On July 2, I wrote about a situation at South Williamsport, Pennsylvania’s Jr/Sr High School, where a production of Monty Python’s Spamalot, slated for 2015, was canceled, reportedly due to its gay content. A number of news items and opinion pieces were written about the cancelation, with particular attention paid to a statement that homosexuality doesn’t exist in the community. However, the television station which first reported the story subsequently repudiated that portion of its report, saying the statement had not been made. They stood by the rest of their account, which relied primarily on an interview with Dawn Burch, the school’s drama director.
So, nearly two weeks later, where do things stand?
As originally reported, Burch asserted that the principal’s cancelation was attributable to gay content in Spamalot, which he communicated to her in an e-mail. Burch sought legal counsel regarding her right to release that communication, and she has yet to share it, presumably on the advice of counsel. So the reported smoking gun that could prove or disprove anti-gay bias on the part of the South Williamsport district and/or the school administration has not been revealed.
However, the state of Pennsylvania has very clear “right to know” laws, available to both state residents and non-residents alike. Consequently, this morning, I filed a request for all documents and communications regarding the musical, in particular any communications between Burch, superintendent Dr. Mark Stamm, principal Jesse Smith and the licensing house Theatrical Rights Worldwide. According to Pennsylvania law, upon receiving a request, an agency has five days in which to either accede to or deny a request, with subsequent appeals processes.
As I was filing, I learned from a press report that another entity had filed the same type of request on July 10. While the source of the request was not identified, based upon their submission date, they should get an answer by tomorrow or at the latest Thursday, depending upon when exactly they submitted it. Without knowing who requested the material, it’s impossible to know whether they will make the response, successful or not, public. But at this point, I’m in the secondary position for an answer.
In the meantime, Equality Central PA had held a conference of support for gay rights on July 3 in Williamsport, which was attended by superintendent Stamm and school board president John Engel, as well as Dawn Burch. The event was by all accounts a positive one. But additional news reports included statements which suggested that Spamalot was only one play under consideration and had not in fact been selected and approved. Yet the superintendent said the play was canceled to avoid controversy, without specifying what he found to be controversial. While officials can’t even agree on whether the play was ever approved or was in fact canceled, the lack of approval claim is in direct contradiction of the statement I received from licensor Theatrical Rights Worldwide, that made clear that a license had been granted, which surely required both a contract and an advance payment (I don’t imagine any school enters into contracts for multiple shows while they wait to make a final decision). While Burch may have signed the agreement, surely someone from the district with authority signed the deposit check; it will be interesting to learn who approved that payment.
Last night, at a school board meeting in South Williamsport, the receipt of the first Right To Know request was acknowledged. However it appears the only public comment beyond that was that it had been referred to “the district’s solicitor.” As expected, they’ve lawyered up. For the record, my attorney received my e-mailed records request concurrently with the school district.
FYI: here’s an interesting tidbit. Under Pennsylvania’s Open Records Policy, every state and local agency must appoint an Open Records Officer. For the South Williamsport School district, that officer is Superintendent Stamm, not an outsider, ombudsman or impartial arbiter. I can’t help but suspect the documents won’t be quickly forthcoming.
And so, we wait, either for Dawn Burch to be assured that by releasing the e-mail she will not be putting herself at professional or personal risk or liability, or for the school system to release the e-mail, voluntarily or compelled to do so by law, the content of which they have not explicitly denied.
To be continued.
Addendum, July 19, 2014: When I got home last evening, I had mail from the South Williamsport Area School District, dated and postmarked on July 16. It acknowledged receipt of my request for records under the Right-to-Know Law and said that the request was under review. However, it was most specifically a “Notice of extension for time to respond to request,” citing the following reasons: 1) “Your request for access may require redaction of public records,” and 2) “A legal review is necessary to determine whether the requested record is a public record subject to access under the law.” The letter further states that, “The School District expects to provide a response to you on or before Monday, August 21, 2014. If the school district fails to provide you with a final decision within that time period, your written request is deemed denied.” It is signed, “Dr. Mark Stamm, Superintendent and Open Records Officer.”
And so, in accordance with the applicable Pennsylvania law, I must wait. If the request is denied, I have the right of appeal, at which point the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records becomes involved. As I wrote previously, I doubted I’d get an immediate, affirmative response to my request, so while this is frustrating, it is not surprising. I suspect that many people don’t have the patience to see freedom of information and open records requests through to the end. However, I am not one of those people.
Addendum, July 31, 2014: Equality Central PA has issued an update regarding their press conference from July 3 and their written offer to work collaboratively with the South Williamsport Area School District “in order to foster a more inclusive environment for all students.” The update states, in part: “Dr. Stamm responded to the letter promptly, and Equality Central PA is now in discussions on how this new partnership will move forward together. As next steps are determined, details and updates will continued to be shared.” The update concludes with a note, stating, “It has been made known that two separate organizations have filed “Right-To-Know requests relating to the e-mails from Principal Smith to drama director Dawn Burch. Equality Central PA is not involved in those inquiries, but will share whatever information becomes available.”