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Charter school appeals to block release of records

The Chester Community Charter School has filed a court appeal to a recent Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruling that gave The Inquirer access to a wide range of financial records from the management company that operates the school.

The Chester Community Charter School has filed a court appeal to a recent Pennsylvania Office of Open Records ruling that gave The Inquirer access to a wide range of financial records from the management company that operates the school.

The Delaware County school, the state's largest charter, and Charter School Management Inc., a private, for-profit management company, have repeatedly denied requests by the newspaper for details about how millions of dollars in public money were spent and how much the company and its owner, Vahan H. Gureghian, were making.

Because Charter School Management Inc. is a private business that hires all school employees and manages the school's finances, it has been able to keep many aspects of its financial operations secret, in contrast to most charters, which have to disclose more information in nonprofit reports.

'Trade secret'

Randi J. Vladimer, an attorney representing the charter school, said in the appeal, filed Monday in Delaware County Common Pleas Court, that the management company's records were not covered by the Right to Know Law because it was a private business.

She also argued that the Office of Open Records made a technical error in the timing of its decision that invalidated it. Further, she said the records were a "trade secret or confidential information" that could hurt the management company's competitive position if disclosed.

Vladimer declined further comment.

Last month, the Office of Open Records granted a Right to Know Law request filed with the school by The Inquirer in January for salaries and other payments to employees of Charter School Management Inc. from 1998 to the present.

The board ruled that since the management company "has contracted with the charter school to provide what is otherwise a governmental function," the "records it maintains in performance of or directly related to that function are public records and must be provided."

Scott K. Baker, general counsel for Philadelphia Media Holdings, said that the Inquirer's Right to Know request was a "valid" one and the paper "will continue to vigorously pursue disclosure of records that . . . should be in the public domain."

In January, Gureghian, an attorney and GOP fund-raiser who sits of the board of the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, filed a defamation suit against The Inquirer following the publication of an article about Chester Community Charter.

The article cited state records showing that Gureghian's company had been paid $60.6 million in public funds since 1999. Those records show that the portion of the school's expenditures going to business and administration was consistently among the highest for Pennsylvania charter schools, and its spending percentage on instruction was among the lowest.

The suit alleged that failed business talks between Gureghian and Inquirer publisher Brian P. Tierney motivated that and other articles late last year.

Baker called the suit baseless and denied that Tierney had been in negotiations regarding a business transaction. Inquirer editor William K. Marimow defended the paper's coverage and said Tierney had no involvement in the stories.

In February, The Inquirer's parent company, Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., filed for bankruptcy. In April, U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Jean K. Fitzsimon agreed to suspend several lawsuits against the newspaper, including Gureghian's, pending resolution of the bankruptcy case. Her order halted the legal discovery process in the case.

Vladimer said in her court filing this week that since The Inquirer's Right to Know request asked for some of the same information the paper's attorneys had sought before the lawsuit was suspended, the request was "a blatant and improper attempt to circumvent" the judge's ban on discovery.

In a separate filing with the Bankruptcy Court last week, Gureghian attorney Edmond M. George said that in its continuing coverage of the school, the newspaper has persisted in portraying Gureghian and the management company "in a false and misleading light."

A motion rejected

George did not respond to a request for comment.

George sought "an injunction against further defamation and disparagement," asking the judge to order the paper "to refrain from public comments" about Gureghian, the charter school or his management company until the defamation lawsuit was resolved.

His motion was rejected. Baker, the Philadelphia Media Holdings counsel, said: "This is just one more case of attempted prior restraint by the Gureghians and their lawyers and was rightly denied by the court. As Judge Fitzsimon has clearly stated, she is not going to prevent or otherwise enjoin reporters from reporting. Reporting on how government dollars are used to educate the Commonwealth's children is clearly a matter of public importance and . . . we will continue to support our reporters on these matters."