Open Records chief flunks Pa. charter schools - abc27 WHTM

Open Records chief flunks Pa. charter schools

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The head of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records gives charter schools failing grades when the subject is compliance with the Right-To-Know Law.

"The number one violators are charter schools," said Executive Director Terry Mutchler.

She said her office has existed for five years and has handled 7,000 cases. Overwhelmingly, charter schools have been the most non-compliant group.

"In 87 percent of the cases, charter schools ignored citizens," she said. "In 76 percent of the cases, charter schools ignored us. That's brazen."

Charter schools in Pennsylvania have more than 110,000 students and collect more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools issued a statement saying it is investigating Mutchler's complaints. It read in part, "This is the first we heard from any source, that there exists any problem with charter schools complying with the RTK law."

Mutchler rejects that assertion and she gave abc27 News a letter she sent to the coalition in February 2012. "Charter schools are not responding to requests or to appeals filed in the Office of Open Records. This could lead to the imposition of fines and counsel fees if a charter is found to have denied access to records in bad faith."

"I guess I could've sent a smoke signal," Mutchler said.

State lawmakers will not need smoke signals. They have gotten the message from Mutchler and are investigating. Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) is the chairman of the Education Committee and is promising to "get to the bottom of this."

"I support charter schools," said Senator Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin), who is also on the Education Committee.

Teplitz says charter schools give parents an important educational choice for their children. But as public schools, charters have no choice but to obey the law.

Teplitz said Pennsylvania is grappling with balancing the academic freedom charter schools need with governmental oversight.

"We're supposed to be freeing them from the requirements of traditional schools on the one hand, but also still having accountability and fiscal responsibility on the other hand," he said. "I think we're still struggling as a state to find that balance."

Mutchler calls Pennsylvania's Right-To-Know Law a national model, but concedes it's not tough enough to prosecute violators that choose to ignore it. She's asking lawmakers to give her office the power to impose a $500 per day fine for every day an agency or school doesn't comply with its orders.

Other than the lack of proper statewide oversight into Pennsylvania charter schools, she can't explain why that group has been the most uncooperative. In fact, she struggles to explain why any taxpayer-funded agency, group or school would deny citizens information they're legally required disclose.

"Citizens are paying their salary," she said. "Citizens, in essence, are their boss. I can't quite imagine ignoring the boss."

The coalition statement concluded, "We look forward to working with the Office of Open Records to resolve this situation."

Mutchler hopes her public criticism will lead to a solution. It is to start a dialogue and get everybody back to the table to say, "You just can't ignore the law."

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