VFMA parents sue to bring back school president and replace trustee chair
The parents and their attorney said the plaintiffs would like the Delaware County school to at least temporarily bring back president Walter T. Lord, a 54-year-old retired Army major general and a Valley Forge alum.
The battle over the future of the controversy-plagued Valley Forge Military Academy is headed into a federal courtroom in a lawsuit filed by parents of two cadets who are angry over last month’s ouster of the school’s popular president.
The suit — filed Monday in U.S. District Court by parents Derek James Graham, who lives in New Hampshire, and Scott Keith Newell, a South Carolina resident — seeks to bring stability to the grades 6-12 academy after a month of turmoil by removing the current trustees’ chairman, John English, and replacing him with another school parent.
“It’s our belief that we’ve watched the decline of our beloved alma mater,” said Newell, who added that both he and his father are Valley Forge alumni and that he sent his son there because of faith in then-president Walter Lord, who left last month under murky circumstances. “Bad decisions are being made by the board.”
Newell, Graham, and their attorney, Leno Thomas, said the plaintiffs would like the Delaware County school to at least temporarily bring back Lord — a 54-year-old retired Army major general and a Valley Forge alum who’d been on the job for only a year — if English can be removed from the board.
English and current school leaders did not have an immediate response to the lawsuit. Lord’s attorney, Bryan Lentz, did not return a call for comment.
The parents sought an emergency temporary restraining order and injunction that, in addition to restoring Lord until at least the end of the year, would have barred the school from destroying any relevant documents and froze its accounts. But U.S. District Judge Nitza I. Quinones Alejandro denied that request Tuesday in a one-page order.
Pennsylvania’s last remaining military-style secondary school, which was founded in 1928 and which has produced notable alumni such as writer J.D. Salinger and Iraq War Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, has been racked by discord since the departure of Lord, who was working to address declining enrollment, disciplinary problems, and other issues. Yearly tuition for boarding students at the all-boys academy in Wayne is approximately $45,000.
Lord cited “philosophical differences” with English at the time of his unexpected resignation, and English asked him to leave the school two days later. Many alumni and other stakeholders appeared to side with Lord. More than 2,100 of them signed a Change.org petition urging greater transparency and the president’s return, and about 100 showed up at last month’s alumni association meeting to press similar demands and call for the board’s resignation.
The suit — lawyer Thomas said it was filed in federal court because the parents live in differing states — maintains English violated school bylaws because Lord’s departure was not voted upon by the entire board in a proper fashion.
It also alleges English failed to inform other trustees about a critical report presented in December 2018 by the Healy Educational Foundation that cited dire conditions at Valley Forge and said its endowment was $10 million short “of what is needed to fund the school in times of scarcity.”
“There is upheaval there and the chairman thinks that he can do anything that he wants — that it’s his way or the highway,” Thomas said. Parents have created a GoFundMe page to pay for the legal fees involved.
The suit asks that another Valley Forge parent, Dr. Jonathan Fishbein, of Gladwyne, founder of a health-care analytics firm, be placed on the board and be granted decision-making powers to return the school to stability.
Newell said in an interview that he’s long been concerned about the future of the school and that he only sent his son, currently a high school freshman, there because he was impressed with Lord and his leadership style.
“I’ve watched this school bleed to death over the last 20 years from bad management, poor decisions,” he said. “I didn’t think it was going to survive much longer, until Walt Lord sprang on the scene last year.”
Said Graham: “We bought into his vision.”