New Castle News

Schools

August 30, 2013

Our Opinion: New Castle must call for criminal probe in tuition scandal

NEW CASTLE — With every new report on the New Castle school district’s tuition scandal, the puzzle grows more complex.

Last week, in a story published in the New Castle News, superintendent John Sarandrea said the district is conducting hearings into non-resident school employees allegedly found to have sent their children to city schools without paying required tuition.

These hearings, overseen by the city school board, are closed to the public. Throughout this process, it has been obvious the law — or at least the law as interpreted by the city school system — is far more interested in protecting these employees than it is in the need of citizens to understand how their government works.

The identities of these employees has not been made public. We note this newspaper is in the midst of an open records battle with the school district, seeking those names and other financial and decision-making data related to findings by the Pennsylvania auditor general’s office.

The district has retained the services of an outside law firm to assist it in its efforts to keep the information confidential.

We happen to believe details related to this matter are — for any number of reasons — crucial to the public’s right to know. The evidence is clear that the New Castle school district failed miserably to account for funds in these cases. Now the public is expected to be satisfied that the district is suddenly doing its job properly, without any means of gauging that.

Based on comments and filings, the district appears to be taking the position it’s worried about the consequences of identifying the employees responsible. “They have union rights, too,” Sarandrea told The News. He noted any action the district takes against these employees could be challenged through a union grievance.

Well, there is a very simple solution to that. The matter could be turned over to law enforcement for criminal investigation. There is no union grievance available for criminal charges.

And we think there is ample indication individuals knowingly filed false documentation to avoid tuition payments. The state’s finding that all individuals responsible were school employees shows a pattern of internal abuse of public funds within the district.

In his recent comments to The News, Sarandrea implies school secretaries were to blame for the failure to take proper tuition payments. But that position fails to explain why the employees in question provided inaccurate residency data to the district. That’s not the fault of secretaries.

District officials would be doing themselves a favor, and striking a blow for public accountability, by calling for a criminal investigation into these matters. It would also send a clear message that this district is serious about putting an end to such abuses of taxpayers.

And if officials fail to do this, citizens ought to demand it.

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