Transparency concerns loom over top-performing Fox Chapel school district

Residents of the affluent district are questioning the lack of public deliberation by the school board, leading to concerns about potential violations of state open meeting and ethics laws.

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Members of the Fox Chapel Area School District board meet on June 10, 2019. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

Members of the Fox Chapel Area School District board meet on June 10, 2019. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

The Fox Chapel Area School District has some of the highest test scores in the state, long lists of students with academic and athletic honors, a Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year honoree and a music program that has garnered the district the distinction of being named among the Best Communities for Music Education for eight consecutive years.

But in the shadow of those successes is a growing tension over the opaque operations of the district school board and administration and questions about whether state open meeting and ethics laws are being followed.

At board meetings, on social media and at the polls, some taxpayers in the district have made it clear they expect more transparency from the board, which rarely holds public discussions about agenda items on which it votes each month.

Those complaints, however, don't appear to resonate with district officials.

Superintendent Gene Freeman wrote in an email that the board members are “very knowledgeable about each topic they vote on” and that the value of their discussions should be measured by quality, not the quantity of time.

Board president Terry Wirginis publicly credits Freeman with the district's successes, which include a No. 2 spot regionally in the Pittsburgh Business Times annual rankings of school districts.

In fact, the board is so pleased with Freeman's performance, it awarded him a contract that will provide him with a one-time payment equal to 80 percent of his salary when he retires next June. Freeman’s current salary is $236,253, not including a $10,000 bonus.

Fox Chapel Area School District Superintendent Gene Freeman. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

Fox Chapel Area School District Superintendent Gene Freeman. (Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource)

The division between the residents and the district administration started in early 2018 when major curriculum and schedule changes were announced for Dorseyville Middle School that would have included 80-minute classes in math, science and language arts, leaving little time for other subjects or the arts.

Parents and others filled board meetings to decry the proposed changes, and about 800 people signed a petition opposing them. The creation of the new middle school schedule without public input prompted some residents to take issue with the way the district operated during the process, and scores of them took to various closed and public social media forums to express their frustrations.

The school board ultimately voted to give the superintendent authority to make the changes he thought appropriate. An altered curriculum version, which doesn’t take as much time away from the arts, will be implemented at the middle school in the 2019-2020 school year.

Freeman wrote in an email that the new schedule “was and is” the right thing for students because they “needed more core time in math.” (Freeman would not agree to an in-person interview with a PublicSource reporter for this story.)

Since the Dorseyville debate, residents have frequently shown up at board meetings to demand more information on meeting agenda topics and to call for open deliberations on board decisions. Those demands are rarely met.

“They won’t openly debate. They don’t review. It’s like the Wizard of Oz and the curtain. What is going on back there?” said Christie Whelan, a parent from Fox Chapel.

On June 27, the district announced that Freeman gave the school board notice that he will retire in a year. The announcement comes just one year into a new five-year contract Freeman started in July 2018. The Fox Chapel school board will vote on Freeman’s retirement letter at its Aug. 12 meeting, where the board will also decide “the next steps in choosing a new superintendent,” according to the district release.

Terry Wirginis, president of the Fox Chapel Area School District board, in attendance for the final meeting of the 2018-2019 school year. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

Terry Wirginis, president of the Fox Chapel Area School District board, in attendance for the final meeting of the 2018-2019 school year. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

Freeman, in his email, said his decision to retire “is a personal one” that follows 25 years in education, 12 as a superintendent.

The Fox Chapel Area School District educates about 4,000 students from Aspinwall, Blawnox, Fox Chapel and Sharpsburg boroughs and Indiana and O’Hara townships.

Freeman wrote in his email the district has become more transparent under his tenure since, as of September, board agendas and meeting videos are posted on the district website.

The transparency issue was at the heart of the school board primary race for five open seats in May. Incumbents Wirginis, Nancy Foster, Eric Schmidt and Lisa Rutkowski ran to retain their seats. Schmidt lost his seat in Region 1 to challenger Eric Hamilton, who ran a campaign based on improving board transparency.

Rutkowski appears to have won re-election to her Region 1 seat in the primary, though write-in candidates could threaten either Hamilton or Rutkowski in the general election. But Wirginis, in Region 2, and Foster, in Region 3, face opposition in their districts in the general election.

Each school board member serves a four-year term; terms are staggered to prevent everyone from being up for re-election at once.

