The Unionville-Chadds Ford School District in southern Chester County is a high-ranking school district and often enjoys the same elite national standing for student test scores, etc. as the T/E School District. As an example, high schools from both school districts received gold level standing in the 2013 US News & World Report with Conestoga ranked #5 and UCF ranked #10 in Pennsylvania high schools. Because of their similar academic achievement levels and their geographic proximity (both in Chester County) the two school districts are often compared on Community Matters. Additionally, readers of CM may be familiar with regular commenter Keith Knauss, a member of the U-CF School Board, who often offers his experience and personal insight in our school district related discussions.
This week saw a surprise resignation of U-CF school board director Holly Manzone. On the surface, Manzone’s decision is not significant for TESD residents, but in reading the resignation letter (that includes the reasons for her departure), her words contained an eerie familiarity. During the recent League of Women Voters debate, most of the T/E school board candidates used buzzwords like trust, transparency, and open communication and morale issues. All but one candidate supported the need to improve the communication relationship between the Board and the residents. TE School Board president Kevin Buraks, who is seeking re-election, disagreed with his fellow candidates and stated during the LWV debate that the Board already provides an open forum for the public and that there are no morale issues in the District.
In her resignation letter, Manzone acknowledges the excellent quality of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District but criticizes the U-CF School Board for what she says amounts to ‘rubber stamping’ decisions of the Administration. Claiming that the U-CF School Board is a model for ‘poor governance’, meetings ‘scripted’ and decisions ‘baked’, Manzone states that she can, “no longer continue to participate on the Board on this basis without violating my principles and disturbing my conscience. I cannot allow my continued presence on the Board to connote agreement with these practices.” Manzone listed the following six issues in her resignation from the U-CF school board:
- “Open discussion is frowned upon and dissent is squelched at both the public and executive meetings.
- Meetings, especially public meetings, are often orchestrated, with many “pre-meetings” and phone calls behind the scenes to prevent genuine public discussion of contentious issues and avoid any embarrassment to the administration or the Board, i.e., “no dirty laundry.”
- Executive sessions are over-used. If there is a way to characterize a topic so that it can be discussed privately in executive session, it is. Engineering topics in this way may allow the district to comply with the letter of the Sunshine Law, but it surely violates its spirit.
- Community members raising issues are often themselves considered the problem. Energy is expended complaining about these individuals rather than focusing on improvement.
- Access to underlying data and original documents is withheld, even if it is not confidential. “Confidentiality” is used as an excuse to withhold access to broad categories of data, without foundation.
- Information is shared unequally, with not all Board members receiving the same background for deliberations. Also, private “votes” are held without canvassing all members.”
Manzone is not seeking re-election; and decided that to take her issues with the UCFSD Board public in her resignation statement. I have read some of the comments to Manzone’s resignation letter — several Board members (including Keith Knauss) have come out strongly against Manzone’s allegations. Conversely, Manzone does have her supporters, particuarly members of the public who have attended school board meetings. (To read the comments in the Unionville Times, click here.)
Similar to the issues raised by Manzone, we have heard several T/E School Board candidates voice concerns and suggest the need to improve the communication, transparency and trust issues in the District. My takeway — whether it is UCFSD, T/E or any other school board — open dialogue between school boards and the residents they serve is essential to building mutual trust; citizen input should be respected and welcomed.