CASD building purchase is a disaster waiting to happen

New admin office, clinic is wrong on so many levels for struggling district

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times
UTMikeColLogoLast night was quite the dog and pony show at the Coatesville Area School District Board of Education Finance and Personnel meeting.

Of course, we got the denial that the board had approved buying the Cumberland Insurance Building in Sadsbury for $3.45 million, but merely approved negotiations to purchase the building. Since it would appear that the price for the building is set, one wonders what the forthcoming negotiations are about — what snack to serve at the closing?

Then, of course, with a financially struggling district, we got the litany of reasons of why it must happen or the sky will fall, the old Benner Center is very expensive to operate, the district needs to get into the health-care business or it will see a $500,000 deficit next year in health care costs, the district can’t move capital and bond funds to pay for operating expenses and, this is my favorite: “it’s such a deal.”

To sum it up, one needs to drive south to a Kennett mushroom farm to find a stinkier, more putrid pile of manure.

There are so many wrong, misleading and downright disingenuous things that were said last night — based on the reporting of our Kyle Carrozza — it is difficult to know where to begin to help, uh, clear the air — sort of journalistic Fabreeze, if you will.

First on the our list of things Coatesville Area residents should know:

The building is currently owned by Cumberland Insurance Company. The Chief Operating Officer of Cumberland is Rick Ritter. Yes, the same Rick Ritter that is currently Vice President of the Board of Education and chair of the Finance Committee.

Now of course, it’s entirely possible this is a completely innocent fact. But, let’s be honest: it looks like hell. Common sense dictates that buying a building in a depressed real estate market from a member of the Board of Education is, at best, a tough pill to swallow. At worst, it’s going to have people calling for a criminal investigation.

So, that in and of itself should be reason enough of why this is a less than ideal move.

But, the hits keep on coming.

Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the district administration were to move out of Benner (we’ll conveniently forget the arguments for placing the school administration offices there in the first place, including accessibility to city residents who don’t drive).

Who is going to buy that building? In this economy, it’s a valid question.

Equally valid is to question the premise that Lincoln University — struggling with cuts in state funding itself — is going to be interested in buying the Gordon Education Center, as its Coatesville campus grows (assuming it does — while everyone is hopeful, no one knows if this will be a success or not). At best, that’s a maybe, and a pretty infirm basis on which to spend large amounts of money. Assuming that Lincoln University is going to buy Gordon (also old and expensive to operate) and that district offices there would move to Benner (which would still be old and expensive to operate) is pretty shaky reasoning.

If Lincoln wants no part of buying Gordon and no buyer for Benner is forthcoming — a very real possibility — is the district just going to abandon the building, or will it become an empty, cash-sucking white elephant?

And last night, when supporters of the district’s Air Force Junior ROTC program were struggling with the fact that there’s money to buy this building, but its supporters basically have to hold cake sales to try and keep a worthy program afloat, they were told the district can’t spend bond and capital fund money on operations.

This is true, to an extent. But, with smart financial management, as neighboring districts have done, savings on bonds, debt service and capital expenses can directly impact operating funds.

Under Act 1, by cutting debt service spending, there’s more room to pay for educational operation and stay under the index. If the $3.5 million is cash lying around from an unspent bond issue (and if so, that opens a whole new world of questions about the financial management of the district), refinance the current debt, pay it down, and reduce the debt service. That would mean more of the 3.6% tax hike capped by state law could go to things, like, I don’t know, education, instead of fancy, unneeded buildings.

So Tuesday night’s explanation was a bit like a dad coming home with a new car to his starving children and saying, “we don’t have any money in the food fund, so I had to buy this new car with the money in the car fund.”

And then there’s “it’s such a deal, argument.” Uh, no, it’s not.

The 37,000-square-foot building has an asking price of $3.9 million, which, based on the area and the local economy, would be a bit like me — were I single — holding out for a date with Christina Hendricks. It’s nice to have dreams and all, but, it ain’t going to happen, unless of course, you find a very gullible buyer.

And yes, I know of what I speak. My wife and I own property not far from there, and know first-hand what property pricing is like in the immediate area. While home prices are slowly starting to rebound in the region, commercial property prices remain very low and inventory very high. In short, there’s a glut of commercial properties built during the pre-2007 real estate bubble. And frankly, because of the noise from Carlson Aiport and Sikorsky Heliocopters, the area is somewhat less desirable than other properties in the district.

CASD is not getting a “deal.” One could argue that the district would be overpaying for the building at $3.45 million based on the current market conditions (which makes the whole thing with Ritter look even worse, for those of you keeping score at home).

And then, lastly, and potentially most disastrously: The school district thinks it’s a good idea to get into the health-care business?

As the spouse of a health-care provider, I know all too well how difficult, expensive and risky that is, even if you know what you’re doing — and likely will be a massive financial hemorrhage for the district and taxpayers.

If this were such a smart idea, why not partner with an existing health-care provider, such as Brandywine Hospital? Partnering with Integrity Healthcare is a bit like partnering with the local hardware store on a building project — they can staff the operation, granted, but running it and paying the freight to run it, including malpractice and liability insurance (which by itself for such a clinic might approach $500,000 a year) is another story entirely.

As planned, not only do I not see the district saving $500,000 in health-care costs, I think there’s a better than even chance of losing even more money, further hurting education.

So, yeah, residents, parents and taxpayers have some pretty good reasons to be furious — and it’s not, as some would claim, a media-manufactured controversy. The facts are the facts.

