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Chester County Press

Freeloaders and furor in U-CF school district

11/06/2013 03:15PM ● By Acl

When Holly Manzone resigned from the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board on Oct. 21, she did so with maximum impact, taking other board members and school superintendent John Sanville by surprise with her printed statement that she distributed to the press before leaving the building.

That document detailed Manzone's long list of concerns. She said she feels that dissent is squelched in the board's meetings, that there are behind-the-scenes conversations among board members to reach a concensus on issues, that executive sessions are used excessively, that community members who complain are criticized, and that data is withheld from some board members. "We have become a model of poor governance," she said in her resignation letter.

Her accusations were capped by her charge that the administration and board are sheltering "a clear violation of our residency requirements," specifically by allowing a family that lives outside the school district to send their children to U-CF schools without paying taxes. That bombshell went off rather spectacularly, causing the board to hold a meeting on Oct. 28 to formally accept Manzone's resignation, but also to deflect public anger about the rumored freeloaders and backroom deals.

Just before the meeting began, a nine-page typed document from Manzone was distributed to the audience and the board members. The follow-up gave dates and details about the out-of-district family and Manzone's efforts to pursue the truth about them. She also admitted that she had staked out the family in her own car, watching them to see if they dropped their children at U-CF schools. And then, she admitted, she did it again the next day.

That action was also the focus of many of the statements read by the board members. Where Manzone saw herself as a crusader for justice in the face of a cover-up, the board saw her as a loose cannon who had become obsessed with this non-resident family. Both sides admit that tempers flared on the part of Manzone and the understandably frightened family, and that the police got involved.

Whether Manzone is a hero or a threat depends on which side you believe. At the Oct. 28 meeting, each board member read statements refuting Manzone's charges in clear, forceful terms. There was minimal public input, with only one man standing up to ask the board about the residency issue.

Again and again, the board members said that Manzone's actions were over the line, that the residency issues are investigated thoroughly, and that there are no deals being made in secret meetings.

But that only feeds the suspicions of the residents who choose to side with Manzone, and no amount of denials will alter their opinion that the district's sterling reputation is being stolen by families who don't pay to support the schools.

Manzone said in her follow-up that the family in question has "a large house outside the UCFSD with multiple acres of property and many amenities." Her point is that this family could well afford to pay the school taxes, yet they maintain "a smaller, less attractive property located within the UCFSD" to get around the residency laws.

Superintendent Sanville inherited this problem from previous administrations, but he, like the board, is barred by confidentiality laws from revealing the family's identity and other details. The investigation of this family has taken years, and the issues are complicated. The administration must probe any instance of non-residents taking advantage of U-CF schools, of course, but fact-finding comes down to where people are living for what percentage of the week. In the case of divorced families, for instance, are the children staying with mom or dad, inside or outside the district? How many hours? Where do the residences sit? Can tax paperwork be obtained?

This process takes a while, and stretches the resources of a school district that should be thinking about educating students, not being private investigators.

Manzone said in her follow-up statment that, "The board and its individual members have the right and the duty to probe any issue when lacking confidence that the administration has provided the board with proper information that the board needs to perform its oversight role."

But does that duty include following a family's car as they drop their children off at school? Probably not.

Manzone's resignation has become a rallying cry for a few residents who see the administration as the evil empire. It has also raised questions about residency issues and what goes on at board meetings -- probably among people who don't bother to sit through the board's public work sessions, where issues are discussed, sometimes vehemently. The board members have a wide range of opinions and political backgrounds, and the idea that they are formulating secret deals about letting wealthy people "steal" education in the district is puzzling at best. What would the board and administration stand to gain by letting non-district families in, free of charge?

This simmering issue will not be going away, but in the meantime, the board should be scrupulously transparent, and get back to the business of running a school district.