Southeast Delco Board Set To Fire Superintendent, Sources Say

Posted: August 22, 1991

The Southeast Delco school board, long beset by labor troubles and criticism stemming from charges that two teachers sexually assaulted students, is poised to oust the district's superintendent tonight.

The nine-member board has placed the firing of Superintendent William C. Donato on the business meeting agenda, according to sources close to the board and the district administration.

At a closed caucus Monday night in which the matter was discussed, only one board member opposed the firing, the sources said.

Donato, 47, has four years remaining on a contract paying him $85,754 in the current year.

The only way Donato could avert the ouster, according to one board source, would be to agree beforehand to step down. When contacted Tuesday, Donato declined to comment except to say that he believed he had done a good job as superintendent and saw no reason to resign.

Donato's problems with the board relate to several issues, including the case of Ashland Middle School special-education teacher Robert A. Merker Jr., who faces sexual-abuse charges involving seven teenagers - three of them his students - over three years.

Merker, 46, has been suspended from his job and is free on $50,000 bail to await trial in Delaware County Court. Merker has attempted to resign from his job, but the school board has said it will not accept the resignation, preferring to await the outcome of his trial.

Also, former district bus driver Edward Hirst, 51, was arrested in November 1990 and charged with the rape of a 15-year-old special-education student who rode on his bus. Hirst was fired. His court case is pending.

Merker was arrested April 25. School board members later learned that Merker had been fired from a student-teaching job at Media Junior High School in 1971 after being convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

In May, after Merker had been charged, the school board learned that a teacher at Ashland Middle School had told administrators more than three years ago that Merker allegedly had behaved improperly with a student.

The nature of the charges against Merker rocked the district, which serves the towns of Collingdale, Darby Township, Folcroft and Sharon Hill.

The charges prompted the board to initiate a stricter records-check policy for all employees, and an internal investigation to determine "who knew what and when."

Some of the blame apparently is being laid on Donato as the district's chief administrator.

Also, the mother of a former special-education student who has accused Merker of abuse is suing both the district and Donato, alleging that they failed to protect her son by not acting on prior complaints against the teacher.

Donato has publicly denied that he knew of any allegations of misconduct by Merker before his arrest. The board, however, has expressed doubts and accused Donato of making efforts to insulate himself from any blame.

At least three board members also have accused Donato of siding with the teachers' union in continuing contract negotiations and of orchestrating his own "sweetheart" contract in 1988 with guaranteed pay raises and lifetime health insurance after retirement.

District teachers are about to enter their second straight school year without a contract. It is the longest school labor dispute in county history, one that could result in another strike.

The district's 232 teachers walked off the job last fall but were ordered back to the classroom a month later by Delaware County Court Judge Harry J. Bradley. John Shmidheiser, chief negotiator for the teachers' union's, said yesterday that the teachers would report for an in-service day Sept. 3, but that he "can't guarantee what will happen after that."

Donato's current contract was negotiated almost a year before his original three-year agreement ran out because, one board member said, "he knew he would have problems as soon as a new board came out of the 1989 elections."

His contract runs for five years, the longest ever awarded in the district, according to sources in the district. It calls for a minimum 6 percent pay raise each year or whatever higher percentage the teachers may win through collective bargaining.

Board member C. Franklin Hall, who has been a supporter of the superintendent, said Donato's contract was similar in benefits to those awarded to other county school chiefs.

Donato, a district employee for 25 years, was a principal at Delcroft Elementary School in Folcroft before becoming assistant superintendent in 1983.

Four years later, he became the top administrator after Superintendent Bruce Morgan retired.

His father, Robert V. Donato, served as superintendent of the nearby Ridley School District for 30 years before retiring in 1980.

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