The Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board faced a packed meeting room on Oct. 28 during a special meeting to accept the resignation of board member Holly Manzone.
By John Chambless
On Monday night, in front of an audience that filled every seat in the school district's public conference room and spilled out into the hallway, the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board accepted the resignation of board member Holly Manzone and answered her allegations of secret "deals" made by the board.
Just before the meeting started, copies of a nine-page follow-up statement by Manzone were distributed to the audience and the board members, some of whom seemed surprised to read her statements.
Manzone, a four-year member of the board, abruptly resigned on Oct. 21, complaining about a lack of transparency on the board, meetings held in violation of the Sunshine Act, and an inside "deal" with a family who did not live in the district but still sent their children to Unionville-Chadds Ford schools.
In her follow-up document, Manzone provided a detailed timeline focusing on the residency controversy, admitting that, in August 2013, she twice staked out the family's non-district home and followed the family's car as they dropped their children off at district schools. It was that act that escalated her conflict with the board and administration, ultimately involving the state police and leading to her resignation.
"My observations of the family led to some uncomfortable interactions with them and with the state police," Manzone wrote in her follow-up. "My actions also led the adminsitration to finally release to the board some of the details of the residency discussions, which confirmed the existence of the deal. I do not believe that any of this information would have been shared otherwise."
Manzone's chronology begins in 2003, when the unidentified family bought a property that sits outside the school district. It is, Manzone wrote, "a large house with multiple acres of property and many amenities." The family also owns a property within the district, which Manzone called "a smaller, less attractive property."
The family's children began attending Unionville-Chadds Ford schools in 2004. In 2011, Manzone said she informed then-superintendent Sharon Parker that there was a family living outside the district who were using the schools without paying school taxes. In August 2011, Manzone said she also told incoming superintendent John Sanville about the residency issue. In September 2011, the district hired an outside firm to investigate the family's residency issues, Manzone said.
In May 2012, she said, the district sent a letter to the family, informing them that they had been found to be non-residents and that "reimbursement to the district at the state-established tuition rate is in order." The family was given 10 days to arrange for alternative education. The school board was told of the existence of this letter, Manzone noted.
The family met with the superintendent and two staff members in June 2012, when the family explained that a superintendent prior to Parker and a school principal had told them, "to establish residency, all that was needed was to provide tax records, a driver's license and voter registration for the in-district property," Manzone wrote.
In August 2012, the family reportedly agreed to follow the rules of the district regarding residency, and re-enrolled their children in the district.
Also in August, Sanville wrote to the family, saying that "the district's position is that, if the children are sleeping in the [in-district property] the majority of the time -- at least four days per week -- they will be considered residents of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District. In the matter of tuition, at this time we will set the tuition question aside. Moving forward, we will trust your affirmation of residency at [the in-district property]."
Manzone's chronology noted that during the 2012-2013 school year, she "happens by the in-district property in the evening and sees no lights or cars." Other administrators also drove by the property in 2013 and saw a car "believed to belong to family," Manzone wrote. In April 2013, the district administration said the outside surveillance of the out-of-district home was "inconclusive."
Then, on the first two days of this school year, Manzone said she went to observe the family in person. On Aug. 26, she "parked near the ex-district property in the early morning and followed the family driving to UCFSD schools and dropping off children," she wrote.
On Aug. 27, she again parked near the property to observe. When she drove away, she wrote, the father tailgated her, so she went to the state police barracks for help. Manzone wrote that the father approached her car and said, "You don't know my situation -- I have a deal with John Sanville." Manzone told Sanville what the father had said.
The family sent a letter to Sanville complaining about Manzone's actions on Aug. 27, and a state trooper met with him the same day, asking that Manzone not continue surveillance. On Aug. 28, the family asked Sanville to remove Manzone from the board.
In September, Manzone requested to see the three independent surveillance reports. The board held an executive session on Sept. 9 to discuss the residency case and Manzone's actions, and the board voted -- not unanimously -- to take no action.
On Oct. 7, an executive session was again held, during which time Sanville was to show the board the investigation documents. Some board members did not want to see them, Manzone wrote, adding that "one board member left the meeting, saying that he does not even wish to discuss the issue." Manzone did not identify that board member.
On Oct. 15, Sanville called Manzone and said that the board had voted that she should not be allowed to see the documents. Manzone resigned at the board's Oct. 21 meeting.
