Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Deja Who?

updated 6/20/13 6:30 pm

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein, Ben Franklin or Mark Twain, none of whom were slouches in the intelligence department. I have to wonder, then, what the Methacton School Board is thinking in regard to some actions they’ve taken recently toward selecting a new permanent superintendent to replace the recently departed Timothy Quinn.
Quinn, you may recall, was hired back in 2008 amid suspicion that he was largely selected by the then-Board of School Directors because he would go along with controversial plans to construct Skyview, the school district’s now half-empty 5-6 school, which some residents believed was an unnecessary expense unsupported by declining enrollment.
The current school board has, by their own admission in a recent email, contracted with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) as consultants to assist with its search for a new superintendent. While it was an agenda item at the May 21 meeting, it was voted on together with several other expenditures with next to no discussion.
I’m sure there is a cost for this; PSBA’s website indicates this is a service they provide for a fee, and I found at least one other Pennsylvania school district which hired PSBA for the same service back in 2012 at a cost of $15,000.  (the copy of the contract I received indicated it will cost Methacton $12,200).
In conjunction with the work PSBA will do, Methacton plans to convene focus groups comprised of Lower Providence and Worcester Township residents to weigh in on this effort, help develop a “leadership profile” and assist with the decision as to whom the next superintendent will be.  In addition, the focus groups will be permitted to meet with each of the finalist candidates sometime in August and, presumably, offer their impressions and feedback.
However, some of the ‘residents’ proposed for this focus group are not your ordinary run-of-the-mill residents/taxpayers, but rather, three are past school board members, and four of the total group are the same people who hired Quinn in the first place. There are approximately 26,000 residents in Lower Providence and another 10,000 or so in Worcester Township. Surely among all these people Methacton could find residents that had no connection whatsoever to the disastrous hiring of Quinn!
Although there is no mention of this consulting arrangement or the focus group's meeting schedule on the Methacton School District website, the first meeting of these focus group participants is slated for Thursday night, June 20 at 7:30 pm at Farina Administration Center.
Among those receiving invitations to participate in the focus groups were:

·         Kyle Allebach – recent Methacton graduate and former candidate for school board; withdrew when not endorsed

·         Lisa Coupe – Eagleville Elementary Home & School

·         Yong Cho – Democrat candidate for school board

·         Brian Earnshaw – Republican candidate for school board

·         Jen Halfpenny – Audubon Elementary Home & School

·         Dana Leahan – Worcester resident, Arcola Home & School, treasurer, Methacton Wolverines football

·         Shawna Rondeau –  Skyview, Arcola Home & School

·         Aliza Zebrowski – Arrowhead Elementary, Arcola Home & School

·         Dan Sattler – former school board member 2004 through 2011

·         Joyce Petrauskus – current school board president, on school board when Quinn was hired

·         Marijane Barbone – former school board member 2002 to 2011 (president 2009 and 2010)

·         Jim Van Horn - – former school board member approximately 1995 to 2008 (some years served as president); litigation involving his 2008 physical altercation/confrontation/whatever we are calling it this week between himself and Worcester resident Jim Mollick over taping of a meeting is still underway and inching near trial.

Interestingly, there isn’t one senior citizen on these focus groups who could be considered as representative of the fixed-income senior residents in either township.  There also appears to be an invitation to a Woodland Home & School member but I couldn’t determine who that is.

Van Horn, Barbone, and Sattler, together with current board member and president Joyce Petrauskus, were part of the board that hired Quinn back in 2008. Whatever their other accomplishments may be, do we really want these folks helping to select the new superintendent? They ignored  easily available public information from residents at the time about Quinn’s checkered background and overrode any concerns they may have had to install Quinn….and we all know how that turned out. It’s been an expensive lesson, one that I'm giving a grade of 'F'.

