Community college opens budget records after criticism

PENNSYLVANIA -- A community college in Pittsburgh is changing its tune after school administrators faced harsh criticism for refusing to follow the requirements of state open records laws.

Officials from the Community College of Allegheny County said Friday that they will make the Pennsylvania Right To Know Law the standard for releasing public information, although on May 22 the college had adopted a communications policy that allowed several budget items to be withheld from the media, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The college gets the majority of its funding from government sources.

Helen Kaiser, acting executive director for communications and marketing at CCAC, said the college board of trustees had wanted to create a basic written policy for releasing information to the public and had not meant to block all access to budget reports. She said the budget was withheld only temporarily because it included information about employee downsizing, and college officials wanted to inform those employees first.

''There actually wound up being some confusion,'' Kaiser said. ''The board never intended to conceal from the public, they just want to spell out parameters.''

Kaiser said that although the Pennsylvania Right to Know Law does not apply to community colleges, CCAC has decided to follow its guidelines for releasing information. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided in the 1996 case Community College of Philadelphia v. Brown that community colleges do not perform an ''essential government function'' and are therefore not covered by the state's open records laws.

''The college recognizes that it receives a substantial amount of its funding from the public, and certainly the public is interested and has a right to know how their dollars are being spent,'' Kaiser said.

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

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

''I think our system of a democratic republic depends on the public's ability to understand what government is doing,'' Maher said. ''And just the prospect that someone in the public can look inspires better behavior among those who might be tempted otherwise.''

Community College of Allegheny County, news, Pennsylvania