Coatesville board accepts resignations of two officials

Students show support for their teachers and the Coatesville Area School District before the school board meeting.
Students show support for their teachers and the Coatesville Area School District before the school board meeting. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 26, 2013

The Coatesville Area school board voted Tuesday night to accept the resignations of Superintendent Richard Como and high school athletic director James Donato after two hours of public comment in which audience members repeatedly and vehemently called for their dismissal.

Tonya Thames-Taylor, the board member who first received transcripts of the racist and sexist text messages discovered on the two men's cellphones, cast the only vote against accepting the resignations. After the vote, she and the other board members left the meeting without a word.

Como, superintendent for eight years, will not get "one red cent" from his remaining contract, Board President Neil Campbell vowed hours before the vote.

Addressing hundreds of residents who had hoped to see Como fired, Campbell said the board agreed to let him resign to avoid a protracted legal battle and "get [him] away from our kids as soon as possible."

His statement came at the opening of a meeting in which board members for the first time publicly discussed in detail the scandal that has enveloped the district.

Emotions ran high throughout the night. Campbell's statement was interrupted several times by boos and jeers from audience members, who crowded into the aisles of the auditorium, waved signs from their seats, and lined up in droves to urge the board to fire Como and Donato.

In his statement, Campbell also said that the Chester County District Attorney's Office was investigating "potential kickbacks involving high school football camps." District Attorney Thomas Hogan had earlier acknowledged an investigation in Coatesville but declined to discuss it.

Bob Raysor, president of the Coatesville booster club, said during the public-comment session that "if there's a D.A.'s investigation, we'll deal with it," and denied financial wrongdoing related to a football team trip to West Virginia University. He said he had saved receipts from the trip and added that another booster club official had called the university regarding the trip. The trip was mentioned in the text-message transcripts.

In a departure from recent board meetings in which the board declined to address the issue, Campbell gave a detailed timeline of the events leading to the departures last month of Como and Donato.

Both submitted their resignations Aug. 29 amid allegations that they had exchanged racially and sexually offensive texts. Their resignations came 11 days after district employees had shown transcripts of the texts to Thames-Taylor.

When the board confronted Como, he admitted having sent inappropriate texts but did not confirm the authenticity of the transcripts leaked to the board, Campbell said.

He said the board allowed both men to resign to avoid legal liabilities and what could have been lengthy, nonpublic termination hearings.

District Solicitor James Ellison was preparing to launch an internal forensic investigation into the texts when the District Attorney's Office seized the cellphones, according to Campbell.

Tuesday's meeting occurred two days after the hundreds of private text messages exchanged between Como's and Donato's phones surfaced.

In transcripts of the messages obtained by The Inquirer, the men repeatedly used racial and sexual epithets to refer to women, African Americans, Jews, Hispanics, and people of Middle Eastern descent.

Messages describe students and teachers as "n-" and use the term piece to refer to women. Other texts refer to athletic booster funds, at one point mentioning a "kickback."

Parents and taxpayers speaking at Tuesday's meeting almost universally called on the board to fire the men, calling the gesture symbolic. Several suggested that the entire board resign.

"You gave Mr. Como the option to resign," one woman said. "I would venture to guess that at least 90 percent of this room is offering you the same option tonight."

Ann Wertz, who has two children in the district, told the board: "If you accept these resignations, it tells us that these individuals [Como and Donato] have control over a board that should instead be holding them accountable. Your purpose is to work with the school district with integrity."

During the public-comment session, the district's middle schools director, Teresa Powell, said that she and the district's director of technology, Abdallah Hawa, were the employees who first brought the texts to board members in August.

The crowd gasped.

"I say to my community, a little integrity is better than any career," she said, calling recent news reports on the texts accurate.

The meeting's abrupt end left many in attendance confused and shocked. The board approved every agenda item with one vote, and members left the stage immediately after the vote to scattered jeers.

"Everybody's stunned. We've been here for three hours and they passed everything on the agenda in one fell swoop," said Stu Deets, a Caln resident who is running for the school board. "It's crazy. They insulted the community. They blew it all away in 20 seconds."

awhelan@philly.com 610-313-8112 @aubreyjwhelan


'NOT ONE RED CENT'

Coatesville school board chief says no more pay for superintendent. A1.

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