My name is Colleen, and I haven’t been brave. I haven’t spoken out the way I know I am capable of, because I was afraid of the ramifications. I’ve seen institutional failings and I haven’t done enough to stop them. Today, that changes, and I hope that you can help me by spreading the word about some of the things I am about to tell you. The safety of teachers and children depend on it.
I am a member of the Upper Darby community, a very diverse suburb outside of West Philadelphia. We’ve faced many challenges, especially in our schools; but until recently, we had so much to make our community proud. We have a nationally ranked music program, a stellar engineering and robotics team, high-ranking students in the Future Business Leaders of America, artistic prodigies, and handfuls of students who go on to Ivy League educations in business, law, medicine, the sciences, and creative fields. The Upper Darby School District, in which I spent 13 years of my life, accomplished all of this on very little. With no education funding formula in Pennsylvania, communities like Upper Darby all across the Commonwealth, rely largely on local property taxes to keep services running, while other school districts a few miles down the road construct new football stadiums and buy Ipads for their kindergarteners. We Upper Darbians don’t complain, and we don’t just survive. We thrive.
Over the past few years, things have gotten infinitely tougher. Governor Corbett and the state legislature have slashed funding by almost $1 billion, reduced reimbursements for charter schools, and have completely abandoned any attempts to institute a funding formula for public schools – something that 47 other states have. Sequestration cuts by Congress have tightened the collective belt even more, and decades of unfunded Congressional mandates for special education have made it impossible to serve both the general population of students and special education students’ needs that are real and valid.
There is plenty of blame to go around between our state and federal government, but that isn’t what I need to talk about today. Thousands of articles have already been written about the radical state and federal cuts made to public school budgets and the challenges these policies create. Today, I want to talk about the absolute corruption that has been deemed acceptable in my hometown since before I was even born, and how our acceptance of this has put the lives of children and teachers at risk for no valid reason.
My involvement in the fight for Upper Darby School District originated from Brad Schoener, a music teacher from UDSD whose passion inspired thousands upon thousands, and whose death in 2009 left many, many hearts heavy and void of hope. My colleagues and I fought to create a legacy for him and in 2012, when budget cuts threatened the existence and longevity of music programs he loved more than anything in the world, something inside me snapped.
Even though this had not been the first year that UDSD had faced drastic budget cuts, it was the first time I felt moved to act – to do more than just complain to friends and family. Upper Darby SD administrators proposed a budget that would eliminate art, music, library, and physical education programs from all elementary schools and would eliminate technology and foreign language programs from all middle schools. After the districts initial budget presentation, a second presentation was made by Assistant Superintendent Dan McGarry, making the case for an “academic realignment”. This was necessary because in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is against the law to furlough teachers for economic reasons. In other words, Governor Corbett’s cuts would go through, but teachers could not be furloughed based on these cuts, so it was up to the school district to come up with a curricular reason why these programs would not be necessary to students. Since these programs have been the corner-stone of the Upper Darby community’s success since their creation, it was pretty much an impossible task.
It was disconcerting, to say the least, to see how opposed UDSD administrators and school board members were to speaking out against the cuts to public education and the political players who caused them, or frankly, doing anything at all to stop the cuts. Not a single school board member came to Harrisburg to lobby the state legislature for more funding with my organization, and only one administrator came with community members after he was publicly shamed into doing so. Regardless, we moved forward. After the work of thousands within our community, not to mention thousands upon thousands of alumni, friends, and other public education supporters across the country and around the world, we were able to restore $2.7 million to UDSD which saved music, art, physical education, technology, and foreign language programs that had been under threat. This funding, and the additional funding our efforts brought in the following year greatly reduced the severity of the local property tax increase for Upper Darby homeowners. Despite that, administrators and school board members did everything they could to demonize community members. Our library programs could not be saved with the money that was retrieved, and today, there are only three librarians for over 12,000 students in the district.
