New Castle News

October 28, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: Questions abound in New Castle tuition scandal

Mitchel Olszak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — With the release of names in the New Castle school district tuition scandal, a local drama comes to a close.

Well, not exactly.

Countless questions still hang over the matter of non-resident employees who failed to pay required tuition for their children who attended New Castle schools. And taxpayers who want answers aren't getting them from school officials.

The school board and administration are treating this matter like a Halloween vampire: Drive a stake through its heart then bury it fast and bury it deep.

The Pennsylvania auditor general finding that school employees received more than $100,000 worth of free tuition courtesy of taxpayers covered a period of just four school years. You would think that conscientious school officials — looking out for the interest of taxpayers — would be more than a little curious about other years and additional abuses of the system.

But you would be wrong. As far as New Castle school officials are concerned, there's no need to look any further. Doing so could be more than a little inconvenient.

After all, anyone who has followed this matter has seen and heard the list of names associated with this scandal. Probing deeper might serve the interests of the taxpayers, and send a message about the need for integrity in local education. But apparently, these are not the priorities in the New Castle school system.

So taxpayers are left to wonder what's still out there, and what's to stop other employees from exploiting them.

But they do have options. They can ask the questions no one is answering.

For example: Here are some for the teachers who twisted the rules:

•Where did you get the idea to do this?

•Why did you think it was acceptable to falsely claim you lived in the district in order to receive free tuition?

•Were there other people who did this in prior years? Do you think it's fair you were exposed and they were not?

•Why do you work for the New Castle school system, take tax money as a salary and send your kids to city schools for free, but you don't live in the city and pay property taxes there?

•Do you see yourselves as role models for the district's students?

And here are some questions for the school board and administration:

•Assuming these teachers pay back the tuition they took, will they be charged interest? Or is the district treating the tuition like free loans?

•Will these teachers be forced to pay for the legal fees of a Pittsburgh law firm retained to deal with the scandal — including the open records fight to keep their names secret?

•Why isn't the district looking at other years to see if even more money was taken from taxpayers that should be returned?

•Have any other entities been made aware of this scandal? For instance, was the Pennsylvania Department of Education told teachers were conducting themselves in this fashion? Are their teaching certificates at risk as a result?

Similarly, did anyone notify the IRS or Pennsylvania Department of Revenue about this matter? Employees who receive a material benefit from an employer are obliged to declare its value on their tax returns. Did that happen in these cases?

Perhaps there are entities out there that are a bit more interested in taxpayer accountability than New Castle school officials are. If more people have taken advantage over the years, tax collectors would want to know.

These are not just idle questions in the aftermath of an unfortunate scandal. They get to the root of how this school district handles its obligations to taxpayers.

And rest assured, taxpayers are watching. They've been watching for years as the district's leadership has papered over one ethical embarrassment after another.

Taxpayers watch with the hope that maybe, just maybe, this time it will be different. Maybe this time the school board will stand up and do the right thing.

But those hopes have been dashed yet again.

The result is citizen disgust that manifests itself in a variety of ways. It explains lousy voter turnout in local elections. Why bother to cast a ballot when the winners won't fight for the taxpayers?

It explains why so many properties are allowed to deteriorate in the city. Why bother maintaining them when New Castle's image, and property values, are smeared from the top?

Part of the commitment for maintaining a community's property values is sending out a message that integrity in government matters. For the New Castle school board, it doesn't.

Taxpayers could be forgiven for giving up and turning away. But they have too much at stake. Instead of going away quietly, they need to get loud and get mad. Much more than money is being taken from them.

(Mitchel Olszak is the news and editorial page editor at The News.)