Board Won’t Shoot Straight

March 28, 2019

It’s not surprising that the Scranton School Board has had to install a revolving door, in effect, as elected and appointed directors continue to flee the district’s financial disaster and the board appoints replacement. Unfortunately, the board’s mishandling of appointments itself has become a metaphor for the incompetence and inside, special-interest politics that have fueled the district’s decline. Recently, the board majority violated the Sunshine Act by railroading the appointment of city businessman Gopal Patel without soliciting applications or even public comments. Patel quickly resigned to attend to business out of state, and the board replaced him Monday with Kenneth Norton, a PPL lineman who never had been involved in school board politics and governance and who, it turned out, owed tens of thousands of dollars in assorted delinquent property taxes and municipal fees. As a practical matter, that would disqualify a candidate. Not surprisingly, the school board did not bother vetting Norton. A Times-Tribune reporter discovered the tax matter after working on it for about 45 minutes. After the paper reported the delinquencies Wednesday, Norton quickly settled them. At a public session Monday, Norton did not know the amount of the $166 million district budget and did not offer an opinion, when asked, on the district’s worst financial problem. Incredibly, that produced a single vote against his appointment, which passed, 7-1. The state Department of Education has placed the school district under financial recovery status and has appointed a recovery officer to devise a recovery plan. Clearly, the board’s focus must be on the future. Yet, at least some directors are firmly anchored in the past. A key issue is a dubious bus contract with DeNaples Transportation that state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale first flagged nearly two years ago. The board did not seek bids for the contract or its renewal even after DePasquale advised to seek bids. Then, someone authorized a fuel surcharge that drove up its costs, for which no one has been held accountable. Some board members want to retroactively approve the contract to eliminate a well-warranted move to revoke it. Even though he professes ignorance about the district budget and financial problems, Norton should begin his tenure by stating emphatically his intentions regarding the bus deal.