Backlash continues against Coatesville school board
October 24, 2013 | Daily Local News
The Coatesville Area School Board continued to face public backlash after its members appointed independent legal counsel Tuesday to represent the district in an ongoing criminal investigation and to review the actions of the school board members and those of the district’s embattled solicitor.
Earlier this week Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan pressured the district by releasing a scathing statement that named solicitor James Ellison, and his Harrisburg law firm Rhoads & Sinon, as the potential targets of a criminal probe.
Hogan, who also criticized the school board’s cooperation with authorities, said Ellison and Rhoads & Sinon were no longer in a position to represent the district due to a “legal conflict of interest” caused by the investigation of the solicitor and his firm.
At Tuesday’s meeting the school board hired the Philadelphia-based law firm Conrad O’Brien as special counsel. The firm will represent the district throughout the remainder of the District Attorney Office’s investigation and will also conduct an internal investigation of the district.
Conrad O’Brien attorney Matthew Haverstick said he will represent the school district during the District Attorney’s investigation and “any related matters,” but is not replacing Ellison in his regular duties.
“I understand the DA’s office has concerns. I am looking forward to working with that office, cooperating with that office on behalf of the board, and understanding what the concerns are and working out a solution to those concerns,” Haverstick told the Daily Local News Wednesday.
The district has been mired in controversy since the first week of the school year, when former Superintendent Richard Como and former high school Director of Athletics and Activities Jim Donato abruptly resigned after racist and sexist text message exchanges were discovered on their district-issued cell phones. Public outrage that was initially directed at the two disgraced former administrators was later aimed at the school board and its legal representation in reaction to the district’s handling of the situation
Many community members made it clear Tuesday night that they will not rest until they feel the entire truth is presented, and until Ellison, acting Superintendent Angelo Romanello, and board members are replaced.
Judy Brown, who has orchestrated several protests and marches before previous school board meetings and was one of the eight residents who took a trip to Harrisburg earlier this month to seek aid for the district, continued to voice her disapproval of the school board’s actions Tuesday night.
Brown has continued to voice her concerns at board meetings and has argued that the school board should have handled the situation differently from the beginning.
“The school board as a whole is not being held accountable for their actions or inactions,” Brown said. “The ones who truly did not know the entire scope of the text messages should be angry that they were pulled into this situation and for them to continue to sit up on that stage with these deceitful people shows us that they condone their behavior.”
Attendance at school board meetings has slowly declined since an initial spike after the controversy first became public. But many who do attend say they believe school board members are not properly communicating with the public.
“(The school board) continues to pacify us by giving us bits and pieces of truth whether it’s intentional or unintentional ... I don’t think the school board cares at the moment,” resident Elgin Bailey said Wednesday. “At this point, I don’t believe they do. They may have started out that way, but sadly those who did have gotten caught up in the wave of madness.”
Community members also reacted to Hogan’s statement that criticized Ellison and what the DA characterized as the school board’s lack of cooperation during the criminal investigation. Many said they saw the hiring of Conrad O’Brien as a sign the district took Hogan’s comments seriously.
“(Hiring Conrad O’Brien) tells me that someone on the board is starting to realize that these accusations are real and trouble is on the horizon,” Brown said. “If you have to spend more of the taxpayers’ money to hire an outside firm to investigate your solicitor, you have no choice but to fire him.”
Among the attorneys who work at Conrad O’Brien are Alan Novak, a former solicitor for the City of Coatesville and former head of the Pennsylvania and Chester County Republican committees, and Eugene Twardowski, who was president of the Great Valley School Board.
It was not immediately known how much Conrad O’Brien will be paid to provide the school board with special counsel.