Editor’s Note: This interview aired live on the Rick Smith Show on October 31, 2011. You can access the original audio version by clicking on the Rick Smith Show Exclusive Interview image below.
[Rick Smith]: So, I got this article from the Delco Times…it tells the story of these high school kids who may finish their time but may not graduate because the teachers aren’t certified. And you go, “how is that possible?” How is it possible in this day and age with as many laid off teachers who are out there that we can’t get certified teachers into a school? That’s why I’ve asked Desire Grover a community organizer at Action United to come talk to us about this story.
I gotta tell you Desire, this is disturbing on so many levels, especially when we look what’s going on here in Harrisburg as they’re trying to gut public education and privatize it.
[Desire Grover]: Yes, you’re absolutely right. Thank you so much for having me on, Rick. We definitely appreciate it out here in Chester, Pennsylvania. We, too, are totally stupefied by what’s going on and we’re very concerned about what this level of incompetence means for out community. It’s to the point where we’re questioning whether or not this is just a matter of people mismanaging our school district or if this is something bigger. Is this about undermining our school district in order to charter it? Or, is this really about an incompetence issue? That’s pretty much the question for us.
[Rick Smith]: Well, I would say…I was looking at the article and it said that originally that school…I guess your school district was supposed to lose $20 million over last year?
[Desire Grover]: Yes.
[Rick Smith]: And I see Dominic Pileggi patted himself on the back, bringing $10 million back…Oh, that was great of him, you still lost $10 million in funding.
[Desire Grover]: Exactly. We’ve lost $10 million, we’ve lost teachers, and we’ve lost an opportunity to learn here in Chester.
[Rick Smith]: So, I look at this and I look at these 60 kids that are going to Chester Science and Discovery School and they may not…is this correct?…they may not have enough credits to graduate even though they show up everyday?
[Desire Grover]: Exactly. Yes, that’s very true. Some of them may end up with as little as 17 credits when they are actually supposed to receive 23 in order to graduate successfully.
[Rick Smith]: So, what’s the “ask” here? I mean the reality is that if you don’t have enough certified teachers, shouldn’t the school district be doing everything they can do to get them in? Maybe send some from somewhere else? Something?
[Desire Grover]: Well, you know, not too long ago the community was told–at the latest school board meeting–that we had found a new interim superintendent, his name is Levi Wingard. He is the new superintendent who is interim. The other superintendents, who are Joyce Wells and Dexter Davis, were then made inactive and are somehow still on payroll even though they are inactive and not reassigned.
[Rick Smith]: Well, of course they are…
[Desire Grover]: Now we have…right now…three persons who are on our school districts payroll who are being paid as superintendents, although two of them are not acting superintendents. So, you know, we would like to see two of those inactive superintendents either reassigned and have their salaries reduced so we can hire new teachers, or just removed altogether.
[Rick Smith]: Right. So, let me ask you…you guys had a demonstration outside of Pileggi’s office. Have you gotten any feedback from Dominic Pileggi?
[Desire Grover]: Well, we have heard kind of loosely from his secretary that he ‘s interested in talking with us. So, we just need to put in a formal request in order to apparently have that meeting with him. But, you know…The thing is, we would like for the District to move quickly and get teachers–certified teachers–into the district and for there to be a clear and official message to the Science and Discovery seniors on whether or not they’re going to be able to graduate successfully.
[Rick Smith]: And that’s the goal right there: make sure these 60 kids get the education that they deserve. But, the bigger question then becomes, “why is this being allowed to happen?”
[Desire Grover]: Exactly.
[Rick Smith]: My mind goes to…I’m seeing here in Harrisburg this movement to profitize and privatize public education. Is this an example of underfunding something so that it fails so you can go, “see look! This is failing. We need to bring in a for-profit charter school. Or, we need to bring in vouchers. Or, we need to do a whole bunch of different things all at once, except fixing the problem that you have in that school which is: you don’t have enough certified teachers.
[Desire Grover]: Exactly. And we do have our suspicions as to why our district is being under-minded in this way. Wanda Mann who is the president of the board does have a relationship…or a friendship with Dominic Pileggi, our Senator. And we do know…just connecting some of the dots here…we know that…I don’t know if you’ve heard of Vahan Gureghian…he owns the largest…one of the largest brick and mortar charters in Pennsylvania, which resides here in Chester City. That school has enrolled at least 2700 students, making it bigger than half the state’s districts. 54% of the kindergarten…I’m sorry…54% of kindergarten through eighth grade students in Chester Upland [School District] attend this school.
The reason why this matters is because this gentleman is also one of the largest individual contributors to Tom Corbett, who has received over the past three years about $330,000.
