School district transparency ‘a farce’

Residents gave Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board directors an intense earful regarding a possible multi-million-dollar outdoor facilities project during the board’s Oct. 8 work session.

Jack Greenwood, of East Marlborough, said taxes have continuously gone up because of projects such as the Outdoor Facilities Project, which some estimates say could cost $10 million.

“I’ve seen families move into the district, demand more services and facilities, then sell the house and move out when the kids are out of school. Their reason for leaving is that taxes are too high. That means I and others, who want to live here are left to pay for all the frills that were once deemed necessary.”

He added that many of the farmers in the district have sold land to developers because of the high taxes levied by the school district.

“We now grow houses instead of crops,” he said adding, “I believe I and others like me need some relief.”

Greenwood told the board that he was a health and physical education teacher in the Kennett School District for 40 years, coaching a variety of sports and playing basketball and baseball in college and also played in the West Chester Adult Baseball League for 25 years.

He said that background makes him qualified to make an assessment on need, but it can only be an estimate without solid numbers. He added that the board needs real numbers to decide whether to go through with the project and that those numbers need to be made public, so the public can challenge the numbers if necessary.

He asked how many board members actually inspected each area of the proposed project, then asked: “If you have not, how can you make an informed decision on what is needed?”

Greenwood said he’s seen no numbers that would support the need for the facilities project. Specifically, he said he wants to know how many injuries have actually occurred because of poor field conditions.

“Safety upgrades is always one of the key selling points for a new project, yet you don’t explain why something that is already in place is unsafe. You just claim the new project is safer. How can you make a decision without data to support a need?”

“I don’t see a need for this project. As I view your long-range plan, it is based on constant spending year after year. You’ll never reach a point where what we have is satisfactory. It will never be good enough, never be safe enough. Taxes will always go up with this philosophy...It is time to only spend on true and justified need as opposed to imagined need,” Greenwood said closing his five-minute public comment.

Board President Jeff Hellrung said the board would continue to be in touch with Greenwood.

Lisa Chismire, of Chadds Ford, followed up Greenwood’s comments saying she, too, has seen no true need for the “extraordinary expenditure of money.”

“I’ve heard of nothing that really justifies the need for an extraordinary expenditure. Right now, it looks like a big "S" solution searching for some fig leaf of justification,” she said.

Chismire continued by saying she has no idea where the project idea originated and that, “We seem to be working at this backward and I don’t understand that.”

Mark Stookey, also from Chadds Ford, spoke about the facilities plan, saying the questions and answers on the district webpage seem skewed in favor of moving forward. (That page is here.)

“There’s no place for other views. It’s all about ‘why we need this,’” he said. “They’re all one-sided and ignore the complexity of the situation. I hope this doesn’t indicate the administration and the board have made up their minds and they’re just trying to justify it to the community by putting the justification online. There are other points of view and better answers than I see on the Q&A.”

Stookey acknowledged the webpage says there’s nothing in the project specifically for outside users but, while that may be the case, that’s an incorrect analysis. He explained that the proper question to ask is what changes should be made if outside groups are not going to use the facilities.

“If a school district without the demand created by outside groups doesn’t need it, then that investment is properly attributed to supporting the outside groups. I don’t think that’s the way the analysis has been conducted.”

He went on to say that outside groups account for about 50 percent of field use for some of the facilities.

“If the usage by outside groups fell to zero,” Stookey said, “I think the suggested plan would be vastly different and much smaller. We would probably not need many of these investments. I urge the board to insist this question be answered. If outside groups did not use our facility, what other proposals would be needed? The public deserves to know how much we’re spending to support outside groups…I think that’s a fair question.”

He also said that after two right-to-know requests, he’s been told the district doesn’t have information on who pays for use of facilities.

“Is this amateur hour in financial management? The district’s response, I find to be incredible and irresponsible. We’re considering multi-million-dollar investments for outdoor facilities [with] a large portion of their use for outside groups. The public deserves to know how much they pay…I think the much-vaunted transparency of this district is a farce.”

Hellrung told Stookey his questions were good ones and that the information would be forthcoming.

Later during the meeting, Director Vic Dupuis said there would be continued discussions on the subject and no vote would be taken until those discussions are finished.

“There are a lot of different opinions. I don’t think there’s any unanimity as it relates to the board on this plan. I think we’re still trying to figure things out,” Dupuis said.

A community conversation on the plan is scheduled for Dec. 10, from 6:30 -8:30 p.m. at the high school auditorium.

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About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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