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JT files to block document release

Published November 12. 2019 11:47AM

Jim Thorpe Area School District is going to court to block the release of a report on administrators’ potential misuse of a district credit card.

On Friday, the district officially asked the Carbon County Court of Common Pleas to rule that the report, which came out of a forensic review of district credit cards by an auditing firm, should not be made public.

The report, by the firm Brown Schultz Sheridan and Fritz, was authorized after residents found evidence that a district credit card was used to pay for thousands of dollars worth of meals at area restaurants and first class airline tickets.

After the board received the report, they voted to place business manager Lauren Kovac on paid leave and hired a second auditing firm as well as a law firm to conduct an internal investigation of the district business office.

In August, the Times News made a request for the BSSF forensic review report and related documents under the state’s open records law. After the district denied that request, the Times News appealed to the state office of open records, who ruled in October that the district must release the documents.

On Friday, the school district appealed the OOR decision to Carbon County Common Pleas Court.

In the appeal, the school board’s firm, Beard Legal Group, said Superintendent John Rushefski, who took over July 1, failed to notify them that the Times News had appealed the district’s decision to the Office of Open Records.

Elizabeth Benjamin, a lawyer with Beard Legal Group, wrote that Rushefski did not contact her firm until the OOR had made the decision to order that the documents were released.

Benjamin wrote that Rushefski had never been an open records officer prior to taking the superintendent’s job July 1, and had not been fully educated on the responsibilities involved with being the officer.

She added that Kovac often handled right to know requests. However, the school board voted to place Kovac on leave on Sept. 12, a few days after the district received notice of the appeal.

Rushefski said on Friday that the lawyer’s case is accurate and he missed the deadline.

“I did not respond in time with regard to the time line of the open records office,” he said.

According to the appeal, the main reason the district wants to prevent the release of the report is that it is related to an ongoing investigation into potential employee misconduct.

The district said releasing the report could violate the privacy rights of employees who are mentioned in the report.

Directors also said it also could breach the attorney-client privilege between the district and its attorney.

The district gave those reasons in his final response to the Times News which stated the report was exempt from being released under the open records law.

Last year, residents used the state’s right to know law to obtain statements from a district credit card in the name of business manager Lauren Kovac. The statements showed thousands of dollars worth of charges for first class airline tickets and lunches at area restaurants attended by the former superintendent and board members.

The school board never authorized Kovac to apply for the card, but directors approved regular payments for expenses she charged on it, including the meals and plane tickets.

The card was officially in the name of “Lauren Kovac, Jim Thorpe Area School District.” Statements were addressed to Kovac at the district office.

According to right to know requests, the board approved paying back $35,816.76 in expenses charged to the card between 2015-2018. Of those, $4,443.88 worth of the expenses were for meals at area restaurants.

The first-class plane tickets were used for former Superintendent Brian Gasper and two school board members to attend a school board conferences out of state.

After residents started asking questions about the misuse, the district hired an auditor to conduct a forensic review of the administrators’ credit card use.

Comments
Taxpayer's money is being wasted by the board. The board is the legal authority, and owner of the record. The attorney works for them, and therefore is being paid to posture the board against transparency.

This is an immoral board for two reasons.

One:
The State Office of Open Records, laid down a free, OFFICIAL FINAL DETERMINATION, a offical ruling after complete review of facts pertinent to the district's original denial.
The board is the authority and should honor the State's official decision. It should NOT use taxpayer's money to fight transparency authorized by the State. JT should learn for the mistakes of Lehighton. Lehighton has been wasting money for years obstructing transparency. And now, they are wasting money on an immoral fight against the Constitutionality of the Right to know law. Yet, they can't afford to wash the band uniforms. This stinks on many levels.

Secondly, the both boards should HONOR their oath to UPHOLD the law, not spend educational funds on attorney fees to circumvent the lawful release of public documents identified as suitable for release by a team of unbiased attorneys at the Office of Open Records.

The fights against lawful transparency benefits the legal counsel, not the public. The law, cited and reviewed were identified in the Final Determination. These record release fights, after a OOR final determination are a total waste of taxpayer money and the government's use of your money against you. Since the ultimate person bringing the "Complaint" in these legal battle is the community, and the district board are supposed to be public servants they appear to miss the big picture.

The moral challenge should be brought upon the board before they continue this fight. Finally, with the election of Nathan Foeller, Lehighton has a chance of ending the waste, preventing further waste and ultimately state receivership.

Sincerely,

Citizen David F. Bradley Sr.

I am sick and tired of the "God Complex". This is taxpayer money here. To be clear the "God Complex" has nothing to do with religion. A god complex is an unshakable belief characterized by consistently inflated feelings of personal ability privilege or infallibility A person (or organization) with a god complex may refuse to admit the possibility of error or failure even in the face of complex or intractable problems or difficult or impossible tasks or may regard personal opinions as unquestionably correct .The individual (or organization) may disregard the rules of society and require special consideration or privileges.
An employee has the right to privacy when it relates to an HR issue with their employer. While this is in an investigation stage the report should not be released. If it is determined that a crime was committed, then all of this will come out. It sounds like the district is in an investigative process and we should allow that to happen.
It’s comes down to this: members of the school board, and certain staff, wanted to live a certain lifestyle that they couldn’t afford. So, they stole from the taxpayers, to fly first class and eat at nice restaurants.
I agree with all these comments however no one is stepping up to run against these board members to get them out except the corrupt ones that were voted out so its a swinging door of power hungry board members.
Thx Citizen David.
Looks like we need a SWAMP draining project in Carbon County.

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