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Owen J. Roberts flap could alter school elections

It should have been the start of a sleepy summer recess, but the midnight firing of the superintendent of the Owen J. Roberts School District and the contentious hunt for her replacement have escalated into the mother of all Pennsylvania school board wars.

Myra Forrest (center) was fired as superintendent on June 22. (Staff File Photo)
Myra Forrest (center) was fired as superintendent on June 22. (Staff File Photo)Read more

It should have been the start of a sleepy summer recess, but the midnight firing of the superintendent of the Owen J. Roberts School District and the contentious hunt for her replacement have escalated into the mother of all Pennsylvania school board wars.

The 5-4 vote June 22 to ax Myra Forrest - popular with parents, students, and teachers in the northern Chester County district - has touched off community protests and ugly allegations. Forrest, who had a year left on her contract, has filed a suit accusing board members of sexual harassment and racist language about blacks and Muslims.

Even in a state where feuding school boards and the hiring and firing of superintendents are as much a ritual as Punxsutawney Phil's emerging from his hole, the Roberts district's intramural warfare stands out.

The controversy might even wind up altering how board members are elected across the state.

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, a Democrat whose district includes the 4,900-student system, is pushing legislation to end Pennsylvania's status as one of just three states that nominate school board candidates in partisan primaries before the November general election. He wants candidates to be chosen in nonpartisan contests in the fall.

That quirk allows majorities that lose in the primary to decide policy for months until they leave a month after the general election, as happened in Owen J. Roberts.

A second measure, sponsored by Dinniman and backed by three other Chester County lawmakers, would severely limit the ability of lame-duck incumbents to fire or hire superintendents. It has won approval from the Senate Education Committee.

"What I'm trying to do is prevent another Owen J. Roberts," Dinniman said.

But while the proposals move through Harrisburg, the five board members who voted to fire Forrest - three of whom lost bids for reelection - have named an interim superintendent and are racing to hire a permanent replacement by October. The new board is to be seated Dec. 7.

"You have five members of a school board completely thumbing their nose at the community," said Scott McCutchen, a parent who started, which gets up to 800 daily visits.

Said another parent, Marilyn Hemstreet: "We should all go into public meetings with gags over our mouths, because that's what they've done to us. It's a disgusting abuse of power."

Although Forrest was fired "without cause," as allowed by her contract, School Board President Edward Kerner said that there had been differences over spending and that a change would save taxpayers money.

"Our emphasis must be on quality education at an affordable price," he said in a brief statement.

Some people agree with the board, though generally not in public. Matthew Selvaggio, a candidate for supervisor in East Coventry Township, said Forrest had not tried hard enough to get along with her bosses. "She spent most of her time working for the public" instead of the board, he said.

About 1,200 of those citizens poured into a meeting to protest Forrest's sacking. A parent unsuccessfully sued the board, claiming it had violated the state's open-meetings law. Students organized demonstrations and started Facebook groups. And the Roberts teachers union voted no confidence in the board.

A former Roberts superintendent, Terrance Furin, now teaching educational leadership at St. Joseph's University, jumped into the fray, calling the firing "underhanded."

"Superintendents have conflicts with boards, but you generally work through those things," Furin said, adding that Forrest was an "outstanding" leader.

The chaos continued through the summer when a former principal hired as acting superintendent quit after nine days.

Forrest's defenders note that during her tenure, taxes rose an average of 3.4 percent, compared with 6.1 percent during the previous administration.

With thousands being spent on attorneys' bills and salaries - there are Forrest's $165,000-a-year contract to pay off, and $600 a day in the interim - "I anticipate our tax bill to go through the roof soon," McCutchen said, noting that all expenses require board approval.

Of the majority faction, Kerner, Karen Zelley, and Eugene Endress lost in the primary. John Dutton is on the ballot, and Debbie Bissland is not up for reelection. Most did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment. Zelley said only that the board had a lot of support.

Forrest, who was hired in 2006, detailed an increasingly tense relationship with the board in her lawsuit.

The complaint alleges that Kerner and Dutton were verbally abusive, hostile, and harassing, and used sexist and racist language. For instance, according to the suit, Dutton screamed at Forrest at a meeting June 1: "Where did you get your [testicles]? . . . You make me sick."

Forrest also alleged that the board had waited until late at night to push significant business to avoid public scrutiny - such as the motion to fire her which was brought up around 10:30 p.m. at a meeting that ended after midnight - and that in the last few years, meetings had "devolved into offensive, verbal assaults without any semblance of professionalism."

At a March 2008 board meeting, the suit alleges, Dutton said he often carried a gun and solved problems "behind the shed." As a result, Forrest talked to the district security director about her safety.

"She felt threatened," said her attorney, Todd Nurick. "It was a hostile environment." He said she could not be interviewed because of the pending lawsuit.

Barbara McMeekin, a dissenting board member, said some of her colleagues had hurled curses her way. "They're nasty people," she said.

Forrest, she said, was a great superintendent who improved test scores, morale, and the overall standing of the district.

"She can walk into a room and make everyone feel that they're important. This is the culture that she brought with her to the district. She knew the names of the custodial people, the people who worked in the kitchen. She knew about their lives," McMeekin said of the former music teacher, who played piano at recitals and other events.

It was a style that clashed with the board's.

"She would speak her mind, and they didn't like it. They wanted somebody who was going to sit there and let them do what they wanted and be quiet," McMeekin said.

Assistant Superintendent Kathryn L. Soeder said Forrest had put her heart into her job.

"That's why she was so popular with all segments of the district - except for five board members," she said.

With Forrest gone, her backers said they were being shut out of the search for a new superintendent, which Furin, the former Roberts leader, said usually took many months and should include lots of public input.

What Forrest's supporters can do, however, is pick the next school board, and they are organizing a candidates night to vet the eight contenders.

"Shame on us for electing people who we didn't know what they stand for," said Hemstreet, one of the parents. "This was a big wake-up call."