Despite troubling e-mails about superintendent, Oxford Area principal retains his post

Oxford Area High School principal David C. Madden leaves a school board meeting in July.
Oxford Area High School principal David C. Madden leaves a school board meeting in July.
Posted: August 28, 2012

On the eve of a new school year, Superintendent Raymond A. Fischer has learned that there's one person at Oxford Area High School whom he lacks the power to expel: the principal.

For the second time in months, board members are rebuffing efforts by Fischer to get rid of principal David C. Madden, who made headlines when he was suspended earlier this year after calling a bipolar student a "psychopath" in an e-mail.

Now, Fischer is armed with a new cache of e-mails from the principal to his girlfriend, Kimberly Webber, a business teacher at the Chester County high school. They include one in which Madden wrote of the superintendent: "Ray is an absolute liar and manipulator and I am not going to take it from him. He better pray I don't snap one day/night."

Fischer called that March 7 e-mail "very troubling" and even reported it as a threat to the Pennsylvania State Police as well as the state Department of Education when he learned about it in May. But he said the Oxford Area school board "didn't respond at all" when he brought the matter to its attention.

"There was a flippant comment [from a board member], maybe I should wrap myself up in bubble wrap," he said.

Fischer obtained the e-mails from Oxford's human resources director, who at the board's direction has monitored Madden's work communications since the "psychopath" incident.

Madden did not respond to a call or e-mail request for comment.

With classes starting Monday, the widening conflict between the superintendent and principal has roiled the rural 3,600-student district and exposed a sharp divide on the board, which appears to be split 6-3 in favor of Madden after voting to suspend him for four months but not to fire him in the initial e-mail flap.

School board president Joseph L. Scheese - whose support went so far as to forbid critics from speaking Madden's name at a school board meeting - said he couldn't discuss details because of confidentiality laws but noted: "There are people in this community who think he does a good job, and there are people who think he doesn't. I'm not going to pass judgment. . . ."

Madden's main detractors on the board - Joe Tighe and Steve Gaspar - did not want to comment.

So far, the principal has held on to his political support - and his job - even as the district reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the family of the special-needs student whom Madden had initially disparaged. The district has also been slapped with a new complaint from a student with cystic fibrosis who alleged discrimination.

Fischer's claim to state police that Madden's e-mail was threatening brought a visit from a trooper but no charges.

"I've got a subordinate, someone who I'm supervising, who's calling me names and now is threatening me," said Fischer, who first saw the e-mails in May. He said of Madden's conduct: "It's unprofessional, it's unethical, it's disrespectful, it's immoral."

But while Madden, who was hired from the neighboring Octorara School District in 2004 to open the then-new high school, is increasingly seen as a polarizing force, his support on the school board appears to be as strong as ever.

Some even saw him as being groomed as a future superintendent before the e-mail controversy erupted.

"They're all buddies," said a person close to the situation who did not want to be identified.

When Madden was hired, Fischer was principal of a fifth- and sixth-grade school. He was appointed superintendent in 2008. His contract expires next September.

Critics say Madden's years in the district have been linked to nonstop tumult, including the departure of Fischer's predecessor as superintendent, Mary Jane Gales, as well as an assistant superintendent, Cathy L. Taschner.

Two former administrators, special-ed director Jenny LeSage and human resources chief Annie Tighe, both said they quit rather than work with Madden.

And on Aug. 16, the Education Law Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sent a letter to Scheese admonishing the board for limiting public criticism of Madden, which forbid critics from saying his name aloud at a public meeting and posted state troopers in the room to escort offenders from the lectern if they wouldn't sit down.

"Oxford's policy is unconstitutional," the letter states.

The district also has a nepotism policy that forbids supervisors from dating subordinates. But the board maintains the longtime relationship between Madden and teacher Webber, whom the principal worked with in Octorara, was "grandfathered" after the policy went into effect two years ago.

When the district found out the couple were dating, it came up with an "arrangement" that included Madden's not giving Webber performance reviews, said president Scheese. "It's working," he said.

Fischer tried to transfer the principal to the middle school because of the nepotism rule but said he was blocked by the board.

Webber said she had no comment.

Tighe, the former human-resources director, said the board believed the relationship was professional and not a problem.

"I tried to tell them it doesn't matter," said Tighe, who is married to school board member Joe Tighe. "He's her supervisor. If their relationship goes bad, and she wants to sue the district in the future, she can do so."

The messages, written on Madden's personal e-mail to Webber's work e-mail during the school day, are sure to promote further controversy. Indeed, officials said the district had received numerous requests from other parents of special-education students seeking Madden's e-mails since it was revealed this spring that he had disparaged students both online and in text messages.

In one recently released e-mail from March 1, 2011, Madden wrote about a Latino student who had been disciplined: "Gardener looking for work!" The small community of about 5,000 is more than one-quarter Hispanic. Fischer called that remark "troubling."

Fischer's wife, Nancy, was so upset that she wrote a letter to board members urging them to take Madden's e-mailed remarks about her husband seriously. "He blames my husband for all his problems . . .," she wrote. "That you can dismiss his words with such nonchalance is not only appalling, but negligent as well . . ."

Scheese, who generally speaks for the other board members, said he couldn't comment on the e-mails because they were a personnel matter but acknowledged the toll from the recent turmoil: "Any good person with any amount of sanity would never run for school [board] in Oxford because of this."


Contact Kathy Boccella at 610-313-8123, kboccella@phillynews.com, or @kmboccella on Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|