Penn Hills school board members want resolution to county financial investigation
Erin Vecchio has taken her frustrations about the Allegheny County District Attorney’s ongoing investigation into Penn Hills School District finances to the streets.
The school board president protested outside of the Allegheny County Jail Oct. 1 with a sign that read “Justice for Penn Hills Taxpayers” and plans to do the same at the county courthouse and state Rep. Tony DeLuca’s office later this month.
“Somebody has to do something,” Vecchio said. “We have no money, and we’ve cut everything we can cut. Why isn’t somebody arrested? It’s been more than two and a half years.”
District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.’s office launched its investigation in response to the May 2016 release of an audit by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, which alleged mismanagement of funds, bad decisions and lack of oversight put the district more than $170 million in debt.
The debt is largely due to high school and elementary construction projects. Penn Hills also borrowed $18 million in October 2015 to fund day-to-day operations.
“We had the money for the high school,” Vecchio said. “That elementary school should have never been built. They overspent on it and had to take more money out.”
The 74-page audit covered July 2012 through June 2015, when Vecchio was not on the board.
Since then, the district put multiple financial checks in place including thoroughly reviewing bills, purchases and related reports.
District Attorney’s Office Spokesman Mike Manko and Penn Hills Superintendent Nancy Hines declined to comment.
Board members adopted a resolution in April to publish the names and accounts of former board members and staff they believe owe the district money and pursue any other legal course to collect those funds.
Vecchio said the district decided to back off of those actions until after the investigation was complete.
She claimed the DA has video evidence of someone fraudulently using district credit cards from years past, as well as other evidence of financial theft.
“I have the utmost respect for the DA, but somebody has to file charges,” said Vecchio. “We need to be able to go after these people to get our money back.”
DeLuca, D-Penn Hills, agreed Zappala’s report should be expedited, provided no stone goes unturned.
“I would hope that he would do a thorough investigation,” DeLuca said. “Take the cloud not only off the school district, but off the community. It’s not fair for the community. I would like him to expedite his report so the taxpayers of Penn Hills don’t continue to have a black eye.”
Vecchio’s protests have received support from some of her fellow board members.
“I respect what she’s doing because we need answers,” School Director Evelyn Hebert said.
Rob Marra, former district treasurer and recently-appointed board member, said investigators have not been at district offices for months.
“I do support that something needs to be decided, and it’s been going on for way too long,” Marra said. “They need to make a decision one way or another as to what’s going on. We have a lot of financial records that have been confiscated by them that we really need, and there are a lot of things that are happening because of this.”
He said the district has done its best within the financial constraints as far as staffing.
“We want to continue to offer good educational opportunities to all our students,” Marra said. “Salaries and benefits are such a big portion of expenses that to really turn things around, you cut a lot of things. You make classroom sizes a lot bigger. We don’t want to decimate our programs. It’s a very difficult situation.”
The next board meeting is 7 p.m. Oct. 29, at Linton Middle School, 260 Aster St.