Two Commonwealth Court rulings could have far-reaching consequences for PA schools. In one case, on December 6, 2018 a Commonwealth Court judge set a summer 2020 trial date for a landmark public school funding case involving the William Penn School District in Delaware County. Historically, Pennsylvania courts have dismissed challenges to the Commonwealth’s public school funding system, but last year the PA Supreme Court reinstated a lawsuit challenging the funding system. The nearly five-years-old lawsuit accuses the state of failing to provide enough funding for public schools, forcing public school districts to greatly rely on local taxpayers. The suit also claims that state funding discriminates against students based on where they reside, since financially strapped school districts in poor communities are limited in their ability to raise adequate tax revenue.
A second Commonwealth ruling on December 3, 2018 stated that some school bus video can be considered public under the state’s Right to Know Law in a 2016case involving a principal’s wife charged with accosting a student. A television reporter’s request for a copy of the incident was challenged by the school district involved. As a surprise to some, the court rejected the school district’s argument that all surveillance videos must remain secret because they contain private student information, pertain to funding, and are related to investigations. As claimed by the school district, the law currently states that records are not public if tied to ongoing criminal and/or internal investigations, if releasing them could jeopardize federal or state funding, or if they contain private information that is not part of an official government record. However, the plaintiff appealed the school district’s denial to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records (OOR), which ruled against the school district. OOR averred that the video was incidental to a noncriminal investigation. The school district then appealed OOR’s ruling to County Court and lost there when it was ruled that the tape was not part of the student’s official, permanent record as defined by FERPA. The Commonwealth Court ruling stated that, “The mere fact that a record has some connection to an investigation does not automatically exempt it under … the Right-to-Know Law.” The school district is expected to appeal the ruling. It is also expected that there will be pressure on state lawmakers to change the public records law involving school videos so they are treated similar to police videos.