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Penn State, other schools cautious on disclosure rules

Pennsylvania State University and three other state-related schools reacted cautiously as legislation with bipartisan support was introduced Monday in the state House to bring those campuses fully under the Right-to-Know Law.

Pennsylvania State University and three other state-related schools reacted cautiously as legislation with bipartisan support was introduced Monday in the state House to bring those campuses fully under the Right-to-Know Law.

The bill from State Rep. Eugene DePasquale (D., York) has 34 Democratic and Republican cosigners.

That bill and a soon-to-be-introduced Senate version may portend a fight pitting those schools, which long have enjoyed an exemption rare among public universities, against lawmakers who in growing numbers say taxpayers have a right to know how those schools spend their money.

A similar effort to bring Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, and Temple and Lincoln Universities fully under disclosure rules failed in the months before the law's latest incarnation took effect in January 2009.

Penn State's handling of child sex-assault allegations involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky has renewed interest in what those schools must disclose, though DePasquale said his interest goes beyond the scandal.

In recent weeks, he has pointed to the half-billion dollars in state funds the four schools receive each year as reasons that they should be treated no differently than the 14 state-owned universities, community colleges, or public school districts - all covered fully by the law.

"The main driver for me is the money," he said. "The state puts significant amounts of financial resources into them, as does the federal government."

DePasquale's House Bill 2051 would amend the definition of commonwealth agencies covered by the law to include "state-related" institutions.

State Sen. John Blake (D., Lackawanna) has expressed similar sentiments. His bill is expected to be introduced by month's end, said Luc Miron, his chief of staff.

Agencies fully covered by the law must detail spending practices, including, among other items, contracts, vendor agreements, individual employee compensation data, and spending receipts for such activities as travel, dining, and entertainment. But the state-related schools need only provide data found on the federal IRS form 990 and a list of the 25 highest salaried employees.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported last week that Penn State denied the newspaper's request under Right-to-Know for records, bills, and contracts related to the Sandusky investigation as well as copies of the separation agreements with football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired, and former president Graham Spanier, who resigned.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Monday her school "fully agrees with the need for strict fiscal accountability" and already supplies data including academic and administrative budgets and median and mean salaries on campus. In 2007, Spanier testified against his school being brought fully under the law, citing among other concerns that release of data including individual salary information could make it harder for his school to compete for and retain talent.

"If the legislature revisits this issue, we will revisit it with them and have similar discussions about things we think should be considered," Powers said.

Temple has "clearly heard what the concerns of legislators are. We look forward to seeing the legislation," said school spokesman Ray Betzner.

Cherie Amoore, a Lincoln University spokeswoman, said her school had questions, though she declined to identify them, saying school trustees had not yet discussed the matter.

Amoore said legislators' interest in expanding the law was "understandable" given the Penn State revelations, adding: "We don't have anything to hide at Lincoln University."

Pitt officials declined to comment.

Michelle Fryling, a spokeswoman for Indiana University of Pennsylvania, the largest of the 14 state-owned universities, said that if adhering to the Right-to-Know Law had made it harder to keep or retain faculty, such concerns were news to her. She served for six years as the school's right-to-know officer.

"I'm not trying to minimize the concerns voiced by the state-related [schools], but it has never been brought to my attention that there has been an issue," she said.

Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said her organization supported full inclusion of the state-related schools when the law was last revised. She said worries about keeping such data as pay records secret from competitors should be secondary to the concept of disclosure.

"If you're going to take public money, along with that comes certain responsibilities, and that includes public access to your records," she said. "They can forgo the public funds if they want to be treated like a private university."