You don’t have to be Einstein, Franklin or Twain to conclude that perhaps the input of former school board members who had a hand in hiring Quinn probably shouldn’t be involved this time around. I would hope these resourceful school board directors can find others to appoint so we can avoid flunking "Superintendent Search 101" yet again. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Money for Nothing And Chicks For Free

(updated 6-6-13 2pm)

Fox 29’s investigative reporter Jeff Cole has a reputation as something of a pitbull when it comes to rooting out wasteful spending, fraud and abuse within government agencies, city bureaus, and local municipalities. So, last week when he called asking to get my perspective on aspects of his follow-up to the story he broke last fall about the extramarital affair and inappropriate promotion scandal at Methacton, I agreed to speak with him. The piece, which aired this week (here) revealed the terms contained in the separation agreements of, and cost to investigate, recently departed Methacton superintendent Timothy Quinn and soon-to-be departing Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, Diane Barrie.
Cole showed me copies of the separation agreements for each, which he obtained via Right To Know requests, calling out several clauses of interest. In addition he showed me copies of the legal bills which gave the fees and costs incurred by the two law firms hired to conduct the investigation. I'll save you the trouble of requesting an RTK; you can view them here.
First, the clauses. The separation agreements were virtually identical;  both contained provisions in which the school board agreed ‘not to report’ the contents and findings of the investigative report to Pennsylvania state education and disciplinary officials. I’m not sure why, especially taking into consideration the significant legal expenses Methacton incurred to obtain the report, we would want to protect either of these two individuals’ careers. I get it that they have a right to make a living, preferably in their chosen fields; however, I suggested that perhaps it shouldn’t be in the public sector. These were both adults who made choices with known risks and consequences. Presumably they accepted those risks, one being that they may not be employable in their professions if anything went wrong.
Not only that, but the findings should be made public for other reasons. This investigation lasted 5 months. It doesn’t take 5 months to find and review merely sordid emails. The taxpayers deserve to know what else was going on…were expense accounts padded? Arguably school district property and resources were used.  It also goes to what kind of school board are we dealing with – what kind of oversight have they had? Why didn’t this come to their attention before a reporter uncovered it?  
Another concession Quinn and Barrie received was that Methacton agreed to issue them ‘neutral’ reference letters. Typically such a letter would include only the start and end dates of their employment, their titles, and their ending salaries. As above, I’m not sure why we taxpayers should care about protecting their careers when they themselves evidently didn’t. For example, If you were parents of children in the next school district that considers hiring Quinn, wouldn’t you want to know that in at least three other school districts, he has shown a propensity to spend school time and resources pursuing relationships with coworkers?
In a time when the tax dollars we use for education are stretched so thin, and the school district always wants to raise taxes, I think taxpayers want to feel a comfort level with how wisely those dollars are being spent and that school district employees will be fully focused on the education and welfare of our children. These days employers do their homework about potential employees on Facebook, Twitter, blogs etc. They expect to know what it is that they are getting into and what liabilities they may be taking on.
Second, the legal expense. In a time when the school district is again asking for a tax hike – the final percentage is still unknown at this time as a final budget will be adopted later this month - and Methacton is in the process of quietly negotiating a new teacher’s contract, Methacton spent a total of over $81,000 for the five-month investigation. $27,000 went to the firm of Dischell Bartle & Dooley, and $57,000 to the firm of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellot. All this money was spent on a report which will never be released publicly. In fact, because Quinn and Barrie opted to forgo formal due process hearings and instead resigned, I understand that the school board itself would not even have seen the contents of the report that cost so much.  
As for the $81,000 report itself, Cole put in a Right to Know Request to obtain a copy, which was denied by Methacton, and denied on appeal to the Office of Open Records. Reports such as the one that obviously contained damaging information that Quinn and Barrie hoped would never see the light of day are considered an exemption under the Open Records law. That’s a loophole that I think should be rectified in future revisions to that Law. Anything that costs taxpayers that much money should be available to them, especially when you consider the things we’ve cut out of the school district budget in recent years that this money could have been better spent helping to fund – buses for extracurricular activities, the T-1 program….and again, I get it that they preferred not to go through the discomfort and spectacle of hearings about their behavior, but that is a risk they were evidently comfortable taking.
It’s maddening when you realize all of this could have been prevented, twice. The 2008 Methacton School Board was warned by residents even before Quinn was hired that he had known baggage…. a record of doing this in two other PA school districts, per numerous articles available to even a casual researcher on the Internet, yet he was hired anyway.
The second time they could have prevented a major expense regarding Quinn occurred in 2010 when he asked for and got his contract renewed early. I spoke out against it at the time. Had we let the original contract run with no early renewal, by the time the scandal came out last fall, Methacton would then have been well positioned to potentially not even do an investigation, but simply give him 180 days’ notice that it was not renewing his original contract and thus wouldn’t have had to pay out anything to say ‘sayonara’.
Added to the legal costs were the payouts to each to close out their contracts through the end of this year, as negotiated. $21,000 in paid time off ( PTO) benefits were paid out to Quinn and just under $500 in PTO benefits to Barrie (she apparently didn’t have much vacation time left on the books). All in all, the total cost to part ways exceeds $100,000. In the case of Quinn, that amount could potentially have been virtually zero.
School board directors often lament that many budget items such as pensions, fuel costs and unfunded federal and state mandates are out of their control. Let’s hope that going forward, our school board directors – most of whom were not in their positions when Quinn was hired – will exercise  due diligence when considering candidates for Quinn’s permanent replacement, because the costs in this instance most certainly were within their control to avoid from the beginning.   