The election brought out new concerns from residents who perceived that Freeman was openly supporting the incumbents over three candidates who are seeking more transparency in the district. They provided a photo of a campaign sign in the superintendent’s yard, supporting Schmidt and Rutkowski, and cited the board’s March advance of $60,000 to the Fox Chapel Crew Club, with which Rutkowski and her children are active.

Freeman defended his right to openly support the candidates. “We have a wonderful school board who has worked tirelessly to ensure the best education for our students,” Freeman wrote in his email. He said the district does not prohibit employees from supporting candidates and other employees had yard signs. He also pointed out that all but one school board member  voted to approve the advance to the crew club. Rutkowski abstained because of her children’s involvement.

Concerns about secrecy at the district level run so deep that PublicSource was provided a June 18 photo of a truck outside of the district administrative offices loaded with bins of documents to be sent for shredding.

The day earlier, PublicSource filed four Right-to-Know requests seeking administrative salary information, the superintendent’s schedule and copies of emails sent from residents to the board.

Nancy Foster, vice president of the Fox Chapel Area School District board, questions a proposal from fellow board member Edith Cook during the June 10 meeting of the board. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

Nancy Foster, vice president of the Fox Chapel Area School District board, questions a proposal from fellow board member Edith Cook during the June 10 meeting of the board. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

An additional Right-to-Know request was submitted by PublicSource on June 19 to the district asking for a log of documents sent for shredding. The district has taken a 30-day extension for its reply on all the requests except for the salaries inquiry.

In his initial response, Right-to-Know Officer David McCommons, who is also deputy superintendent, said the extension was necessary “due to bona fide staffing limitations” and because “a legal review is necessary to determine whether certain records are records subject to access under the RTK law.”

Freeman said in his email that records sent for shredding are confidential records and information about them cannot be shared. “Residents should be concerned if documents were not being shredded,” he wrote.

Based on his current salary, Freeman’s retirement payout would be more than $180,000 to be paid within one year of his retirement date.

Freeman’s 2019-2020 salary has not yet been publicly disclosed. It’s uncertain when or if it will be as there is no mention in board minutes available on the district website of a public vote on the superintendent’s salary.

The $10,000 bonus, deposited to an investment account and awarded for meeting goals, was not voted on publicly. Wirginis wrote in an email to PublicSource there was no need for a public vote on Freeman’s bonus as it is provided for in his contract.

Members of the Fox Chapel school board meet on June 10, 2019. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

Members of the Fox Chapel school board meet on June 10, 2019. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

School boards in other local districts, including Pittsburgh, Bethel Park and Mt.Lebanon, have taken public votes on superintendent bonuses and salaries.

In response to the initial requests for an interview from PublicSource, Freeman responded with  three emails requesting the names of individuals who have raised concerns about district transparency.

He also forwarded a Limited Procedures Engagement audit of the district recently published by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale as evidence that the district complied with all Sunshine Act and Right-to-Know processes.

The report is not a full audit, said Barry Ciccocioppo, a spokesman for the auditor general.

“The audit period was July 2014 to June 2018 with updates through end of fieldwork. In this case, we selected four recent RTKL requests (from the 1st quarter of CY 2019) and three school board meetings (from the last quarter of CY 2018) to review for compliance,” Ciccocioppo wrote in an email.

“In the very limited review conducted, we did not find violations of the policies. However, if residents have concerns, we encourage them to submit specific information online through the Auditor General Hotline.”

Frustrations

Among frustrations cited by residents at public meetings and in communications with PublicSource are:

  • The board votes on agenda items with no public deliberation.
  • The board often responds to questions asked by residents by mailing them a letter instead of answering it publicly.
  • The district does not provide individual email addresses or other contact information for board members. Currently, a central board email address that funnels to the superintendent’s secretary is the only board contact information on the district website.
  • It wasn’t until September 2018 that residents could get a copy of board meeting agendas without traveling to the district administration building where they were made available only hours before the meeting start time. Public outcry in August prompted the posting of agendas in advance.
  • Board members frequently attempt to stifle school director Edith Cook’s efforts to initiate public deliberations at board meetings and other efforts she suggests to promote transparency.

In his email, Freeman noted that the practice of mailing answers to residents was in place when he became superintendent and that he created the central school board email address because none existed before he came.

Freeman and Wirginis declined to comment on the treatment of Cook. “I have never seen any School Board member in the Fox Chapel Area bully anyone,” Wirginis wrote in an email.

