Community college opens budget records after criticism

PENNSYLVANIA– A community college inPittsburgh is changing its tune after school administrators faced harshcriticism for refusing to follow the requirements of state open recordslaws.

Officials from the Community College of Allegheny County saidFriday that they will make the Pennsylvania Right To Know Law the standard forreleasing public information, although on May 22 the college had adopted acommunications policy that allowed several budget items to be withheld from themedia, according to anarticle in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The collegegets the majority of its funding from government sources.

HelenKaiser, acting executive director for communications and marketing at CCAC, saidthe college board of trustees had wanted to create a basic written policy forreleasing information to the public and had not meant to block all access tobudget reports. She said the budget was withheld only temporarily because itincluded information about employee downsizing, and college officials wanted toinform those employees first.

”There actually wound up beingsome confusion,” Kaiser said. ”The board never intended to concealfrom the public, they just want to spell outparameters.”

Kaiser said that although the Pennsylvania Rightto Know Law does not apply to community colleges, CCAC has decided to follow itsguidelines for releasing information. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided inthe 1996 case Community College ofPhiladelphia v. Brown that community colleges do not perform an”essential government function” and are therefore not covered by thestate’s open records laws.

”The college recognizes thatit receives a substantial amount of its funding from the public, and certainlythe public is interested and has a right to know how their dollars are beingspent,” Kaiser said.

Pennsylvania State Rep. John Maher,R-Upper St. Clair, said he plans to introduce legislation this summer that wouldexplicitly include community colleges within the Pennsylvania Right To Know Law.

Maher said his legislation also will look at some broader aspects ofthe state’s open records laws, including expanding the definition ofgovernment and public records. The legislation may also seek to remove a salestax that the state Department of Revenue charges journalists and otherresearchers for copies of government documents.

”I think oursystem of a democratic republic depends on the public’s ability tounderstand what government is doing,” Maher said. ”And just theprospect that someone in the public can look inspires better behavior amongthose who might be temptedotherwise.”