Pottsville Area School District was ordered Monday to turn over business-related text messages from its estranged Superintendent Jeffrey Zwiebel.
Zwiebel was placed on an extended medical leave in July after frustrations grew with his job performance. In the interim, the school named Jared Gerace as Interim Superintendent.
Monday’s ruling from the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records is in response to a Right to Know Law request filed by taxpayer and former school board member Scott Thomas on June 4.
Pottsville Area Ordered to Turn Over Superintendent’s Text Messages
Thomas’ request pertains to any business-related text messages Zwiebel has on his business phone with Pottsville Area School District. The request sought messages from May 10-June 4, the day he filed the RTK request.
The state Office of Open Records (OOR) eventually granted Thomas’ request following an appeal from the school district.
On June 11, Pottsville Area responded to Thomas’ original RTK request saying the text messages he sought didn’t exist or they didn’t have them in their “possession, custody, or control.”
The next day, Thomas filed an appeal with OOR. At that point, the agency “invited both parties to supplement the record and directed the District to notify any third parties of their ability to participate in this appeal,” the OOR determination states.
Then, on June 23, Thomas submitted a position statement that challenged Pottsville on its stance that the records he wanted didn’t exist. Pottsville Area didn’t respond to the appeal.
From the OOR determination:
Section 708 of the RTKL places the burden of proof on the public body to demonstrate that a record is exempt from disclosure. 65 P.S. § 67.708(a)(1). In the present case, the District did not comply with the RTKL by providing any factual or legal support for its assertion that the requested records do not exist.
Based on the District’s failure to comply with the statutory requirements of the RTKL or provide any evidentiary basis in support of an exemption under the RTKL, the District did not meet its burden of proof under the RTKL. 65 P.S. § 67.305.3
Pottsville now has 30 days to respond to the OOR order. The school can appeal this decision at the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas.
We contacted Thomas to find the motivation for this RTK request. He says, “While Dr. Zwiebel is not acting in the role of Superintendent, he is still employed and his contract remains active with no plans as of yet to reject a renewal.”
Thomas believes that either Zwiebel deleted the texts he’s seeking via the RTK request or he’s just refusing to hand them over.
“Either scenario is not good,” Thomas says.
Earlier this year, while Zwiebel was still active as Superintendent at Pottsville Area, Thomas created a Facebook group and website challenging his administration and school board decisions being made recently. He hosted several popular Facebook Live broadcasts in which he tried to answer various questions from the public regarding the happenings at Pottsville Area.
Thomas lives in Clearwater, Fla., but still owns property in the district. The school district failed to read one of his questions or comments submitted during one of its first virtual school board meetings earlier this year, at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, Thomas has been on a veritable warpath aiming to expose any potential fraud or lack of transparency at Pottsville Area School District. He really focused in on Zwiebel and essentially put his social media page and site on hiatus when the school eventually voted to grant Zwiebel a medical leave that can extend to the end of his contract term next year and replace him with Gerace.
Thomas says, “Under (Zwiebel’s) leadership, he has led the most non transparent district or government organization I’ve ever dealt with. This is just one example.”pottsville right to know determination zwiebel text messages
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