Lack of deliberation

At their meetings, board members have publicly defended their lack of deliberation by saying they’ve hired highly competent administrators and they trust the agenda items that are brought before them. They’ve also said when they have questions on items, they call and discuss them with the superintendent or solicitor to get the information they need before the vote.

“That’s the way it’s worked. It’s worked rather well,” Schmidt said at the August board meeting when Cook and some residents complained that not enough information was being shared about proposed policy changes.

The lack of public deliberation can lead to the conclusion that the board is having deliberations outside of the public view, said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania Newsmedia Association. “It really creates the impression of impropriety.”

“The Sunshine Act requires the agency to allow a meaningful opportunity for public comments on any official action. You can’t have meaningful public input if you don’t know what’s going on. If they haven’t facilitated meaningful public input, they are violating the Sunshine Act,” Melewsky said.

In addition to the proposed Dorseyville Middle School changes, residents have pushed for more information in the past school year on policy changes, active shooter drills, a teacher early retirement incentive and other financial matters, including the March advance to the crew club approved without public deliberation.

Board member Rutkowski, who has children on the crew team and is active with the crew club booster organization, abstained from the vote without explanation. She also did not identify herself as a crew parent when Freeman asked all crew members and their parents present at the meeting to raise their hands.

In March, the Fox Chapel Area school board approved a $60,000 advance to build a new dock at Aspinwall Riverfront Park for use by Fox Chapel Crew. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In March, the Fox Chapel Area school board approved a $60,000 advance to build a new dock at Aspinwall Riverfront Park for use by Fox Chapel Crew. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Under the state Ethics Act, a school director is required to abstain from voting or attempting to influence a vote that could result in personal financial gain for the school director, their immediate family or any business with which the school director or family is associated. The act also says an explanation must be provided for the abstention if there is a conflict of interest.

In an email, Rutkowski offered an explanation for why she did not explain her abstention, but she did not explain why she abstained. “Because there is no financial gain or otherwise for myself or my family, a disclosure was not required. An explanation for an abstention is only required when it is due to a conflict of interest. Also, I don’t recall if I stood up, but typically would not stand for parent acknowledgment during board recognitions for student achievements when my boys are recognized. It is just my preference that it remains about the kids.”

(Abstaining without explanation also happened at the June 10 board meeting when school board members Somer Obernauer and Eric Schmidt abstained on a contract vote for the Fox Chapel Area Education Support Professionals. Obernauer’s wife is listed on the district website as a secretary in the business and communications offices, and Schmidt’s wife is listed as a personal care assistant at Fairview Elementary. Neither board member explained their abstention. Schmidt, in an email, declined to comment to PublicSource. Obernauer, in an email, said he did not abstain because of a conflict of interest and the statement he filed explaining his abstention would become public after the June meeting minutes are approved in August.)

John Klamut, an O’Hara resident with four children in the district who started to attend board meetings when the curriculum changes were proposed for Dorseyville Middle School, questioned the crew appropriation at the March meeting. Klamut said he did not oppose the action but expected to hear debate on the issue before a vote.

Instead, solicitor Paul Giuffre gave a presentation explaining that the crew club asked for an advance on its annual district subsidy to finance its headquarters move from Milvalle to the Aspinwall Riverfront Park. The district provides a $5,000 annual subsidy to the crew club. The club had raised $90,000, but, at that point, was about $60,000 short.

Giuffre said he did not anticipate the club would need the full amount. (PublicSource later learned the club did get the full amount and that it would replace its typical annual subsidy through the 2030-2031 school year as repayment.)

Giuffre said he worked with auditors to figure out how to make the advance and account for it in financial records.

Klamut said he was frustrated because it appeared all of the arrangements for the $60,000 advance were made with no public board deliberation or public input.

Board member Robert Mauro said his reading of the motion at the agenda-setting session the previous week constituted deliberation.

Klamut disagreed: “I asked to discuss the pros and cons. There were no alternatives discussed at all, like putting it at other local marinas.”

Freeman said at the March meeting the request for funding was made to him by a parent, and Wirginis said district officials did what they could to make it possible. Freeman said there would have to have been opposition for there to be deliberations.

Letters in the mail

March wasn’t the first time Klamut questioned the board without getting access to information.

In June 2018, he asked for details on policy updates the board was approving and was told he would receive a response in the mail.

“They mailed me a letter that said the policy changes were made in accordance with the PSBA [Pennsylvania School Boards Association] guidelines,” Klamut said. No details were provided on the policy changes.

