Penn Hills lawmaker seeks state takeover of school district
Some Penn Hills school officials are asking why state Rep. Tony DeLuca made a second request for a state takeover of the financially troubled district.
DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, recently wrote to David Volkman, executive deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, asking that the district be put into the state’s financial recovery program and that a fiscal overseer be named to run the district.
“Hopefully they’ll get back to me sooner than later,” DeLuca said, referring to the department, “but we’re not going to stop trying to help the citizens of Penn Hills.”
DeLuca made a similar request for state intervention in January. Education Department officials had no specific comment on DeLuca’s requests, saying only that the department was providing Penn Hills with technical assistance with its financial problems.
DeLuca criticized the school board’s recent actions in appointing a new member.
George Sens, a retired Penn Hills policeman who had been the district security chief for six years, was appointed to a vacant seat on May 8. Sens’ wife and daughter are district employees.
DeLuca said in his letter to Volkman that it appears school directors “once again simply voted ‘one of their own’ to sit on the board.”
School Board President Erin Vecchio said she doesn’t think DeLuca’s letter was necessary because the state Education Department is already helping the district.
Vecchio said Superintendent Nancy Hines recently met with Volkman and state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera in Harrisburg, “and they all said we are on the right path to recovery.
“We’ve been going off their guidelines and the (Allegheny County District Attorney’s) guidelines.”
DeLuca’s letter to Volkman said the current school board, facing a massive debt, continues to demonstrate the “inability — or simply lack of desire” to obtain financial expertise and forge a solution to the district’s money troubles.
The district has an estimated $170 million debt that largely is tied to construction of the high school and elementary school.
The Allegheny County district attorney and state attorney general are investigating the school district over its management of taxpayer funds.
Taxes went up last year and are expected to rise again for the 2017-18 academic year.
DeLuca wrote in his recent letter that the district is “desperately in need of fresh insight and oversight” and that its financial situation can’t improve without state intervention.
Hines said that although district officials haven’t seen DeLuca’s letter, she’s confident the district is handling operations properly.
“While Penn Hills School District has its challenges, Moody’s and our independent auditor agree that we are making headway,” Hines said in a statement, referring to the credit rating agency.
“We are not sure how state oversight will benefit our community, especially since the district attorney has not yet concluded his investigation,” the statement said.
Hines added that district officials are disappointed in DeLuca’s willingness to cede control of the school system to the state.
Vecchio also questioned DeLuca’s timing.
“Sen. Jay Costa has been helping us all along,” she said, referring to the Forest Hills Democrat.
“DeLuca has only been criticizing. Why isn’t he helping us? Where was Mr. DeLuca when all this overspending was going on? I was in the audience trying to stop it, but he was nowhere to be found.”
Board Vice President Denise Graham-Shealey said Hines and district business manager David Roussos have frequent meetings about finances with state officials.
If a financial recovery officer is appointed, “the school system will be there, but what happens to a community?” Graham-Shealey said. “I don’t believe that the debt goes away.”
Regarding Sens’ appointment to the board, DeLuca pointed out that Robert Marra, who is vice president of technology for manufacturer Almatis and has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wasn’t chosen.
Marra has said he believes the board failed to give his application due consideration. DeLuca described the board’s search process as “deeply flawed,” even though it may have ended with a qualified board member being chosen.
Vecchio said board candidate interviews weren’t necessary because the board reviewed the resumes of and knew all three candidates.
“We needed a person we could trust and knew the district and knew what’s going on,” Vecchio said. “I think Mr. Marra is a qualified person and knew his stuff, but he said he’s out of town on business a lot and we needed someone to be here.”