Thursday, May 21, 2009

Department of Education Decisions Threaten Public Notice

The Pennsylvania Department of Education has issued two troubling decisions that negatively affect public notice in some communities.

Under the School Code’s Mandate Waiver Program, public schools can request permission to waive certain legal requirements.

On May 1, 2009, the Department of Education granted a waiver to the Upper Moreland Township School District that allows the district to eliminate newspaper advertising for bids and instead advertise on the district’s own website or in shoppers or pennysavers. It is unclear how the public is to know which vehicle the district intends to use with respect to any particular bid.

Under 8-807.1 of the School Code, purchases of furniture, equipment, textbooks, school supplies or other appliances of $10,000 or more must be advertised in two newspapers of general circulation once a week for three weeks. The purpose behind this notice provision is to ensure that as many potential bidders and taxpayers see the notice as possible.

Through the waiver program, however, the Upper Moreland Township School District can now pick and choose how it wants to advertise individual purchases. This is a dangerous practice for a number of reasons. It takes public notices out of newspapers, with no consideration for or concern about measuring the cost to public access and accountability.

Newspapers provide an independent verification that a public notice was made as required by law. They are archived and verifiable. Agency Web sites and shoppers are not. Newspapers are independent of the government agencies that spend taxpayer money. Agency Web sites are not. Newspapers are and have been a trusted source for public notices for many decades. Pennysavers, shoppers, and internet Web sites are not where members of the public look for public notices. Newspapers also put public notices online, at no cost to agencies, at

To those who point to lower circulation numbers at some newspapers as support for getting rid of public notices, the facts simply do not support your argument. The truth is that newspapers, through their print and online versions, are reaching more people than ever with news, sports, public notices and more.

Under current law, it is government’s responsibility to push information out to the public, through publication in a well-known, established source of information. Under this decision, citizens now have to go to their government to find out what government is planning to do (or where they plan to advertise this day).

And this isn’t the only example. The Lampeter-Strasburg School District applied for and was granted a waiver that raises the bidding threshold requirements imposed by section 7-751 of the School Code from $10,000 to $15,200. With the approved waiver, the school district is only required to advertise for bids when construction contracts are anticipated to cost more than $15,200.

As anyone who has followed this issue knows, local government groups, including the School Boards Association, are pushing for a change in state law to get rid of public notices in newspapers. They are using this Mandate Waiver program as an end run around current law in a way that is likely to have a significant, negative effect, on public access to government.

If you're interested: the Mandate Waiver provisions of the School Code can be found at 24 P.S. § 17-1714-B. You can also read the Lampeter–Strasburg and Upper Moreland applications and approvals on the Department of Education website .

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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Harrisburg police blotter to be online

Harrisburg police have announced plans to put the police blotter on the city's Web site. Read more at

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Friday, May 8, 2009

Update on state police policy

The State Police has apparently reversed its policy, issued yesterday, that would remove all accusers' names from police news releases/incident reports. The Associated Press report is here:

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