I learned early in September 2012, just mere weeks after our lobbying efforts, that it was all for nothing. The Academic Realignment proposal was to continue, regardless of the additional funds, and regardless of the fact that teachers had been rehired to teach these subjects. That was when I inferred (incorrectly) that a secondary reason for this proposal was lagging test scores in the school district, thanks to reduced resources. I thought they were just increasing math and reading instructional time by sacrificing other valuable programs. UDSD administrators implemented what they claimed to be an “arts integration” curriculum, an educational technique that is actually largely effective and incredibly popular, when done correctly. This version, unfortunately, was a shoddy, un-researched product, thrown together after the unexpected funds had come back from Harrisburg. I realized, too late, that the only reason that the school district was so latched onto this idea was because if they abandoned it after receiving additional funds it would prove that the layoffs were indeed for economic reasons, not for the sake of the students. It would open them up to lawsuits. So for an entire school year, students continued to suffer from a lack of true arts programs, despite our efforts, just to prove a legal point and protect the reputations and liabilities of a few school district administrators.
Throughout the fall months of 2012, we received notice after notice of charter school applicants coming into the area. Putting aside my personal opinions on charter schools, after all the work my community had put into restoring funding to the school district, this was disastrous news for us all. I investigated further, and the Delco Community Charter School, proposed by a gentleman named Timothy Sager, who had already been turned down in Montgomery County, PA, had some inappropriate business connections. Francis Catania’s real estate company owned the property they wished to lease, and Catania also served as the solicitor for UDSD, making him effectively the only legal advocate to challenge the application on behalf of the taxpayer.1 23 He never recused himself. When I brought up his involvement at a school board meeting, he denied a conflict of interest repeatedly and berated me on stage for even asking the question, even though I was prepared with publicly available documents proving otherwise.
It is the school board’s legal responsibility to ensure that these conflicts do not occur, and when they do exist, that proper measures are taken to eliminate them or disclose them to the public. Only after I refused to leave the stage and questioned Catania for a solid 10 minutes, did he later miraculously recuse himself, behind closed doors. He still remains the solicitor on payroll for UDSD in all other legal matters, and none of the proceedings that had already taken place about the charter school that Catania had a connection with would be redone or re-examined. The damage was already done. If (and frankly when) this or other charter schools are approved in Upper Darby, taxes will go up and services for students will decrease, but like in this case, those involved in decision-making may stand to benefit financially. We’ll just have to wait and see what more we can find.
There have also been campaign contributions from Vahan Gureghian, a notable charter school operator and lobbyist to both School Board President Maureen Carey4, when she ran for state representative in 2010, and School Board Director Earle Toole5, who ran for the same seat in 2012. These contributions are not illegal in any fashion but it would be disingenuous for either board member to say they haven’t opened themselves up to influence when it comes to the issue of charter schools. Maureen Carey and Earl Toole also received many of their state representative contributions from current (and future at that time) administrators at UDSD,6 people who they are legally mandated to review and hold accountable for the quality of education and safety of 12,000 children.
In September 2012, I had received an anonymous email from someone working within Upper Darby High School, where I am an alumna. This is what it said:
Thought you might be interested in where else money is NOT being spent at your old school:
Some things the public needs to know about the area’s largest (almost 4,000 students) high school (from an anonymous source inside the school):
- the school’s pa system is not working over large parts of the building
- the school’s bells aren’t working over large parts of the building
- the school’s security phones aren’t working over large parts of the building
- unknown if the school’s alarm systems (fire, etc.) are working or not
As you know, this means:
- no public announcements
- no bells between classes over large parts of the building
- in a lockdown situation, no announcement, no help
- in a classroom emergency, no classroom phone = no help
- no alarm systems, no fire/emergency warnings (unknown status)”
Needless to say, anxiety kicked in. I immediately wrote to the administrators of UDSD. Knowing that the only way I could get any information on this was through them, I was as calm and polite as possible. I figured that given the serious nature of the accusations contained in that anonymous email, they may not be immediately forthcoming to me – one single community member – but I did have hope that the issues would be addressed at a future school board meeting. Instead, I received an even worse reaction, a “Right to Know Law” response7, basically legalese explaining that they had no legal requirement to respond to any of my questions.