At the public meeting on Oct. 28, only one resident, Bruce Yelton of Pocopson Township, addressed the board, asking to know how many students who reside outside the district attend U-CF schools, how long they have attended, and what the families pay to the district. The board did not respond to his comments.
Then, after voting unanimously to accept Manzone's resignation, board members read individual statements to the audience.
Jeff Hellrung, noting that Manzone had left "a stream of accusations of serious misconduct," said, "I take Dr. Manzone's criticisms seriously. Her claims of a rubber-stamp board ... are so outrageous that they must be totally unbelievable to anyone who attends school board meetings. We have frequent, vigorous debates."
Citing Manzone's claim that the district doesn't air its "dirty laundry" in public, Hellrung said, "In the spirit of full disclosure so aggressively promoted by Dr. Manzone, without consulting either superintendent Sanville or any other school board member, she decided to personally stake out and conduct video surveillance on this family. On the first day of this school year, she did observe the family in question departing a residence outside our school district boundaries. She was observed by the parent. Dr. Manzone then followed the apparently -- and understandably -- terrified parent, exposing the parent and children to a dangerous situation on the open roads. Eventually, the parent was able to elude Dr. Manzone by pulling off the road.
"Making a bad situation far worse, Dr. Manzone returned to that residence the next day," Hellrung said. "There was no sign of children. The other parent, apparently angry or fearful for the safety of the family, aggressively approached Dr. Manzone and her vehicle. Dr. Manzone, now fearful herself, fled. A dangerous car chase ensued, with the determined parent close on the bumper of Dr. Manzone. This chase did not end until Dr. Manzone pulled into a Pennsyvania State Police barracks. At that time, the officer on duty advised Dr. Manzone that her behavior was bordering on stalking, and he advised her to cease and desist."
Hellrung asked Sanville to confirm that a state police officer had visited him regarding Manzone, and after some hesitation, Sanville confirmed the visit. "They came here to intervene on the family's behalf," he said.
Hellrung noted that the residency case "may have been mishandled from the beginning. This played out over the tenure of three superintendents," and he proposed an independent investigation into the case to clear the air once and for all. He pointed to Manzone's "obsession with this case," calling her actions "reckless, irresponsible and dangerous. Yes, the school board chose to avoid embarrassment to the adminstration or the board by not airing this dirty laundry," Hellrung said. "Our reasons were to protect the confidentiality of the family in question, to refrain from embarrassing Dr. Manzone, and to try to avoid compromising any further the investigation. But we could no longer accomplish these objectives. ... It is not the role of school board directors to appoint themselves as private investigators," he said.
Board member Kathleen Do said that during her time on the board, she and Manzone "had agreed on most, but not all, of the issues," noting that, "We, as board members, have strongly held beliefs, and we express them. My colleagues and the superintendent have always respected my wishes and I have never felt stymied."
Executive sessions, she said, "are never inappropriate, closed-door sessions. They are not over-used. All board members adhere to the letter, and the spirit, of the Sunshine Law."
She also noted that an Oct. 14 public work session was held specifically to address a new policy that would more strictly define the district's residency requirements. "Only one member of the public attended that meeting," she said. "As for Holly's claims of miscounduct, I respectfully disagree," she added.
Board member Gregg Lindner expressed his disappointment at Manzone's resignation. "I am categorically not aware of any meetings held in violation of the Sunshine Law," he said. As for deals offered by Sanville, "It is not imaginable to me that such deals could have occurred," he said. "I am proud to serve on this board, and I hope we can move on from this and get to the business at hand."
Board member Keith Knauss said, "Transparency is an issue I'm fond of," and said that he does talk to other board members outside of meetings, "but there is nothing nefarious or illegal. It is simply part of being thoroughly informed. The Sunshine Act does not prohibit school board members from learning about an issue."
Manzone was not authorized to see confidential documents, Knauss said. "No school board director has access greater than that of any other citizen," he said, adding that the board learned about the residency issue, reviewed it, and "determined that the situation was being well managed."
Manzone "has tried to tarnish the reputations of eight board members without cause," he concluded.
Board president Eileen Bushelow spoke last, saying that Manzone helped her get up to speed when she took over as the leader of the board. "I thought we were friends," she said, "even though we would not always agree. I am hurt by her accusations.
"There are many issues and documents which are, and must remain, confidential," Bushelow said. "It would be unethical to reveal them. We rigorously investigated the residency issue. ... I am sorry that Dr. Manzone found it necessary to resign, but I respect her decision."