Open records request reveals board member emails

Emails exchanged among Montoursville Area School Board members reveal one school director’s belief he was coerced into voting in favor of a particular candidate to fill a vacant board seat earlier this year.

Joshua Young, of Montoursville, initially requested from the school district all emails received and all responses by school director Karen Wright from and to other board members through May 25.

Wright assumed the vacant board seat in April after five of eight board members, including Robert Logue, the subject of the coercion issue, voted in favor of her appointment. Also voting for Wright were Ronald Snell, William McCleary, George Hagemeyer and Denise Johns. Voting against Wright’s appointment were Jennifer Marriott, Scott Konkle and William Ruffing.

Seven of the emails recently were released to Young through the state’s Office of Open Records after earlier requests to obtain electronic correspondence among the board members through the school district were denied.

The emails reveal various other issues discussed among board members, school officials and others including communication involving the high school building project, the report of a gun brought to a school board meeting and hiring security for the meetings.

Wright’s appointment to the board caused a storm in the district because of comments she posted on Facebook that allegedly disparaged homosexuals and Muslims.

She later apologized for the remarks.

In an email dated April 28 sent by Logue to Wright, Logue writes: “Karen, you asked me if I was being coerced into voting for you —  yes I was —  Denise told me that her and George and possibly Bill McCleary would quit if I didn’t vote for you. That is coercion. I know you as a good hearted —  God fearing —  hard working person. But because of my vote we now will have gay and lesbian speakers and Muslim groups at the next meeting again. Going forward we will be preoccupied with this extraneous background noise. How will we be able to conduct business? The path that Ron is taking us down is wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars. I thought that you could be an independent thinker but I now realize that you will vote however Ron and Denise tell you to.”

The email followed two earlier emails between the two in which Logue asked Wright to consider resigning from the board given its “precarious position” and the blame pointed toward members perceived as responsible for problems and delays with the building project and the sudden resignations of key school district administrators.

In an April 22 email, Logue writes: “Please take my word for it that you will do yourself a favor by waiting to get elected by the public at large.”

Wright responded with her own email three days later: “I have thought about your email over the weekend. What do you mean ‘I will do myself a favor?’ Is something going to happen to me that you know? It is bad enough to have to be attacked from outside people, but I thought I could count on you for support.   When fellow board members attack each other, that just emboldens others to further threats. If you are being coerced or intimidated, perhaps you should resign.”

Young said his whole point in requesting the emails was to have district officials admit there had been some kind of  coercion “in hopes they would do something about it.”

He said other concerned residents joined him in seeking to obtain the emails.

“I don’t have any plans on pursuing any additional information at this point,” he said.

Montoursville Superintendent Christina Bason, who was hired to lead the district this summer, said despite earlier appeals to keep the information from being released, it was decided finally to release the information.

“When information came back from Open Records, the board reivewed it and felt they didn’t want to appeal,” she said.

Wright also had been asked to resign by Tom McNamara, who served on the board and as its president up until December 2015.

In an email from McNamara to Wright dated April 28, he revealed he told board President Ron Snell that she should step down.

“When I talked to Mr. Snell I made no disparaging comments toward you,” McNamara writes. “I didn’t comment on your character. I didn’t tell him that I thought you were a bigot. I just simply stated to him that I thought things were getting out of control in Montoursville and offered my assistance in helping to calm things down. I have not reached out to any outside groups because I felt Montoursville should handle the issue on their own. Unfortunately, outside groups are coming in.”

McNamara asks Wright not only to resign but also for her and the board members who voted her onto the board to apologize.

Another email sent April 13 by board member Denise Johns to Wright and other board members as well as then-Superintendent Dr. Timothy Bowers expresses the need for enhanced security at board meetings.

That email followed an earlier email from Bowers that someone at the previous night’s board meeting reported seeing “a person in attendance with a hand gun.” Bowers said police were investigating the situation and any information he was allowed to share would be forwarded to the board.

Bowers later acknowledged to the Sun-Gazette that the gun incident was being investigated.

Yet another email sent by Johns on April 20 briefly sums up the search for a superintendent to lead the district.

A single name being considered for the position is redacted three times in the email.

The position became open with the resignation of Bowers in the spring.

Johns wrote that while she was not sure the person was the best candidate, “his qualifications are impressive. I like his letter showing to take on the challenge of bringing our community together.”

Young questioned why the name was blacked out on the email.

Bason said it was her understanding that such information related to employment is exempt from the Open Records law. However, she said is trying to learn once and for all from the state Office of Open Records if that is the case.

She said the district will do its best to be transparent.