School board gets an earful

Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board directors got an earful from residents during the board’s first meeting of the year, a meeting that lasted nearly four hours. The residents told the board they don’t like how the district has been handling the long-range facilities plan.

Superintendent of Schools John Sanville said, “The process has been open and transparent,” while Director Robert Sage said disagreements are normal, he doesn’t like some of the characterizations members of the public have made about board members.

“I don’t welcome the accusations that we’re being deceptive, that we sneak things in, that we’re practicing malfeasance,” Sage said. “We can disagree about what should be done without accusing the board or board members of bad faith.”

Those comments came after resident comments.

Clay Burton, of Birmingham Township, questioned a $350,000 budget item in 2023 for tennis courts when the courts weren’t part of the board’s workshop discussion in November. He said only turf fields were part of that conversation but the tennis courts were added in for the December community conversation.

“At some point, somebody’s got to stop sneaking stuff in or, at least, be transparent about why you’re putting that stuff in,” Burton said.

He also questioned a $450,000 modification to the science room because of possible program changes.

“It was in there as a place holder and all that indicates to me is that you’re going to borrow more money as a placeholder for something that may or may not happen,” Burton said, adding that should go to zero unless and until the state or federal government says there has to be a change.

He also said there’s no relationship between having turf fields and high academic performance, which should be the goal.

Jack Greenwood, of East Marlborough Township, reminded the board of something he said earlier last year, that people move into the district for the schools and don’t mind paying more in taxes for the education, but once their kids graduate, they move out because the taxes are too high. It’s those types of people, those who move away once their kids are out of school, who will be the most vocal in favor of more spending.

“The rest of us who want to live here, get stuck paying [those higher taxes],” he said.

Greenwood added that he understands 10 percent of the district’s budget goes toward debt, but that the plan calls for more debt for things that aren’t necessary.

“It appears from your long-range plan that you have at least $3 million to $4 million every year that we’re going to increase for this or spend for that. I don’t see the effort in paying down the debt and now you’re actually talking about actually having another bond issuance so that you can take on more debt,” Greenwood said.

He said the tennis courts and turf fields are unnecessary expenditures, in his opinion.

“If you take all the unnecessary expenditures and don’t go ahead with them, and concentrate on paying down our debt, I think the school district will be far better off,” he said.

Former school board Director Holly Manzone told the board there are health reasons for not going ahead with the turf fields. The Pocopson Township resident said the scrap rubber, called crumb rubber, used in the turf fields, contain toxic chemicals.

“Remove the double turf option and decrease financing…Synthetic fields are not needed and they shouldn’t be wanted, either.” Manzone went on to say she had researched crumb fields and learned that professional sports are moving away from them.

She said a recent article in the American Journal of Sports Medicine explained the increase in lower extremity injuries on synthetic fields is because synthetic turf fields don’t release cleats as readily as grass fields. But there are other health issues, she said.

Manzone said researchers at Yale University found 20 carcinogens and 11 irritants in the crumb rubber and that the blades of synthetic grass harbor bacteria, which can lead to staph infections, including MRSA.

Because blades of synthetic grass “are stiffer and sharper than natural grass, scrapes and burns are common  and may become infected.”

She added that researchers at Columbia University found that synthetic fields get 60 degrees hotter than natural turf in the summer which, she said, can lead to dehydration and heatstroke.

Manzone also said claims that synthetic fields cost less to maintain are misleading. They need to be kept meticulously clean and must be de-compacted from time to time to even out the crumb rubber.

“The costs for these surfaces are far greater than mowing,” she said. “With all the problems associated with artificial turf, why would we spend millions of dollars, and take on debt, to install unsafe fields simply for the sake of scheduling? Artificial turf is a health hazard. A straw poll in the community conversation confirmed your survey results that the majority of the district does not approve these fields,” Manzone said. “You should not approve them either.”

During the directors’ time for public comment, Sage said he understands there are toxins in crumb rubber, but that the amount is within safe limits.

“Studies by people who are a lot smarter than I am said, yes, there are harmful metals and chemicals present, but they’re in such small concentrations that present no health risk,” Sage said.

Chadds Ford’s Mark Stookey also spoke, saying he finally received the Right-to-Know documents he requested and which were initially denied last year.

“[W]hat did I find when I reviewed these records? I found what appears to be a major breakdown in governance and internal controls as well as ample evidence of mismanagement, if not malfeasance. Problems can be found in all areas of facilities rentals, not just lack of payments by URA and SCCSA for field use,” he said.

The examples he gave include the district being inconsistent with its own policies.

“District policy provides favorable treatment for non-profit groups, at least three-quarters of whose members are UCFSD residents. This does not appear to be enforced consistently. A number of groups who appear not to meet this test have been given favorable treatment nonetheless.

“District policy requires that for-profit groups be charged for facilities use.  This appears not to have been consistently applied either.

“Most disturbingly, the financial management firm that employs one of our Board members has used District facilities for meetings, apparently without charge, on more than one occasion.   I think it is reasonable to expect Board members not to benefit from the District’s lax enforcement of Board policies.

Stookey then recommended the board have the outside auditors look to see if there’s been any malfeasance and have the board review new processes and controls for facility rentals.

“Simply changing the policy will not fix the issue. Controls need to be put in place,” he said.

The board is expected to vote on spending options in February.

For an overview of the spending options, visit https://www.boarddocs.com/pa/uncf/Board.nsf/files/B8EGU2456E54/$file/LRFP%20Options%20for%20Financing%201-14-2019.pdf

 

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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