Prosecutor's report was latest bad news for Coatesville school district
By the end of last week, Joe O'Brien was reeling. It took O'Brien, the executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, a few days to wade through the long-awaited 111-page grand jury report that described mismanagement, unethical behavior, and theft of student funds at the Coatesville Area School District.
By the end of last week, Joe O'Brien was reeling.
It took O'Brien, the executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, a few days to wade through the long-awaited 111-page grand jury report that described mismanagement, unethical behavior, and theft of student funds at the Coatesville Area School District.
"It was painful," O'Brien said Friday.
The release of the report by county prosecutors Monday capped an 18-month investigation that culminated in the arrests of Richard Como, a former superintendent, and former athletic director Jim Donato on misappropriation of funds and other charges.
It was the latest piece of bad news for the 7,000-student school district - the county's poorest - and landed as Coatesville tries to gain some momentum after last year's scandal involving racist and sexist text messages found on Como's and Donato's school-issued cellphones.
The district now has a new superintendent, new school board members, a new solicitor, and new policies meant to prevent future abuses of power and help the district recover from the texting scandal, which brought local and national outrage.
But the investigation is far from over. The grand jury report said the district's former solicitor, James Ellison, charged the school district millions of dollars for legal fees and expenses that could "present the largest potential for criminal charges in this investigation."
Ellison could not be reached for comment last week. His former cell and home phone lines were disconnected, and he did not reply to an e-mail.
A day after the release of the grand jury report, the school board voted to waive its attorney-client privilege with Ellison.
It was a step that Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan had long sought, and it reflected a new spirit of cooperation by the school board over the last year. The same board also agreed to sue Como and Donato to recover money they may owe the district from any alleged misconduct and to collect punitive damages.
According to the grand jury, the previous board "vacillated between apathy and ignorance" and was "asleep at the wheel." Those board members and the solicitor spent more than $100,000 investigating the two district employees who uncovered the texting scandal last year, the report said.
Community members continue to call for the resignations of the only three school board members still on the nine-member board during that time.
The alleged thefts hurt the district all the more because of the belt-tightening it has taken since 2011 as it tries to pay down millions of dollars of debt.
Coatesville increased class sizes. It got rid of middle-school foreign-language courses and cut computer and health classes. It cut its elementary school building budgets by half. It fired the librarians at its three middle schools.
It froze employee salaries. It got rid of a highly regarded 36-year-old Air Force Junior ROTC program and told parents to come up with the cash if they wanted it back.
At the same time, according to the grand jury, Como hired unqualified friends, family, and felons. He allegedly created a slush fund to pay for championship football rings, where prosecutors say he deposited money he took from the high school student council, summer-school fees, a donation to the district, and fees he charged middle-school students to attend a free Cheyney University academic program.
The former superintendent is also accused of charging the school district $3,000 for a generator he had bought during a home renovation. The generator was too small for the district and was incompatible with its equipment, according to the grand jury report, so it sat unused in a warehouse.
Donato is accused of stealing more than $30,000 from athletic events and fraudulent deposits to buy a Range Rover and clothes and to pay his gambling debts.
Lawyers for both men say they will fight every charge.
The grand jury recommended actions it said are "necessary to help prevent similar waste, mismanagement, and misconduct from occurring in other school districts" or reoccurring in Coatesville.
These include creating more financial controls, requiring training for new school board members, and establishing a tip line for people to anonymously call out potential abuses.
The grand jury joins a long list of agencies doling out advice to Coatesville's school district, including the Chester County Intermediate Unit, the Council for Equity in Education, the state's civil rights commission, the state chapter of the NAACP, and the U.S. Department of Justice.
Cathy Taschner, who became Coatesville's superintendent in the summer, and other district officials hope new policies can win back the trust of the community, which has been damaged by problems that date back several administrations. She has reduced class sizes and brought language, computer, and health classes back to the middle schools. The district's new website includes an anonymous tip line. Several new financial controls are in place.
Teachers and community members who had been awaiting the grand jury report say they think the district is finally moving in the right direction.
"We feel like this chapter in the story of our district is coming to an end," said Audra Ritter, president of the Coatesville Area Teachers Association.