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Emails Reveal Private Tour, Internal School Board Conversations As Stoneleigh Gardens Controversy Continues

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Those set on preserving Stoneleigh Gardens versus the Lower Merion School District: It was a boil over this spring that has since simmered in the quiet summer months

But a final decision has yet to be made on the Main Line property that school officials identified in April for possible seizure under eminent domain. The announcement came at the same time the Gardens opened to the public and whipped up a firestorm.

"The Lower Merion School District still hasn't taken Stoneleigh off the table and until and unless they do so, it's still at risk," said Oliver Bass, who is with Natural Lands, the non-profit organization responsible for preserving Stoneleigh.

On June 18, CBS3 filed an open records request with the Lower Merion School District for all emails about Stoneleigh between the superintendent and school board. A month later, the district responded.

It's unknown how many emails traveled back and forth, but Lower Merion decided to keep virtually all of the electronic correspondence secret, based on attorney-client privilege and a real estate exemption, the denial read.

"Any time in the USA when we hear of government taking property, it strikes right at the core of our fundamental principles."

Terry Mutchler, former head of Pennsylvania's Open Records Office and a national transparency lawyer said Lower Merion has an obligation to be open — especially given the Stoneleigh uproar.

"I would think the district would want to be more in the sunshine than behind the curtain on this," Mutchler said.


The Open Records Request, which sought emails from January 1 through June 18, did trigger some email:

• Forwards from board members about saving Stoneleigh. Board President Melissa R. Gilbert wrote in one forward: "I don't know where they got my email," referring to an email from Natural Lands.

 • Another email from the board secretary shows a heads-up from Superintendent Robert Copeland to board members that "Stoneleigh people will be starting a media buzz against the district...."

 • And then there was an email about a "private tour" or visit by the school board to the property.

CBS3 followed up with the district on that apparent visit.

A spokeswoman said, "The private tour did not include any board action or deliberation and therefore was not subject to Sunshine Laws," Amy Buckman, Director, School & Community Relations, wrote.

The district declined to go on camera and couldn't say how many board members attended the tour.

Buckman noted in an email asking if a majority of the board was present: "I don't know how many Board members accepted the invitation for the private tour of Stoneleigh, but '"quorum"' is a term that applies to meetings, and since no meeting was held, that's not a question that can be answered."

But legal experts say if a quorum or majority of the board was present, that could be a problem.

"Anytime you have a quorum or the board together and they're talking, you have a Sunshine Act issue," Mutchler said.

Meanwhile — the group that has so publicly tried to save this storied land from becoming athletic fields or a new school — won't be standing down.

"The reality is the threat is still there," Bass said. "The only acceptable outcome here is for them to take Stoneleigh off the table."

The Board had approved a sale agreement to acquire property at 1860 Montgomery Avenue.

Regarding a potential development of Stoneleigh, Buckman said: "The District has stated that eminent domain of any part of the Stoneleigh property would only be pursued as a last resort and the District continues to aggressively pursue other options for necessary field space for a new middle school."


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