This would appear, on the surface, to be one of the worst ideas — for so many reasons — any school district in Chester County has considered in years.

Tough questions need to be asked in the coming weeks and real answers need to be forthcoming.

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  1. BrokeBuck Mountain says:

    THis very well may allow Collegium to take the public school system to a privatized and non-union establishment, where teachers are hired as “at-will” employees and absolutely MUST have the children’s best interests at hand or be fired. Their healthcare more aligns with a common Joe like me and the school continuously posts higher SAT and PSSA scores than Coatesville, although CASD would have you believe otherwise by wasting my taxpayer money printing and mailing letters to all Collegium families stating that we should give them a “second look” – there will be no day my son attends Coatesville High School.

  2. Concerned1 says:

    Donna, would you or others explain why buildings planned to be replaced get tabled yet again and the purchase of an administration building brought to the forefront? The current admin bldg. is in much better condition than Caln Elem., North or South Brandywine Middle Schools. At least that building has been renovated within the last 10-15 years.

  3. Do we need to wait until another whistleblower in the CASD willing to risk her occupation turns up or is there already enough to launch a criminal investigation? Will anyone move to Florida after the building is occupied by the school district?

  4. Donna says:


    I am a former board member who returned to work at the district after serving on the board. Here’s a few facts to consider based on your insuations that board members “profit” from their service:

    1) I worked for the district for 12 years prior to being elected to the board.
    2) I resigned from my paying district job to run for the board (an unpaid job) in an effort to make a difference for this district during some difficult times. I am proud by what we were able to accomplish during my tenure.
    3) I was elected to my position, twice, and did not run for re-election for a third time. I did not resign from the board.
    3) I applied for my current job eight months after leaving the board. The position became available due to retirement of another employee. The position was not “created” for me and I had previous experience in the field.

    I make no apologies for returning to work in the district. I have been involved here as a parent, employee, board member and taxpayer for well over 20 years. I continue to try and make a difference in what I do, every day.

    It’s easy to sit back and make assertions without having to be accountable for your words. It’s also easy to complain about how things are and not be willing to take an active role to make a difference.

    • Sarah says:

      So if the Board is so dedicated to making CASD a better district, why is Como suddenly retiring? CASD does not have our kids as there number 1 priority it seems. Now the cover up begins! Nobody knew what was going on right? Same old crap from CASD!

  5. John says:

    This Is SOP for this administration. Ritter has gotten his daughter a job, his company had their hands in the district switching health insurance. Other board members have gotten jobs soon after resigning from the board. Still others have gotten friends jobs. I wonder if this was all payback for a superintendent’s son getting approved for a $60,000 a year job for which he had no training or past experience with. I also heard that we bought buses for our football (and others?)team to travel comfortably to games. Where else does a super stand on the sidelines and “help” the coaches. May his past as a football coach shows his real priorities. What about our kids and their education.

    • Bill McAdoo says:

      wow, how people will jump to conclusions to soil someone’s character. i just got on this site and now understand why Mr. Ritter feels the way he does. For those of you uninformed people Cumberland Insurance is a PROPERTY AND CASUALTY company. They don’t do health insurance. And furthermore, if you would read the minutes or ask other board members of CASD or Cumberland Ins you would know that Mr. Ritter recused himself of all conversations concerning the building in question. Mr. Ritter has the highest level of integrity of any person i have met. Before impuning someone’s integrity and character DO YOUR HOMEWORK !!

      • Donna says:

        Bravo, Bill. I served with Rick and agree, he is not one to involve himself in anything unethical and clearly would recuse himeself or abstain from any vote that even remotely looked like a conflict of interest.

  6. C D Boyd says:

    I wonder if the Coatesville Area School District is aware that the health care industry is on the verge of change come 2014. My questions are:
    1) How will the unknown and known changes in the health care industry impact the cost of operating the new health care business?
    2) How will the unknown and known changes affect the success of this new business venture?
    3) Has anyone conducted a cost analysis? Especially since:
    A) The health care industry is in the midst of change.
    B) Lancaster General’s new health care facility opens in October here in Chester County just a few miles west of the Cumberland building in Parkesburg.
    C) How is the CASD prepared to enter this business arena with the uncertainty of the upcoming changes in the health care industry?
    4) Who will oversee the operations of this health care facility? Rick Ritter? Isn’t Rick Ritter’s involvement a conflict of interest?
    5) How much will it cost the district to hire an expert in this career field?
    6) What type of health care business will this operation consist of? Will local residents be hired? Will Coatesville school district employees have only one option for health care? Is this operation for the purpose of providing health care options for the employees of the CASD? Doesn’t the state provide health care for the employees?
    7) Shouldn’t the school district focus on the business of providing a globally sound education for our children?
    It appears the school board members and Finance Committee:
    1) Have forgetting why they are there and for whom they serve.
    2) Have forgotten the taxpayers are who pays the bills and for whom they serve.
    3) Have forgotten the CHILDREN’S EDUCATION IS most IMPORTANT
    It appears the only certainty here is
    1) Rick Ritter’s conflict of interest
    2) The lack of interest to provide our students a valued, exceptional or at best a quality education that will prepare them to be globally competitive.
    Who is looking out for the best EDUCATIONAL interest of our students? How many of the board members including the Finance Committee:
    1) Have children or grandchildren in the CASD?
    2) Are in position for their own agenda?
    3) Have and will gain financially from serving on the CASD board?

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