[Rick Smith]: Oh, say it isnt’ so! I mean the more you look at it the more you go, “don’t spit on me and tell me that it’s raining.” I mean at the end of the day, if it walks like a duck and quack like a duck, look it’s a duck! What’s happening here is…to me…it looks painfully obvious. They’re starving your school to death so that their donors…
[Desire Grover]: Yes, they can charter it, they can fully charter it. They know that parents are desperate and just want a stable school district, so they’re going to do what they can to find someplace where they can educate their child in a safe and reasonable environment. Right now, we do believe that there is an effort to undermine our school district.
Now, we still have work to do to connect all these dots, but we do believe there is evidence there.
[Rick Smith]: Look, I’m not against kids getting an education, I absolutely want that. And if it has to be in a private setting–if that’s what it comes to–fine, but don’t lie to me and say that, “well, look, the school’s failing so we have to have this.” Especially, if you’re doing your best to make sure that school fails. How many kids from this high school…this high school, this Chester Science and Discovery School have left to go to the other–to the charter school? How much revenue do you think has gone from one to the other?
[Desire Grover]: Well, to be honest, I’m not absolutely sure how many have left so far. But I have talked to, anecdotally, I’ve talk to some parents who are looking for other options because of the disruption.
[Rick Smith]: I know I would be!
[Desire Grover]: And you can understand. Our biggest argument is, whether your for or against chartering the school district, isn’t so much the issue as much as in the process of this supposed transition you really don’t have the right to destroy the future of an entire class.
[Rick Smith]: Here’s the thing, Desire, at the end of this…we are…what you are living through right now is the future of public education in the State of Pennsylvania if they get their way. What they’re doing to that public school, what they ‘re doing there is what we’re going to see in communities across this state.
So, the reason I so badly wanted for you come on and talk about this is that people need to see exactly what’s going on there. And you guys…the school can’t even get certified teachers in, they don;’t have the money to do it. Because to me, I gotta tell you, it comes down toe dollars and sense. If you don’t have enough money to bring in a certified teacher, you’ve got a problem.
[Desire Grover]: Right, exactly. I don’t understand why the state would even think that this is reasonable. I imagine that at some point…I would say this to other communities” If we allow this to happen to Chester City, it’s going to happen to you as well. There are people who are out there who want to make as much money as they can and they will do whatever it takes to make sure that they’re the one who monopolizes off of the problem. So, you know, they’re going to make problems in order to make money off of that problem. And, Chester right now has a problem and they’re trying to capitalize on it, and that’s what we believe.
[Rick Smith]: What bothers me as I look at these 60 kids. They are the victims of, of the casualties of a drilling fee…a drilling text that has not happened. A Delaware Loophole has not closed, tobacco tax that has not been put forward. Really, just a massive tax bread for corporations here in the state above and beyond the Delaware Loophole that’s gone up. These are the casualties…these 60 right here and I hope that there is something that can be done, I guess the question I have for you is: what do you want us to do? What can we do to help you? Is there something that folks can do?
Like I said, I think this is the future of education in the State of Pennsylvania. This is the deterioration process.
[Desire Grover]: Well you know Rick, right now what you’re doing helps tremendously. Just letting it out there, just getting the word out, make sure that other communities that are similar to Chester, understand that we need to put up a real fight. Other communities who may see themselves as not like Chester, you need to recognize that if you allow this to go on in Chester, it means they’re not going to stop here. The next line of defense is your home and your district. And so, we can’t let them get away with this.
Right now, we’re pushing hard against certain members of the school board that we no longer can trust. We no longer can trust our school board president, Wanda Mann, and we’re pushing for her to resign. The same with our school solicitor, Leo Hackett, he needs to resign. Joyce Wells the superintendent Esther Davis need to resign. So I would say to other communities who are struggling like us, push for that resignation. If you can’t trust them, they need to go.
[Rick Smith]: Last question I’ve got for you. I have to think that there’s gotta be some legal recourse that can go on. One of these 60 kids, suing the district for the failure to give him or her the opportunity at the education that our Constitution demands.
[Desire Grover]: Yeah, well you know that would be something that would be great. But we’re still trying to bring parents up to speed and empower them and get them to understand what steps they can take. We ourselves are trying to make sure that all of our ducks are in a row before we make any real big decision. We want to get this thing done right and make sure that this fight is as powerful as it can be on our end.
[Rick Smith]: Desire Grover, I appreciate you time. Community organizer at Action United. Tell us…Keep us informed of what’s going on if you would.
[Desire Grover]: Sure…awesome, awesome.
[Rick Smith]: I appreciate it. We’re going to follow this up as things go down the road, thank you so much.