W HEN WILL Luzerne County residents finally fix their fouled-up public school districts?
A regional crackdown on public corruption nearly four years ago exposed certain districts, most notoriously Wilkes-Barre Area, as fiefdoms in which particular board members abused their elected posts and expected multi-thousand-dollar bribes in exchange for awarding district contracts and teaching jobs. Rather than a wave of reforms, the embarrassing revelations produced a trickle of poor excuses from wrongheaded school directors and their apologists, and little, if any, action.
Many school directors, for instance, won't even halt the legal – but unfair and ethically icky – practice of plopping family members, friends and acquaintances in the front of the line for school employment opportunities and promotions.
As recently as this month, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District's board majority blew a golden opportunity to end the who-you-know hiring method. Rather than make a clean break from past practices, five members of the nine-person board voted on Nov. 5 to abruptly terminate the search for a new district superintendent and instead hire the in-house candidate. They also approved a written teacher hiring policy that does not strictly forbid employing a board member's relative.
In William Ecenbarger's newly released book Kids for Cash, which delves into Luzerne County's juvenile justice scandal of 2009, he points out the prevalence in this part of the state of school board misbehavior. For example:
• Dr. Thomas Baldino, the Wilkes University political science professor and longtime critic of local public education, likens some districts to ‘job-selling cesspools.' … ‘If you want a job teaching, you have to know somebody or pay somebody.'
• Nepotism has been a way of life in northeastern Pennsylvania for so long that it is accepted and expected. School districts are loaded with the families and friends of school directors and top administrators.
• Just before the 2002 election, The Times Leader did a survey and found that fully one-third of the incumbent school directors who were seeking re-election in Luzerne County had relatives working in the school districts they oversaw.
• In 2009, Jeffrey T. Namey, superintendent of the Wilkes-Barre Area School District, claimed that a school board member's wife, a principal's son, and a teacher's son were all the best possible selections for elementary teaching positions among all the applicants.
• William C. Kashatus, a local historian who has written five books about the anthracite region and teaches at Luzerne County Community College, said corruption has led directly to inferior schools: ‘We tell our best education students not to apply for jobs around here.'
The poor conduct of certain school directors shouldn't be tolerated. But the implication one draws from reading passages like these is that most county residents have not yet resolved to reform their troubled school boards because the populace is too disinterested, too dumb or too deadened to the right way of doing things now that the wrong way has persisted for so long.
For how much longer will you say and do nothing while some school directors behave shamefully?
• Attend Wilkes-Barre Area School Board meetings; your presence will speak volumes. Its next session is set for 5:30 p.m. Dec. 3 in the Administration Building, 730 S. Main St., Wilkes-Barre.
• Identify residents of the school district who will make viable, reform-minded candidates in future elections, with an eye on reshaping the board majority.
• Enlist others – from lawmakers, to neighbors, to groups such as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association – to amplify calls for change.