Citing a lack of accountability, communication and transparency from the Sussex Tech School Board this year, teacher after teacher had one question for incumbent board members at the June 11 board meeting.
“Will you voluntarily resign your appointed positions so that Sussex Technical School District can better serve its students, its staff and the county?”
Sussex Tech’s school board is not elected by the community; board members are appointed by the governor to seven-year terms. The Delaware General Assembly sets Tech’s annual budget, which is funded by property taxes levied countywide.
In all, 14 Sussex Tech teachers addressed the board seeking the resignations of President Pat Cooper, Vice-President George Torbert and board members Teresa Carey, Judy Emory and Warren Reid; they have not asked newly appointed board members Gregory Johnson and Marcel Hayes to resign.
School board members did not respond to teachers at the board meeting. Cooper said the board had no official comment at this time. At the meeting, he said, “From my perspective we’re on the upswing and the right track.”
In their comments, teachers referenced the June 2017 State Auditor of Accounts report which found construction company Common Sense Solutions LLC profited from financial arrangements with the district.
The report found Michael Horsey, through his business Governmental Services LLC, knowingly purchased a land parcel Sussex Tech needed for a bus entrance project for $110,000, and then sold it to the school district two weeks later for $200,000. Sussex Tech then awarded the bus entrance construction contract to Common Sense Solutions LLC, another business owned by Michael Horsey, for $205,699. The report also found that Sussex Tech paid Common Sense Solutions over $400,000 for the first half of fiscal year 2014, though no construction work had been performed at the time.
After the Auditor’s Office found the district awarded Common Sense Solutions additional construction contracts by piggybacking on the bus entrance project, it broadened its investigation to review nearly $4 million paid to Common Sense Solutions from July 2011 to November 2016. Additionally, when Sussex Tech’s facilities director retired in 2015, he was hired by Common Sense Solutions as project coordinator and Sussex Tech project liaison for the same projects he awarded Common Sense Solutions while a Sussex Tech employee, the report said.
The Auditor’s report concluded that Sussex Tech lacked support for invoices, violated the state budget and accounting policy manual, avoided fair procurement procedures and had conflicts of interest. Further, the district attempted to avoid state oversight by splitting 105 payment vouchers totaling over $900,000 to stay below the thresholds requiring purchase orders, three-letter bids and competitive bidding.
The report stated, “The school board entrusted Sussex Tech administration to make decisions regarding the construction projects without the school board’s involvement which created a lack of accountability.”
Sussex Tech’s response, included in the report, stated it is attempting to improve fiscal policy process and procedures and that it ended its contract with Common Sense Solutions June 30, 2017.
Sussex Tech English teacher and 2018 Delaware Teacher of the Year Virginia Forcucci said after the report was published in 2017, the school board told teachers they would be included in district committees and administrative hiring processes. Forcucci said a committee including teachers was formed early in the 2017-18 school year to hire a new assistant principal, but no offer was given to any potential hire. She said a second round of applicants was reviewed before Memorial Day weekend, but no teachers were invited to be part of the committee.
“They told us our voices would be heard, but no teacher committee has been formed and not a single teacher was invited to be part of the hiring for the new superintendent or new financial advisor,” she said. “None of the board members have taught, and they don’t understand the complexity of teaching in a tech school. We’re tired of scandal and corruption. That’s why 71 percent of our staff signed onto a pointed and thorough letter detailing our lack of confidence in the board.”
Forcucci said Sussex Tech staff supports Principal John Demby and John Sell, who served as co-acting superintendents for the 2017-18 school year after Tech’s top administrators were put on leave following the Auditor’s report.
“They’re not part of the problem,” she said. “They’re tremendously loyal to our district, and we have a lot of faith in them.”
In April, the school board hired a new superintendent, Stephen H. Guthrie, without staff input. Guthrie joins Tech July 1 after eight years as superintendent of Carroll County Public School District in Westminster, Md.
“He reached out to us and seemed concerned and that is encouraging,” Forcucci said.
Tech English teacher D.J. Forcucci said for the past year, staff has been “shouldering the heavy burden of corruption” from a “careless, irresponsble and unethical board.”
“We gave you a year to make things right, and we just got more of the same,” he said.
English teacher Anthony Natoli agreed.
“We were told our voices mattered, but we’re noticeably absent from any input on a hiring committee for new leadership,” he said. “We are continually silenced, and we will be silent no more. We do not believe in this board’s ability.”
Sussex Tech early childhood educator Beth Bendistis said, “The auditor report illustrated improprieties of the district and board, but only the administration has been disciplined. It stands to reason the board should be held equally responsible.”
Tech math teacher and incoming district education association President Katie Hiller, granddaughter of a founding Tech school board member and daughter of a retired Tech administrator, called upon incumbent board members to resign and allow effective leaders to step in.
“If the five resignations do not occur, I implore the governor to dismiss the damaging and ineffective members of this board and make staff - and community - supported appointments,” she said.
Gov. John Carney appointed newest board members Johnson and Hayes. Incumbent board members were appointed by previous governors.
“Gov. Carney could be the hero here,” Virginia Forcucci said. “He could swoop in and make it right. Delaware taxpayers have not been happy, and he has the opportunity to right what’s wrong and support the teachers, students and families in Sussex County.”
Jon Starkey, Gov. Carney’s communications director, said, “The governor visited Sussex Tech recently, and is aware of the situation. Our office will continue to monitor it.”
Alison May, spokesperson for the Delaware Department of Education, said, “Secretary Bunting recently visited Sussex Tech with Governor Carney and is aware of the situation. Governor Carney’s Office will continue to monitor it.”
On May 22, Gov. Carney visited Sussex Tech’s HVAC, electrical and green energy technologies, nursing, and media classrooms, and spent time with Virginia Forcucci discussing her platform as 2018 Delaware Teacher of the Year.
Neither Speaker of the House Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, D-Rehoboth Beach, nor Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, could be reached for comment.
The next Sussex Tech School Board meeting takes place at 5 p.m., Monday, July 9 at Sussex Tech High School.
The State of Delaware Office of Auditor of Accounts can be found at auditor.delaware.gov.