Pottsville Area School District officials have 30 days to release emails from its estranged Superintendent, according to an order handed down Monday from Pennsylvania’s Office of Open Records.
The emails are sought by Scott Thomas, a former school board member turned watchdog who hosts a regular Facebook Live stream and manages a page on Facebook and his own blog site.
Thomas wants the emails of one of Pottsville Area’s school superintendents, Jeff Zwiebel.
Earlier this year, school board members at Pottsville Area granted Zwiebel an extended medical leave of absence in lieu of firing him before his contract expires in April 2021. The leave can last until the end of Zwiebel’s current contract.
Frustrations were mounting at Pottsville at the time of Zwiebel’s quasi-dismissal earlier this year between himself, the school board, and the teachers union. Thomas, since starting his online watchdog efforts this year, has played the role of thorn in the side of the district administration, specifically Zwiebel.
Despite being denied in part on his request, he said he understands why some emails must be redacted but believes, “This is a victory for the taxpayers of the Pottsville Area School District.”
Pottsville Area School District Ordered to Turn Over Estranged Superintendent’s Emails
Thomas filed a Right to Know request for Zwiebel’s emails on the Pottsville Area servers from April 21 through the present.
To his initial request, the school district asked for a slight extension and eventually released emails to Thomas. But Thomas said that many of the emails were completely blank or redacted and something didn’t add up.
“I receive these emails and they’re still incorrectly done,” Thomas said Monday night during a broadcast hosted on Facebook Live. “The school district and its board and its administration staff has failed in following the Right to Know process correctly and it is costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.”
So, Thomas appealed to the state’s Open Records office and his request on Monday was partly granted and partly denied.
The state denied Thomas from getting some emails that dealt with personal, personnel, and other matters deemed private or privileged.
In the OOR decision on Monday, Appeals Officer Jordan Davis writes that Pottsville Area must not redact entire emails.
“To the extent that subject lines and lists of email recipients do not contain exempt information, they should be provided even if the remainder of the email is exempt,” Davis writes.
OOR denied Thomas’ request in part because some emails, after being reviewed by Davis and OOR, contained information exempt from the Right to Know Law:
So, what does Thomas expect to find in these emails? In a Facebook Live stream on Monday evening, Thomas discussed the OOR decision and answered this very question.
Part of it was to see if Zwiebel discussed Thomas in the emails, especially since they were from a time when Thomas was peppering the school district with Right to Know requests and hosting his own pow-wows on social media which generated a lot of attention on their own.
“I don’t know,” Thomas wondered about the potential content of the emails he’ll get by late-December. “I believe that Dr. Zwiebel throughout his time and throughout my efforts has made it very clear that he wanted as little of a response to get to Right to Knows to me as possible,” Thomas said “I believe that is because of him. I was hoping that was in those emails.”
Thomas also hopes to see evidence of what he calls Zwiebel’s “vindictive” nature.
“He couldn’t go to the bathroom without asking permission from his attorney.”
What Thomas really hopes will come from this drawn-out process is improvements in the way Pottsville Area School District handles Right to Know requests in the future. He believes this arduous back-and-forth with the district is only costing taxpayers more money and could have been handled much quicker and cheaper.
Thomas said Monday night that constantly deferring to Pottsville Area’s attorneys is unnecessary and a hallmark of Zwiebel’s time as district Superintendent. He hopes the new administration, headed in the interim by Jared Gerace, will not follow Zwiebel’s lead on constantly turning to an attorney to make a decision.
“I think it comes down to being transparent. The fact that they’re spending this much time is just ludicrous. I will be requesting legal bills regarding this Right to Know.
“Dr. Zwiebel spent so much money on legal fees because he couldn’t go to the bathroom without asking permission from his attorney,” Thomas said. “I’m hoping Dr. Gerace doesn’t fall down that same rabbit hole.”
In another recent Right to Know request, Thomas sought text messages from Zwiebel’s district-issued iPhone. Zwiebel signed a sworn affidavit saying he didn’t have the texts because he routinely deleted them from his phone.
You can watch Thomas’ Facebook Live stream from Monday below:
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