Sunday, June 2, 2013

Censorship In Lower Providence

(updated 6/22/13)

For me, one of the most fascinating parts of attending township or school board meetings is the ‘public comment’ section at the end.  It’s totally unscripted and often contains more drama than your average soap opera. In the past we have had everything from an obviously off-medication resident accusing the Board of being Communists and shouting slurs about township officials or employees, to residents angry with the Board over unpaved roads or unplowed snow, to individuals using the bully pulpit and the apparently irresistible draw of cameras, videotape and a microphone to push a personal political vendetta against someone.  You just never know who’s going to show up and what will happen.
The May 16, 2013 Board of Supervisors meeting was just such an occasion. Unfortunately, if you are viewing the tape of the meeting at home, you will not hear the same things that those attending in person did, because inconsistent with past practice, in the only instance this has ever occurred since taping of township meetings in LP was initiated, some comments were censored – deleted right off of the tape.  A digital version of the meeting can be found (here); the public comment section begins at marker 32:25.  The ones of particular interest to me begin at 52:30.
These comments also appear to indicate that an unelected resident may have inappropriately participated in private Board executive sessions.
What was said that was so offensive or incriminating, and who issued instructions to have those comments removed?
The individual whose comments were censored is resident Harold “Ted” Baird, whom I’ve written about previously, beginning at approximately marker 52:30. The deleted comments are at approximately markers 53:28, 60:34 to 60:46; 60:52, and 61:30.
As background, in March of this year, Baird lost the last of his court appeals of the 2010 Zoning Hearing Board decision regarding a commercial property adjacent to his. The ZHB decision regarding that property has been upheld multiple times by appellate courts. He is now out of options, by his own admission $125,000 poorer (58:24), and my understanding is that the Township, in parallel litigation against the same defendant, perhaps realizing it has thrown a lot of taxpayer money away on a lost cause (I’m still researching that tally) in their misguided attempt to fight their own ZHB’s decision over the past three years (a decision I was part of rendering, and a legal battle I believe was purely political as it was of no benefit to anyone other than Baird), Baird is understandably frustrated.  
Baird spends much of his on-camera time complaining about the amount of money he spent in pursuit of his appeals, and that the BOS isn’t doing anything to enforce alleged violations. I won’t get into the weeds as to the details and merits of the case at this time, as it’s not directly relevant for purposes of this post.