At this point, I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to create widespread panic, as this could potentially get even more people hurt. So I waited, and I waited, and I waited, hoping every waking second and not getting any sleep, that they were privately addressing the safety issues. The headlines continued to get worse, and stories poured into my email inbox from parents and fellow alumni, whose siblings and loved ones were facing violence on a daily basis without any intervention from staff and administration.
One week to the day after the Newtown Shootings, there was an attempted shooting at my high school. Had the shooter gotten into the building without police intervention, there likely would not have been any communication from classroom to classroom, something completely vital to saving lives. There would be no announcements to lock the doors and stay down, and the shooter potentially would have been able to kill dozens of students and teachers before the alarm could be pulled so that police were notified. A few months later, a man entered my high school with a hammer, attacked a teacher, and stole numerous computers. He did this by entering a door that was supposed to be locked but wasn’t. Thankfully, it was after school hours, so very few students were at risk. About a month ago, a student was found in possession of 81 bags of heroin, which means he probably had the resources and contacts to be selling to many students within my alma mater for months before he was caught. Two weeks ago, six students were assaulting each other, and when no security guards intervened in time, a male teacher decided to step into the brawl to break up the fight. Their blows all over his body caused a leg injury and mild traumatic brain injury.
This past week, my disgust level reached a point of no return, when it was universally proven to me that this was not ONLY a case of austerity gone wrong by the hands of our governor, our state legislature, and Congress. It was not even that along with JUST sheer incompetence. The problems that my community faces are because the people who make decisions are self-serving. They see our local public schools as a patronage jobs package, not a constitutionally mandated right of our children, funded by hardworking taxpayers.
Pennsylvania’s Auditor General, Eugene DePasquale, put out a statement saying that UDSD “could needlessly pay more than $1 million for the former school superintendent’s generous retirement package”. Former Superintendent Joseph Galli, now two superintendents prior to our current superintendent, will receive this money while student programming is continuously being cut, in addition to the amount he was provided by UDSD through the Pennsylvania State Educational Retirement System, his public pension.
The report also indicated that the previous Auditor General had recommended that UDSD adopt a policy of updating their Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) every two years, a document that basically provides communication between the school district and three law enforcement agencies on plans of safety. Even though this was a recommendation from back in 2009, the new policy had not been adopted. In fact, UDSD had not conducted an MOU since October 22, 2001. A student who was in first grade the last time they had conducted this important practice is now a senior in high school. This is an egregious example of misconduct.8
Here’s the school district’s response.
The implication by the school district that these matters were publicly discussed is completely disingenuous. Reports are provided in code during school board meetings, and when questions are asked by attendees, the school board directors tell them to file a Right to Know request, knowing all too well that these requests only cover the retrieval of publicly available (and often complex) documents, not the answers to specific questions. Virtually all matters are decided behind closed doors, without true input from the community. There was no indication that the board or administration recognized how out of touch their priorities were. All that mattered to them was that they didn’t break any law on the books, and therefore, the Auditor General, nor any other regulatory body, had any jurisdiction over them.
I wish that my top concern is providing children with the best possible public education, something they deserve and something I strongly believe I received at Upper Darby School District during my tenure. Unfortunately, what keeps me up at night is knowing that children are being bullied and injured, they’re being pressured to take serious drugs by peers without intervention or resources, and when serious incidents occur, as has been exhibited on numerous occasions, security staff are too slow to respond, causing bodily harm to students and staff. UDSD central administrators are being paid six figure salaries, and it would be money well spent if they were fulfilling their duties. Our school board has proven time and again that they are more interested in self-preservation and political endeavors than providing objective oversight and accountability.
Please do me a favor. Share this and tell everyone you know, especially those who may reside in Upper Darby, and may be able to vote on Tuesday November 5th. All partisan politics aside, my hometown desperately needs the current leadership removed, so that children can be safe again.
Note: Colleen Kennedy has made all documents footnoted in this article available on Scribd. Click the GO TO DOCUMENT links below to view the full documents.