Sussex Tech teachers met with several school board members July 12 to discuss concerns first voiced at the school board meeting July 9.
Tech English teacher Virginia Forcucci said staff met for several hours with board members Judy Emory, Teresa Carey and George Torbert to stress the need for transparency and accountability from the board.
“This was the first time we’ve been able to have open communication with the board, and we were thrilled to engage with them,” she said. “We spoke from the heart and they listened. I’m not sure where they stand beyond the fact that they assured us they want open lines of communication and success for our school. As teachers, we just want a school that operates with integrity and honesty, and I hope our missions align.”
Sussex Tech’s school board is not elected; the board is appointed by the governor to seven-year terms. Gov. John Carney appointed new members Gregory Johnson and Marcel Hayes; incumbents were appointed by previous governors. The Delaware General Assembly sets Tech’s annual budget, which is funded by property taxes levied countywide.
Forcucci said she and other teachers are meeting with Carney next week. Carney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
At the school board’s annual reorganization meeting July 9, Sussex Tech teachers again asked incumbent board members to resign. Board President Pat Cooper resigned before the meeting and did not attend. Forcucci said no official statement was released to staff announcing Cooper’s resignation, but that a new board member notified a few teachers via email. Cooper could not be reached for comment.
In June, teachers first asked Cooper, vice-president George Torbert and board members Teresa Carey, Judy Emory and Warren Reid to resign.
Forcucci and 10 coworkers addressed board members and new superintendent Stephen H. Guthrie at the July 9 meeting, citing the board’s poor oversight, false promises and a lack of support for teachers and students. About a dozen other teachers attended the meeting.
Referring to Emory and Carey’s meeting attendance, special education supervisor Carol Evans said if Sussex Tech’s teachers and students missed school that often, they would be denied credit or looking for a new job.
“From July 2012 through June 2014, the very years when our corrupt district leadership was setting groundwork for their scheme, board members Teresa Carey and Judy Emory missed a total of 19 out of 25 board meetings,” she said. “To highlight the importance of your attendance, we need only to look at August 2013 where, by a vote of 3 to 2, the board voted to authorize the piggybacking of contracts with Common Sense Solutions. Mrs. Emory, you chose not to attend that meeting. Your attendance would have been greatly appreciated.”
A June 2017 State Auditor of Accounts report found ethical and financial transgressions in Sussex Tech’s business dealings with companies Common Sense Solutions LLC and Governmental Services LLC, both owned by Michael Horsey, who profited through business deals with the district.
Nicole E. Magnusson, Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn’s spokesperson, said while the Auditor’s report raises concerns about whether certain Sussex Tech employees violated public trust, an independent investigation concluded there was insufficient evidence to prove criminal charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
Evans said Emory missed 36 percent of meetings those two fiscal years, and Carey missed 40 percent.
“Your lack of attendance certainly makes us think Sussex Tech is not your priority,” Evans said. “Your chronic absences made it impossible for you to even use your voices. This is an absolute dereliction of duty which should come with severe consequences.”
Social studies teacher Debbie Long said the board’s voting record “has been nothing more than a rubber stamp that has validated every wish and whim of our district administration. From July 2012 to June 2017, a total of 564 motions were put to vote. Only 10 times were dissenting votes cast at board meetings. This means our board unanimously approved 98 percent of all motions put in front of it.”
Long said during that same time period, Emory and Carey voted for 563 of 564 motions put to a vote. She thanked Torbert for being the only board member to provide any oversight in dealings with Common Sense Solutions.
“Shame on the rest of you for failing to do your due diligence to provide more critical oversight that could have prevented this architecture of corruption from ever occurring,” she said.
After the meeting, Forcucci said Torbert often acted as a voice of dissent and action among board members. Torbert, 79, whose term expires in November, said he would not apply for another term due to his age and health.
“I strongly feel that the new superintendent will lead Sussex Tech in the direction it needs to go,” he said.
Again referencing the State Auditor’s report, math teachers Kristen Carmen and Jean Johnson said Common Sense Solutions consistently overcharged the district for construction management costs and reimbursable items.
“These additional fees totaled hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars,” Carmen said. “This board approved all these financial decisions.”
“In August 2013, this board voted to authorize the piggybacking of contracts with Common Sense Solutions,” she said. “In September 2015, this board voted to relinquish control of purchase orders and change orders to the superintendent without board oversight. No purchase order or change order was presented to the board from that evening on despite Common Sense Solutions building a construction office on school grounds.”
Johnson said the board essentially removed itself from the payment authorization process, and the district spent more than $1.5 million in taxpayer money from September 2015 to November 2016 without board oversight. She said the board voted in July 2016 to extend the contract with Common Sense Solutions.
Physics teacher Chris Aiken said teachers are routinely assessed on their performance and adherence to school policy, and that board members should be similarly assessed.
“If a teacher is failing in regard to any responsibilities, he or she is placed on an improvement plan and given a year to show growth,” he said. “State Auditor Tom Wagner’s report and your own board minutes are damning evidence that you have been incapable of fulfilling your duties. It is inarguable that the corruption was organized and orchestrated under your watch. You are either complicit with the district administration plans or you were ignorant of it, and neither absolves you from your guilt.”
Social studies teacher Sandy Furbush said staff are unable to enter the district office.
“We are literally and figuratively locked out,” she said. “No longer is there an open door policy. There are locked doors that do not respond when we swipe our ID cards. For a high school employee to be denied open access to the district office is unconscionable and alienating.”
Criminal justice teacher Deangello Eley said the school board never addressed threats faced by students who held the U.S. flag upside down, a sign of distress, during a March walk-out in support of student safety.
“Community members referred to our students as diseases that needed to eradicated,” he said. “One man from New Jersey suggested he needed to get a rope. These statements are flat-out dangerous, and the school board substantiated these threats by writing them off as ‘kids being kids’ while never addressing the threats themselves.”
Forcucci added that when a racist, homophobic tweet targeted a student in May, the board did not address the issue when given the opportunity to denounce hate speech.
“Your silence is your consent,” she said. “You ignored, you highlighted your disregard for students and staff by buttoning up your complicit lips, a coward’s act we have witnessed time and again. As of tonight, one board member has chosen to listen to the collective voices of teachers and resigned. So, please, for the sake of progress, please do the same.”
After the meeting, Forcucci said teachers are optimistic about new superintendent Guthrie’s leadership.
“We were all thrilled as a staff to see how aware he is as an administrator because we have been missing that,” she said. “We’re not going to stop until we think appropriate board members are in place.”
The Sussex Tech board is currently without a president. Warren Reid, absent from the meeting, was nominated but did not receive the required majority vote; Emory and Carey voted against. Gregory Johnson was voted vice-president, and the vote for president was tabled until the August meeting.