By John Chambless
In a move that seemed to take the board by surprise, Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board member Holly Manzone resigned her position, effective immediately, at the board's Oct. 21 meeting and left the building.
The meeting, held at Unionville Elementary School, continued after Manzone's departure, but several board members expressed their shock about her sudden resignation.
"I've felt honored to serve this fine community as a school director for the past four years," Manzone told the board before she resigned. "I will leave this position with pride in my accomplishments, especially for providing a syllabus for all secondary courses. ... The ability of a school board to govern effectively relies on communication. Our board has eliminated most committee meetings and much of the discussion prior to votes takes place in private conversations among board members. ... Without adequate information, I cannot perform the job that I was elected to do. I therefore resign from the school board, effective immediately. Goodbye."
In a printed statement handed to board members and the press, Manzone spelled out her reasons for leaving her position. "I do not think school board members should simply rubber-stamp the decisions of the school administration, but rather should critically examine our district's policies, practices, and results to identify issues and potential improvements," she wrote. "While I believe that UCFSD is an excellent school district, there is clearly room for improvement. In my view, the best way to effect that improvement is to have open and honest discussion, based on facts and data that are unfiltered by administrators or others who wish to influence outcomes of decisions, audits, and performance reviews. … The administration and board have become more concerned with looking good than with confronting real issues that need to be addressed."
Among Manzone's objections were that, "Open discussion is frowned upon and dissent is squelched at both the public and executive session meetings. Meetings, especially public meetings, are often orchestrated, with many 'pre-meetings' and phone calls behind the scenes to prevent genuine public discussion of contentious issues and avoid any embarrassment to the administration or the board."
Manzone also feels that executive sessions which exclude the public are over-used. "Engineering topics in this way may allow the district to comply with the letter of the Sunshine Law, but it surely violates its spirit," she wrote.
"Access to underlying data and original documents is withheld, even if it is not confidential," Manzone wrote. "Information is shared unequally, with not all board members receiving the same background for deliberations. Also, private 'votes' are held without canvassing all members."
In particular, Manzone objected to how the board and administration have reacted to residency requirements which allow families outside the district to send children to Unionville-Chadds Ford schools without paying taxes to those schools.
"The final straw for me has been a recent situation in which the district administration failed to adequately investigate and pursue a clear violation of our residency requirements, confirmed by investigative reports," she wrote. "Rather than aggressively defend the interests of the district and our taxpayers, the administration dragged their feet for more than two years and ultimately struck a 'deal' with the parties - without discussing their actions or the terms of the 'deal' with the board. The board learned of the deal and its terms only a year after it was struck. The 'deal' includes forgoing back tuition payments for the period of non-residency and a pledge not to question district residency in the future.
"When I asked for the reports underlying this course of action, I was told I could not see them," Manzone wrote. "While this particular instance may be a 'done deal,' the refusal to examine it means there is no hope of improvement or change in the future."
After she left the meeting, Manzone spoke briefly in the hallway about her decision. "These are issues I think we've all known about," she said, adding that she decided to resign last week. "It's pretty much outlined in the letter. I hate to hurt the district, or the students or anyone else. I don't mean harm for anyone," she said.
Manzone, who is seeking a seat on the Pocopson Township Board of Supervisors in next month's election, added, "I only had this meeting and next month's meeting. I'm a lame duck. I'm not running for re-election. I just felt that I had to make a statement."
Manzone represented Newlin, Pocopson and Birmingham townships on the school board. Commenting later in the meeting about her departure, board member Victor Dupuis said, "She had made a decision to make a grand exit and leave her area unrepresented. I'm disappointed by that."
Board member Jeff Hellrung said, "I'm as in the dark as anyone about Dr. Manzone's resignation. I think this school board is extremely consciencious about following Right-to-Know. I'm rather flabbergasted by that whole thing. Even at public PTO meetings, we make sure we don't have five board members there. We don't even want the appearance that five of us are together, doing school board business. … My colleague, Keith Knauss, is an expert on Right-to-Know. He's written briefs, he's taken depositions, he's very knowledgeable, and we're very lucky to have him on the board. If we ever do drift, he'll say, 'Hold on, this is a Right-to-Know issue. This should be done in public.' And we will do that.
"If you're going to be on the school board, you have to work as a team member, even when your ideas don't prevail," Hellrung continued. "If there are individuals who can't do that, they shouldn't be on a board like this."
Board member Kathleen Do said, "I'm disappointed that this happened. I think she will have a positive legacy. She did do a lot of good -- especially the syllabus, it's something that everybody uses. There's other things that she did, too. She was nothing if not passionate about this district, and I think that was a very good thing. I have to agree with Mr. Hellrung, though. I have not seen the problems she described here about things happening behind closed doors. There's no question that we do talk, in one-to-one conversations, all the time, but it never goes beyond that. If there's three of us, we stop talking."
Board president Eileen Bushelow agreed, saying, "I'm as surprised as everyone else. I also agree that I don't believe there are backdoor votes going on."
The board will vote on Manzone's resignation at next month's meeting.
"I'd like to thank Holly for her years of service," said district superintendent John Sanville.