Farrell HS

In this exterior view of Farrell High School, the school board meeting chambers are partially obscured to the building’s left.

FARRELL – Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker asked officials of the Farrell Area School District why he should not charge the district with a Sunshine Law violation after moving the meeting venue without notice.

Because of the change, a reporter from The Herald needed some luck to get into Monday’s school board meeting.

When approaching the locked door to the district office, the reporter happened to encounter a district employee who was being directed by a phone call to the cafeteria for the meeting. After winding through district grounds, they got in through a back door when the employee used her key card.

No one posted a sign on the district office door, and the move was not advertised. The district’s most recent legal advertisement in The Herald was published the previous month and stated that all board meetings would be in the board room at the district office.

“That’s a big problem,” said Melissa Melewsky, legal counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. “You shouldn’t have to be lucky to get into a public meeting.”

As of Thursday, The Herald received no word of a response from the district’s solicitor, attorney James Nevant. Several calls over three days made to Nevant were not returned.

Dan Dragicevic, a board member since 2020, said he has voiced concerns to the board over similar issues, and was ignored.

“When I had concerns, I brought them forward and was told that there is no issue of anything being illegal,” Dragicevic said. “Members of the board go behind my back and call me a liar. This shows I’m not a liar.”

Dragicevic said since he was continually ignored, he was forced to “take things to the next level.”

He filed a civil suit against the board in April alleging Sunshine Law violations in March and April 2020.

Dragicevic has previously served on other boards, including Farrell City Council.

“Things are so different and don’t sit well with me how they’re run at the school,” Dragicevic said.

The board disputes Dragicevic’s claims in the lawsuit.

Mercer County Common Pleas Judge Tedd C. Nesbit presided over a status conference Dec. 3 in the case. Dragicevic said he expects a decision by the end of May.

According to court records, the school district said it did not receive notice of the suit until Nov. 20, which did not give district officials enough time to present a defense.

The school district said Dragicevic’s claims are “factually untrue.”

“Provisions were made for public participation in the electronic off-site meeting due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and were legally posted and published,” the board said.

Dragicevic said that, in April 2020, board members and Superintendent Dr. Lora Adams-King discussed district business via text message, but that an active board member was excluded. Under the state’s Sunshine Act, all discussions of public business must be held in public if a majority of the panel’s elected officials are participating.

Nevant said the district does not have the technological capabilities to retrieve the board’s text communications.

The school board has requested that Nesbit dismiss the case and order Dragicevic to pay for the district’s attorney and court fees.

Dragicevic said he has also voiced concerns of a disconnect between the district and the community.

“There have been numerous times they have attempted to silence the public at meetings,” Dragicevic said. “A couple board members have had to fight to allow people to be heard.”

Dragicevic also noted that Monday was not the first time a board meeting was held behind locked doors, referring to a previous meeting in which a board member texted him from outside to be let into the boardroom.

Melewsky of the PNA said elected officials can’t block the public, including the media, from attending meetings.

“You can’t have a public meeting behind a locked door,” Melewsky said. “How many people showed up and weren’t fortunate enough to be there when an employee was there?”

Follow Melissa Klaric on twitter @HeraldKlaric or email her at mklaric@sharonherald.com

Follow Melissa Klaric on twitter @HeraldKlaric or email her at mklaric@sharonherald.com

Follow Melissa Klaric on twitter @HeraldKlaric or email her at mklaric@sharonherald.com

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Melissa has been a news reporter for The Herald since 2013, covering breaking news, northern Mercer County, Sharon City schools and education. She is a 1992 graduate of Youngstown State University with a Bachelor of Arts in communications.