Sheridan mentions concern that Baird should be ‘careful of the choice of words’ and his use of ‘terminology’ he felt was inappropriate. However, no matter what is said, even if a resident goes so far as use curse words, I would argue that as a citizen, he has a right have his exact words become a part of the public record.
Who is Mike Sheridan, or the Board, for that matter, to decide whether something that’s said by a resident is ‘appropriate’ or not?

One point references township solicitor Mike Sheridan allegedly telling Baird that the lawsuits are over and they aren't going to do any more for him, which Sheridan then says is a 'mischaracterization' of what he said. Baird maintains that's essentially verbatim what he was told. I've maintained for some time that the Township was inappropriately helping this resident fight his legal battle for him, at taxpayer expense, but I guess the gravy train is over.
At another point Baird says “Rick, I know he’s your friend, but Mike Sheridan is incompetent”, accuses officials (who? The supervisors? The appellate judges? The LP Zoning Hearing Board? All of the above?) of being ‘in collusion’, that the ‘collusion is real’ (67:40) and then proceeds to provide a definition of the word. Despite all the court losses, in Baird’s world view, everyone else is wrong except him.
What I do know is that Sheridan and the Board can’t legitimately be worried about liability. At the beginning of every broadcast, a very clear disclaimer appears, holding the Township harmless for anything that any member of the public may say, so it’s really not up to LP to censor a citizen’s words from a public meeting. If you had been in attendance in person, you would have heard the comments as delivered by the citizen 
In any event, in censoring Baird's comments, the Board is being inconsistent. I’ve heard disparaging things about people uttered in public comment many times before, with no chastising of residents and certainly no post-meeting deletion from tape. For example, Tom Borai loves to take every chance he gets, whether in public comment at a BOS meeting or from the ZHB dias, to put me down and magnify whatever he dislikes about me, but nobody’s deleting any of those comments, are they?  So only residents deemed ‘friends of the Board” are protected?
My gut feeling is that Baird said things which were true and damaging to both Sheridan and Rick Brown, and creatively editing the tape is to protect themselves. In my opinion, that’s really the only reason to censor it.  I’m told an unedited version of this meeting exists and I am working to obtain a copy. Will they deny the request? I guess we’ll find out. (update: my request was denied by the Township, and I have filed an appeal with the PA Office of Open Records. I subsequently won the appeal and the tape).
Baird had previously been installed as the president of the nonprofit activist group that supervisor Rick Brown created in the 1980's, the Lower Providence Concerned Citizens Association (LPCCA), which worked hard behind the scenes to defeat my bid for supervisor in 2011. Having dispensed with me, perhaps Baird is no longer needed.
It must be tough to realize you may have been played for a fool, apparently misled about the chances of success in litigation, and potentially used by one or more of the supervisors to gain political advantage, and come away with nothing to show for it.  
Another potentially big revelation: Baird also references being in 'executive board meetings'. (marker 52:54 and 53:37)....has Baird been present in private, supervisor-only executive sessions?? If he’s not an elected official or employee of the Township, he cannot legally be involved in such discussions which are where legal and personnel issues are addressed privately between the supervisors and the subject matter is generally that which cannot be made public. But, it’s a real possibility, given that at the same time Baird was pursuing his zoning appeals, the Township was also (in my opinion, frivolously) trying to litigate against the same party on substantially the same issues.
After the uncomfortable comments by Baird, the tape ends abruptly after this and the Board immediately heads into executive session. Without Baird this time, presumably.
I’ve heard rumors for some time now that Baird was functioning as an unelected “sixth supervisor”. Based on Baird’s comments in this meeting, maybe there was something to those rumors after all.

In the meantime, perhaps future Board meetings will be equally enlightening. Public comment is important to the principles of freedom and is perhaps the most important part of a public meeting; a public Board ought to realize that.