Jarrett Coleman drops lawsuit against Parkland School Board
SOUTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. - Newly-elected Lehigh Valley State Sen. Jarett Coleman has dropped a lawsuit he filed last year against the Parkland School District that sought to invalidate teacher pay raises. The trial over Sunshine Act breaches was scheduled to take place this week.
An Allentown judge last week dismissed the initial case and the Republican lawmaker-elect dropped a second suit, despite the judge ruling it had merit. Coleman, who is currently a school board director, had subpoenaed all of his fellow board members to testify at the trial. He did not respond to a request for comment, nor did his attorneys.
- Newly-elected State Sen. Jarrett Coleman dropped a lawsuit against fellow Parkland School Board members over alleged transparency violations
- Lawsuit sought to invalidate teacher pay raises
- Parkland School District denies it violated open meetings laws
The school board voted to approve a collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union at a meeting on Oct. 26, 2021, which was days before school board elections for four open seats. Coleman filed an initial lawsuit on Election Day 2021, and then filed a second one after the board re-voted on the contract at a November meeting. Coleman won a seat on the board and joined that December.
The collective bargaining agreement, which took effect in September and runs through August 2025, included a nearly 3% annual salary increase for 680 employees represented by the Parkland Education Association, which is the teachers’ union. Coleman said during a November 2021 board meeting that he was not objecting to district teachers earning more money, but to the lack of transparency by the board.
The agreement was not listed on the agenda in advance of the October meeting and board members added it to the agenda after the meeting started. State open meetings laws require school districts to post board agendas publicly at least 24 hours in advance with a list of all items that it will officially discuss or take action on.
The Pennsylvania Sunshine Act was further tightened in 2021 by a measure sponsored by Republican State Sen. Patrick Stefano that bars action on items not advertised a day in advance. Exceptions are emergencies, minor issues that don't involve spending taxpayer funds or issues brought up during a meeting by a member of the public. It also allows the majority of the board to add an item to the agenda at a meeting.
Board member Lisa Roth explained at the Oct. 26 meeting that the lack of 24 hours’ notice was due to the union voting on it that day. Sandi Gackenbach, president of the Parkland Education Association, said that's how the contracts are always handled after the negotiations between the district and the union conclude.
“Teachers vote throughout the day and by 4 p.m. I deliver our verdict to the district superintendent,” she said. “This last time we voted the contract up and so then at that point the district adds to their agenda that evening because we always vote on a school board meeting date.”
Gackenbach said the board already has the information included in the contract, so the vote is a formality. The agreement took effect despite the lawsuits.
“The public has to be able to learn enough from the agenda to determine whether they feel strongly about attending or not."Melissa Melewsky, in-house counsel for Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association
Roth said at the October meeting that to list the agreement on the agenda before the union vote would have been “premature and inappropriate.”
Melissa Melewsky, in-house counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, takes issue with that characterization. She says transparency laws require agencies to list in advance the contract and the type of contract.
“The public has to be able to learn enough from the agenda to determine whether they feel strongly about attending or not," she said.
Coleman sued over the possible Sunshine Act violation on Nov. 2, 2021, then filed another lawsuit over what he alleged was a separate failure to allow public comment and raise open meeting objections when the board voted on the raises again at its Nov. 16 meeting.
District Solicitor C. Steven Miller referred to Coleman’s court challenge during the meeting when he said by voting a second time, it was addressing any possible transgression.
“The board will take a vote,” Miller said. “And if the board affirmatively approves the agreement, then the problem as far as the board is concerned goes away.”
Melewsky said if publicly-funded agencies regularly violate Sunshine laws and then attempt to rectify it at subsequent meetings, it renders transparency laws meaningless.
Timothy Gilsbach, the attorney who represented Parkland in both cases, said he disagrees with that view.
In a statement, the district denied it took any action that it believed to have been a violation of the state's open meetings law. It said it will follow all requirements of the Sunshine Act for future meetings.