In the Upper Darby School District, life doesn't just imitate art these days. It upstages it.

As the play Nice Work If You Can Get It ends its run this weekend at the district's Performing Arts Center, the Upper Darby school board finds itself deep in a drama that is steeped in mystery and shrouded in secrecy.

The plot so far: Richard F. Dunlap Jr. is on a paid leave of absence as district superintendent. But the school board has taken no formal action on Dunlap, according to Dana Spino, the district's manager of media services. Dunlap named Assistant Superintendent Daniel G. Nerilli acting superintendent, Spino told Inquirer reporter Kathy Boccella. Board President Judy Gentile has said that she is not going to discuss the situation, and Dunlap is not making himself available for comment.

Should all this be true, then Dunlap would have put himself on paid leave from his $194,866-a-year job in the cash-strapped district, which indeed would be "nice work if you can get it." And he also would have named his assistant to fill in for him. Both actions would normally require board approval, but the district holds fast to the line that there was no formal action.

The ubiquitous word formal raises this question: Did the board take some other kind of action - be it a telephone poll of members or a vote in executive session - without a formal vote at an official board meeting? Spino did not directly answer that. But the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act offers a useful frame of reference.

The law allows government agencies, school boards among them, to hold executive sessions to discuss such things as personnel issues, but any official action must come at a public, scheduled meeting of the board. The law states that business transacted at an executive session can be voided through successful legal challenges and provides for individual fines of at least $100 per voting board member.

The Upper Darby school board doesn't do itself, taxpayers, students, or parents any favors by stonewalling. If its intent is to protect the privacy of Dunlap, then it also succeeds in letting the rumor mill preempt its official communication channels. The obvious alternative would have been to vote on Dunlap's paid absence and Nerilli's appointment in a public session, but we're well past the point now.

Gentile has promised that "Everything will work itself out." But with school opening in less than a month and Spino saying there is no agenda item on Dunlap's status scheduled for the Aug. 16 school board meeting, this drama seems poised for a long and unseemly run that other Pennsylvania school districts will want to avoid.