New Castle News

Editorials

November 23, 2012

Our Opinion: Lingering questions, City’s Kirkwood case remains open

NEW CASTLE — An official “censure” of New Castle school board member Mark Kirkwood should not end an ethics case in the district.

Partly because it’s not just Kirkwood’s conduct that’s at issue.

Serious questions linger about actions taken by assistant superintendent Terence Meehan in the matter investigated by the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission.

The commission issued a finding against Kirkwood, and ultimately assessed a penalty of $1,000 to help cover the cost of the probe. Meehan wasn’t cited in the commission’s report, but there’s plenty in it that demands further explanation.

If they haven’t already, we urge all district officials to read the commission’s finding in the Kirkwood matter. Members of the public should too. It can be found at: www.ethicsrulings.state.pa.us/weblink8/DocView.aspx?id=205342&searchid=fcd61acf-e67c-4f80-9002-ffb407f6d7a9&dbid=0

The case involving Kirkwood stems from the fact his son, a college student at the time, took two courses from Seton Hill University through New Castle High.

This was in the summer of 2010, when a new program — supposed to start that fall — was to give New Castle High School students the chance to pick up college credits at a reduced cost.

According to the findings, Kirkwood approached Meehan, who had arranged the program with Seton Hill, to see if there was a way to get some credits for his son, who needed them to obtain an athletic scholarship.

Meehan then started the program earlier than approved by the board, and did not tell Seton Hill officials Kirkwood’s son had graduated from high school. That’s key, because the program and its reduced costs were to be limited to high school juniors and seniors.

Kirkwood pleads ignorance, claiming he did not understand the program was limited to high school students. But that’s hard to accept: the tuition imposed under this program was far less than regular college credit costs. Who did Kirkwood think was making up the difference?

Likewise, Meehan’s explanation for his conduct here is something of a stretch. He says he began the program early as a trial run. But he did it without authorization.

What’s more, in starting the program early, he assured Seton Hill officials the courses for Kirkwood’s son would include a regular workload. But the ethics commission found Seton Hill expected 45 hours of instruction per course, but only 12 hours was given to Kirkwood’s son.

All combined, this creates the very real appearance that Meehan set up a system of favoritism to benefit a school board member’s son. And it was done in a manner to ensure quick and easy college credits, not the real courses Seton Hill demanded.

The ethics commission may be done with its investigation. But the New Castle school district still has work to do.

Manipulating a program intended to aid students reflects badly on the district. And the explanations offered so far produce skepticism, not answers.

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