When Kimberly Bowles, of O’Hara, asked the board at the April meeting if it had considered the trauma that active shooter drills could be causing elementary students in the district, she also was told the board would get back to her.

The Fox Chapel Area School District began posting meeting agendas online in advance of board meetings in September 2018. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

The Fox Chapel Area School District began posting meeting agendas online in advance of board meetings in September 2018. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

By the time her letter came, she had made an appointment with her son’s school principal to discuss the issue. The letter advised her to go to the appointment.

When she did, she found out she could opt her child out of the drills. But, she pointed out, other parents didn’t know that because her question was not answered in public.

“The problem is, parents can opt out and they don’t have enough information to know that,” Bowles said.

Bowles returned to the June 3 meeting of the board to announce that detail publicly so all parents knew. Board meetings are live-streamed on the district website, where meeting videos are later posted as well.

At the March board meeting, Hamilton, then a candidate for school board, asked for details on the early retirement incentive the district had offered to teachers. The letter he received from the district contained answers to his questions. He posted it to his campaign Facebook page for public viewing.

Policies as an issue

Policy changes became a bigger issue in August 2018 when multiple people showed up requesting details on a list of nine policy revisions the board planned to approve without public discussion and without providing documentation of the changes to the public. Freeman said in his email that the majority of policy changes made by the board are recommendations from the PSBA.

The policies included those that addressed board organization, guidelines and responsibilities, curriculum, participation in board meetings and community engagement. A video of the meeting showed Cook was particularly concerned because wording about board committees was removed from board policies.

Giuffre said it was a moot point because the board hasn’t had individual committees for years but rather acts as a ‘committee of the whole.’

The meeting video shows Fox Chapel resident Dana Kellerman telling the board she drove to the administration building to get a copy of the agenda. When she returned home, she found the policies were not attached. She returned to the administration building to get copies. After an hour’s wait, she got the new policies, but nothing to show the changes.

“I am concerned and still disturbed at what appears to me to be a continued lack of transparency in the relationship between the community and the school board and administration,” Kellerman said at the meeting.

Fox Chapel Area High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Fox Chapel Area High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Cook also said she had difficulty figuring out all of the changes that were made to the policies and thought it was important for the board to review and discuss them before voting. She motioned to table three items but the motion died when no board member provided a second.

Cook noted the PSBA recommends two public readings of new policies before they are approved. Giuffre said there is no legal requirement for that. He said that while many boards have policies calling for two readings, “Fox Chapel does not."

Schmidt called the changes to existing policies “housekeeping.”

According to the meeting video, Schmidt said he had phone consultations with the solicitor to go over the changes before the meeting and was, therefore, prepared to vote. Giuffre confirmed via an email that board members have asked him questions about agenda items ahead of time.

Despite Cook’s concerns and questions about the policies from five residents, the board voted to approve the policies without discussion and without providing copies to the public. Cook was the lone dissenting vote.

Melewsky said not providing copies of the policies and policy changes constitutes a violation of the state Sunshine Act. She said it was appropriate for school directors to check with the solicitor about the proposed changes. “But will the solicitor take calls from the public?” she asked.

“The general public is entitled to the same information as the board members,” she said.

Residents also complained at the August 2018 meeting about the limited access to meeting agendas and questioned why, like other districts, Fox Chapel did not post them online before meetings. Board member Robert Mauro said he supported that idea. Starting in September 2018, agendas were posted on Fridays before Monday board meetings.

Superintendent of the Year nomination

Also in September, another issue of concern arose for some parents when the district posted on its Facebook page a video announcing that Freeman had been nominated for National Superintendent of the Year.

The nine-minute video gave the impression that Freeman had received an official nomination for the national contest and included a handful of his top administrators listing the “Top 10” reasons Freeman should be chosen. It ended with a student thanking Freeman for all he has done and “congratulating” the superintendent on his nomination.

Fox Chapel Area School District Superintendent Gene Freeman and school board President Terry Wirginis pictured at the June 10 meeting of the board. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

Fox Chapel Area School District Superintendent Gene Freeman and school board President Terry Wirginis pictured at the June 10 meeting of the board. (Photo by Jay Manning/ PublicSource)

But to some parents, something seemed off. A check with the AASA/The School  Superintendents Association revealed the only way to be nominated for National Superintendent of the Year is for a superintendent to first be chosen by the state as superintendent of the year. The information can be found in regulations on the association’s website.

At the time the video was posted, Pennsylvania had not chosen its state superintendent of the year. Some Fox Chapel parents said they wrote letters of complaint to the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, and the video was later taken down. The video is no longer on the district’s Facebook page.

