CHAMBERSBURG — A 13-year-old girl has won an open records battle with Chambersburg Area School District, where officials questioned whether she was old enough to file a Right-to-Know Law request.
The state Office of Open Records overruled the district Monday and upheld Savannah Gibson’s request for financial information involving its former after-school dance program.
The program was run by a man who operates a similar program in which Gibson participates at Susquenita Middle School, which is in a separate district near Harrisburg, the Public Opinion newspaper reported.
“It was worth all the stressful thinking and figuring out what to say,” Gibson told the Chambersburg newspaper, referring to her two-month fight to obtain the records. “It was worth it in the end. I’m glad I can get the paperwork.”
The Chambersburg district rejected Gibson’s request on grounds that it was unreasonably burdensome because it duplicated requests by numerous other supporters of the dance instructor, who has sued the district in federal court alleging breach of contract, trademark infringement and other issues.
In rejecting the request, the district noted that Gibson is a minor and reserved the right to make the case that she was too young to request public records — a point the open-records office explicitly rejected.
It said the law defines a requester only as a resident of the United States who files a request under the law.
“Age is not a barrier to filing a request,” J. Chadwick Schnee, the agency’s assistant chief counsel, said in his ruling.
Assistant Superintendent Eric Michael said Tuesday that the school district’s lawyers raised the issue to find out whether there’s an age limit.
“We wanted to know what the parameters” are, he said.
Schnee said his office encourages government agencies and requesters to resolve their differences amicably instead of invoking the formal process established by the Right-to-Know Law.
“The district had an opportunity for open dialogue with a middle school student. Instead, the district’s legal department chose to deny a legitimate request, citing her age, and electing to ‘warn’ the requester of possible legal fees if she pursued her legal right to an appeal,” Schnee wrote. “At a minimum, such a course of action undermines the spirit of the law.”
As revised in 2009, the law creates a legal presumption that government records are public and requires officials seeking to withhold them to prove that the records are exempt from disclosure.
“It’s a straight legal analysis — ‘is it a public record?’ ” said Terry Mutchler, executive director of the open-records office.