New Castle News

November 10, 2012

Ethics findings issued against New Castle school director

Debbie Wachter
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — The state Ethics Commission has issued findings against a New Castle Area School Board member.

The recent findings, posted on the commission’s website, indicate that Mark Kirkwood, an elected school director since 2003, used the district to obtain college credits for his son, Matt, at reduced costs, enabling his son to obtain an athletic scholarship.

The findings also show that Kirkwood’s son, a college student, was the only student attending summer school in the district in 2010 through its Seton Hill University College in High School program.

The program, which is designated for high school juniors and seniors, enabled the young Kirkwood to complete college credits he needed to transfer from Shelton State Community College in Alabama to Cleveland University in Ohio to enter its baseball program.

As a result, he transferred and received a scholarship from that college.

The credit program approved by the New Castle district stipulated the credits are for juniors and seniors in high school in order to provide them with college-level credits at a reduced cost through completion of specifically approved high school classes. Seton Hill partners with school districts statewide to provide the credit program.



TRANSGRESSION

The Ethics Commission in its conclusions determined that “a transgression” of the state Public Officials and Employee Ethics Act occurred with the district’s program and was used to assist Kirkwood’s son in getting college credits to obtain an athletic scholarship that would minimize the financial burden of his college education.

The commission acknowledged that since the investigation began, Kirkwood already has reimbursed Seton Hill $4,495 in full for the cost of the tuition of the two courses. He also paid the school district in $674 in full for the cost of paying the two district teachers who taught the courses, after receiving two invoices from district business manager Joe Ambrosini.

Kirkwood also is ordered to pay $1,000 to the state Ethics Commission within six months for the cost of the investigation.

According to the commission findings, New Castle’s assistant to the superintendent, Terry Meehan, initiated the district’s affiliation with Seton Hill’s College in High School program in January 2010.

In the following month, the board approved the agreement between the district and Seton Hill to provide the courses for the 2010-11 year. Kirkwood did not attend that meeting.

The agreement states that participating students must be high school juniors or seniors.

According to Commission findings, Matt Kirkwood graduated from high school on June 1, 2008, and enrolled at Shelton Community College that fall. In the spring of 2010,  he decided to transfer to Cleveland State.

The findings allege that Cleveland was interested in recruiting him for baseball, and that the university offered him a scholarship worth 85 percent off the cost of tuition for two years to play the following fall.



CREDITS NEEDED

Mark Kirkwood became aware that his son needed six credits to transfer and had told Meehan after a board meeting about his son’s scholarship chance, the findings say. Kirkwood approached Meehan to see if he had any contacts to help his son get the needed summer credits, because the enrollment deadline had passed for schools where he was trying to make up the courses.

On June 24 of that year Meehan wrote to Seton Hill, requesting its approval to offer two summer courses to Kirkwood, but did not indicate that Kirkwood was a college student.

The findings state that Meehan alleged to ethics investigators that he wanted to use the summer program as a “trial run” to eventually open it up to all New Castle graduates who are college students needing summer credits.

The findings indicate, however, that summer courses for college students were not approved by the school board.

Meehan yesterday said there was a “misunderstanding” between him and Seton Hill that Kirkwood was a college student.

“We wanted to do it as an extension of what we already had. This was kind of a pilot to see if we could do it and cover the curriculum into that time. I should have put more students into it. It was meant to see if we could cover the content,” he said.

According to the ethics findings, the district had to have a different calculus teacher approved by Seton Hill for Kirkwood’s summer course because the one approved for the program was not able to teach it.



LIKE EVERYONE ELSE

Meehan said he didn’t consider that Kirkwood was a board member in setting up the classes.

“It was more him approaching me as a community member, looking for possible solutions for an academic need,” he said. “Anyone who came to my door with a request, I would try my best to accommodate them. It wasn’t a situation where he got special treatment.

“The program’s been a wonderful benefit to a lot of kids in New Castle,” Meehan commented of College in High School. “I hate to put a dark shadow on it.

Meehan emphasized that he works closely with Seton Hill. The program averages about 80 students a year in the district and Seton Hill monitors it closely and approves the courses, instructors and content, he said.

Kirkwood said yesterday that he intended no wrongdoing.

“I just think that whoever started an investigation jumped to some conclusions. It was never my intention to do what they said I did.

“We were just too late to get into community college, and I wanted to see about getting him into summer school. That’s the last I heard till Meehan said we’re going to do that.

“I just have to pay the cost of investigation back to them and I’m preparing to do that,” he added.

Attempts to reach district Superintendent George Gabriel were unsuccessful yesterday.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)