In November, Franklin Regional Superintendent Gennaro Piraino Jr. was named Pennsylvania’s Superintendent of the Year.

Freeman, who was not in the video, said in his email he was unaware the video was being made and that it was produced by the staff members who nominated him.

No individual contact information

Another area of concern for some residents and Cook is that the district does not provide individual contact information for board members. Board vice president Nancy Foster said at recent meetings that providing individual contact information would prevent the district from controlling the answers residents receive.

“If [a question] is sent to nine people, you get nine different flavors of vanilla ice cream in your answer. Everybody has basically the same answer but slightly different. The hard part is controlling the message that is delivered back to the public,” Foster said at the June 3 agenda-setting board meeting.

Cook brings the issue up for discussion often and at the June 10 meeting she said people have tried to contact her via the board email but the messages don’t get to her.

She received support on the topic from resident John Cullen who told the board he believed it was “somewhat dishonest” for the school district to list an email address under the heading of “Email the School Board” when the emails do not actually make it to the entire board.

Board members agreed at the meeting to put a disclaimer near the email address explaining that emails are funneled to the superintendent’s secretary, who forwards them to board president Wirginis and vice president Foster. Wirginis determines if the email is forwarded to the entire board or sent to the administration for response.

Cullen said neither the disclaimer nor a proposed auto-reply message explaining who receives the emails solves the problem. Still, “there isn't an opportunity for members of the public to address via email the entire board," he said.

Resident Kelly Caracciolo told the board she agreed with Cullen. “It’s 2019. We should be able to contact our elected officials,” she said.

Board committees

Cook has also asked for the board to consider re-instituting board committees for such topics as finance, curriculum, personnel and other topics.

But Wirginis dismissed the practice of discussing issues in committee meetings.

“I’d be loathe to be making such significant changes as standing committees that disrupt the actions and direction of our superintendent and deputy superintendent and district office and our principals and our teachers because we have hired the best we can find. For us to get involved in disrupting the process could be very negative,” Wirginis said at the June 3 meeting.

Other local districts in the top 10 of the Business Times rankings who have board committees include North Allegheny, Pine-Richland, Mt. Lebanon, Peters Township and Franklin Regional. Upper St. Clair, which is No. 1 in the region in the rankings, acts as a ‘committee of the whole,’ but forms ad hoc committees as needed, said spokeswoman Tina Vojtko in an email. Currently, there is a capital projects ad hoc committee.

Efforts for transparency

At most board meetings, Cook encourages her board colleagues to discuss issues publicly, largely to be either ignored, criticized or shut down.

Klamut said he finds it “disheartening” that the rest of the board does not respond to her questions.

“I see Edie ask good questions I think deserve conversation and discussion of the pros and cons and I think that’s what Edie’s asking for. But when she raises an item of board discussion there is no response and they don’t engage,” Klamut said.

“And when they do respond, it’s to make her be quiet. They take more time trying to get her to be quiet than discussing the item,” Klamut said.

Matt Peterson, an attorney and parent from Fox Chapel, said he has watched videos of school board meetings where other board members repeatedly shut down Cook’s requests for open discussions.

He referenced the June meeting where Foster and Wirginis criticized Cook for setting up a demonstration of the use of BoardDocs.com software, which helps school districts manage and display district documents including agendas, meeting minutes and policies online. Foster accused Cook of improperly representing herself as being tasked by the board with exploring the issue. Foster’s accusations prompted Cook to apologize and say she would cancel the live demo and send an online link to board members to view at their leisure.

“I’m listening and I’m absolutely enraged,” Peterson said. “She can and should be at all times looking for ways to improve the school district.”

Anne Holland, of Fox Chapel, put it more bluntly: “It's bullying. It's the kind of stuff you might see with children in school.”

Board president Wirginis disputed that characterization.

As for Cook, she wrote in an email, her only goal is to promote teamwork on the board:

“I have observed other school boards actively working together in public meetings, and my prior experience serving on boards and committees has been collaborative and productive, and so it has been somewhat of a shock to me to be treated as though I’m out of line for requesting that we deliberate together at our monthly meetings before we vote on important items.

“We are fortunate to have excellent programs and staff at each level in our district. We also have wonderful students and parents who would partner with us if we could become more open, respectful, and welcoming.”

Mary Niederberger covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at 412-515-0064 or mary@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Tom Lisi.

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