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October 26, 2012

New Castle Schools: Livid over Lockley, Gabriel will retire

NEW CASTLE — Livid about the school board nixing the Lockley school consolidation last week, New Castle superintendent George Gabriel announced his retirement.

“I can’t work in this environment,” Gabriel commented about the divisiveness of the school board.

In a 5-4 vote, the boardaccepted his prepared resignation letter, effective Jan. 31.

Those same five had voted just minutes earlier against proceeding with a $22.9 million project to consolidate the district’s four elementary schools into one early learning center.

The five are Marilyn Berkely, Anna Pascarella, Barbara Razzano, Mary Ann Tofel and David DiGiammarino.

The defeat sparked the ire of Gabriel and board president Allan Joseph, who shouted and pointed fingers, demanding they give reasons for their no votes and chastising them for “throwing $9 million down the drain.”

Votes to proceed came from Joseph, Stacey Fleo, Mark Kirkwood and Karen Humphrey.

“How could you do that to this district?” Joseph asked.

The $9 million translates into about $7 million the district could end up having to pay in penalties to repay a $17.5 million in qualified school construction bonds at zero interest to the state. The funds were state-approved specific to the project, district business manager Joe Ambrosini explained.

The district has already spent more than $1.5 million in architectural construction manager and legal fees and other professional costs toward the project. Tofel, DiGiammarino and Pascarella usually voted in favor of those payments as they came up each month, but Razzano and Berkeley consistently voted no because they opposed the project from the start.

Joseph asked Pascarella why she voted to spend the money, then voted against the project.

“I hope everyone sees what you’re about now,” he commented.

Before voting, Pascarella told the board that economic times have changed and she now cannot justify a $62 million debt service.

“I would love to have a new building, but with the changing times ... I can’t vote to support this project,” she said.

“I’d like to remind you that you voted to spend $1 million for this project,” Joseph said to her. “How could you do this to this district? That sounds like a setup. How could you change your vote at the last minute?”

Fleo asked what the no-voters’ alternative plan is for the elementary buildings, pointing out it will cost as much to bring them up to code.

After the vote, Kirkwood said that it’ will cost the district as much or more to renovate the four schools.

“The interest-free loan is gone forever,” he said.

He demanded those who voted no to say why. Razzano, Kirkwood and Tofel did not offer comments.

Fleo said she made a point to visit all the elementary buildings. “Some of them are terrible, and the kids are doubled up at St. Joseph’s,” she said, adding that Lockley School won’t be able to reopen.

Gabriel, raising his voice, demanded of the no-voters, “Maybe you should tell us what your plan is. Give us your plan. Are we supposed to leave here today and just have business as usual?”

DiGiammarino said he has a problem with the extra $4 million in additional cost over the initial $19 million projection. He believes it will take the district 22 years to make up the $23 million.

DiGiammarino said he would like to see the proposals presented to the district before the Lockley project was on the board, before he was a board member.

Gabriel asked him if he would like to see the children educated in trailers, and DiGiammarino said he wouldn’t have a problem with that temporarily while a solution is reached.

District business manager Joe Ambrosini explained that if the district does not do the project, it still has a cost every year of operating four cafeterias, paying eight janitors, four secretaries and four school nurses and operating four old boiler systems. In addition, the buildings are not Americans With Disabilities Act compliant.

The district is spending $150,000 to operate those buildings each year, which with one building would be a savings, he said.

“Nobody has talked about an answer for our kids,” Gabriel said. “That’s sad. It’s sad for a teacher who spent a career educating students. That’s very sad,” he said, referring to Tofel.

Gabriel then asked DiGiammarino why he hadn't gone to him to ask to see his contract. He had learned DiGiammarino and other board members had requested a copy of his superintendent’s contract from the school.

“We have a right to know,” DiGiammarino said.

“We’ve been on this project since 2004,” Gabriel pointed out. “This is the worst decision that any board in the history of this district has ever made. We’re down to being busted now, with three old buildings.”

Gabriel, sitting next to Tofel and two seats away from Pascarella and DiGiammarino, commented, “I want my seat moved away from the stench, the hypocrisy. I can’t stand it.”

When he asked the board for a vote on his retirement, Kirkwood, Joseph and Humphrey asked him to reconsider.

“I can no longer work with this board,” he said. “Too many micromanagers. My decision is final.”

(Email: dwachter @ncnewsonline.com)

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