booed as the board repeatedly came up short of the five votes needed for a decision.

It took 20 votes to whittle the field to five finalists.

Sixty spectators remained at 11:30 p.m. when lawyer and school volunteer Thomas K. Ellixson was finally selected to fill the vacancy.

Mr. Ellixson was pleased to get the spot, but is not sure how much he likes the new process.

"There was no open discussion about our qualifications because everyone was afraid to say anything," he said. "Nobody really talked about me."

State Rep. Ronald R. Cowell worries what might happen if that friendly approach gives way to humiliating or sniping at board applicants.

"Do you create a disincentive for some individuals to even have their names considered?" he said.

"I happen to think it's not a bad idea," Ms. McGuire said of the process. "This is an elected position, and we're substituting our judgment for that of the voter."

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