School board continues its affront to electorate

But aggrieved taxpayers can – and should – continue pressure for change 

 By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

ChescoTKBSCol-250x300Entrenched members of the Coatesville Area School Board thumbed their noses at the community once again on Saturday by defiantly ignoring not only the sentiments that citizens voiced at meetings but the ones that they expressed at the ballot box.

Regrettably, the decision to embrace an 11th-hour candidate for the Region 1 vacancy surprised few. At this point, citizens have become accustomed to having their opinions trampled. One resident, Alain Foster, put it this way: “What you’ve done is riling the people up again. You keep kicking the dog.”

James Hills, a retired state police corporal who has been working in the schools as a mentor, might have been a stellar choice under different circumstances. But the situation facing the board demanded a different outcome – one consistent with democracy. Robert Beckershoff, the Republican who finished second to Deborah Thompson in the November election, deserved the opportunity to fill the seat vacated by the late Paul Johnson.

As numerous residents pointed out, Hills came out of nowhere. He did not place his name on the ballot, didn’t participate in forums, and didn’t canvass for votes, avoiding the process entirely. By his own admission, he hasn’t even attended board meetings, explaining:  “I knew with all this tension going on it wasn’t something that I wanted to be a part of.” His remark begs questions about what has changed, especially since this board appears committed to exacerbating the wounds left by the Richard Como administration, not healing them.

After hearing – or perhaps enduring – public comment that was united in endorsing Beckershoff, Neil Campbell, Jim Fox, Laurie Knecht, Rick Ritter, and Diane Brownfield all voted for Hills. Only the newly elected members of the board – Stu Deets, Kim Mammel, and Deborah Thompson – voted for Beckershoff.

Much more troubling than the outcome was the fact that the vote came with no explanation from the board, another distressing consistency. It’s unfortunate that other districts don’t have the benefit of, which has been videotaping the meetings. If CASD board members could watch meetings in neighboring districts – yes, those with lower millage and higher test scores – they would see that board members typically explain their votes and avoid displaying contempt for the public.

After Saturday’s debacle, two board members did deign to respond to some questions, but their answers did not exactly instill confidence that communications would improve anytime soon. Brownfield, who switched her vote to Hills without comment, acknowledged that she should speak up more.

“The established policy is not to discuss or even respond to the audience,” she said. She also suggested that the purchase of the Citadel building should have been handled more openly. However, when questioned further about both votes, she failed to offer much elucidation, repeating that it was time to move on because “the vote’s been taken.”

Knecht, whose disconnect with her constituency continues to widen, echoed remarks she has made previously: “The people don’t always know the whole story.” When exasperated residents suggested that was precisely part of the problem, Knecht added that she rejected Beckershoff because he has a financial background, which other board members have. “I was looking for someone with law enforcement background,” she said.

When residents countered that the troubled district could use as much financial expertise as possible, Knecht disagreed, insisting that the district’s finances are “improving”  – a contention that remains to be seen.

Hills claims to be an independent thinker, and for now, residents should give him the benefit of the doubt. If he is truly interested in moving the district forward, he will have myriad opportunities to prove it. Given the past actions of the board, residents had every right to be suspicious of his late entry into the fray. It’s now up to him to dispel their concerns.

In the meantime, aggrieved taxpayers have cause for hope – and an obligation to continue to exert pressure. Absent that, reform is  guaranteed to fail. The people who have benefited from the status quo are banking – in some cases, probably literally – on the fact that residents will tire of “banging their heads against a wall,” as one resident suggested. Those who want and deserve better have options beyond hoping that the District Attorney’s Office will clean house.

Two of the board members who enabled the Como regime – Campbell and Knecht – are Republican committee people, a position that offers substantial influence over school board elections; Campbell also serves on the GOP state committee. If they seek reelection, residents who mobilize and produce alternative candidates will have an opportunity to oppose them.

Some GOP sources have even suggested that newcomers would be welcomed: The adverse publicity generated by the CASD board does not reflect well on the Republican Party. As a result, it may be losing patience with the board’s embarrassing shenanigans.

During Saturday’s meeting, Campbell, Brownfield and Thompson all issued separate apologies for a tirade against a resident by former School Board Member Joe Dunn that occurred in mid-November. Thompson was not even on the board at the time, but Campbell and Brownfield both remained mute during Dunn’s rant.

The pair, as well as three of their colleagues, should also be expressing contrition for the way in which Johnson’s vacancy was filled. If they follow the same timetable, that would push the apology into mid-March: Mark your calendars.

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  1. hold them accountable says:

    Defeat knecht & campbell in the May primary. Filing deadline March 11th. Full instructions in the comments on
    Outraged? Let your voice be heard

  2. One of the things that will be on the agenda of the CASD board is Integrity Health care clinic for Coatesville School staff.

    The other Integrity Health clinic is in the Toms River School District.

    Toms River School District has had its scandals but one major difference between the Coatesville School District is that the former Toms River School District Supervisor Michael Ritacco is serving an 11 year prison term for bribery and tax evasion. That’s something that never happens in Chester County.
    MORE AT:
    FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2013
    Integrity Health, Coatesville School District’s new partner, has it’s other facility at Toms River. Toms River School District has had problems.

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