Taschner introduced as new Coatesville school superintendent

Posted: March 27, 2014

Residents of the Coatesville Area School District finally got to meet their new superintendent Tuesday, seven months after its former top administrator resigned after a texting scandal that deepened feelings of mistrust of the district and renewed the call for transparency.

Cathy Taschner, an assistant superintendent in Susquehanna Township, replaces New Jersey educator Leonard Fitts, who has served as interim superintendent since the end of October, earning $850 per day as needed.

"We are going to turn a new page in Coatesville's history," Taschner told residents. "We're going to put the capital P on pride. And we're going to be doing this together."

Board president Neil Campbell expressed support for Taschner.

"We most definitely knew that we needed to find a leader who could move this district forward," Campbell said.

The board reviewed 200 surveys from students, teachers, administrators, invited community members, and board members, who "overwhelmingly" favored Taschner, Campbell said.

The school district has needed a permanent chief since the resignation of Superintendent Richard Como at the start of the school year. He and athletic director James Donato resigned after school officials discovered their racist and sexist text-message exchanges about students and staff.

Residents hoped getting a new superintendent would help the financially struggling district move forward.

Last week, the district introduced its two final candidates, Taschner and William Harner, acting superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District. But residents were dismayed to learn both candidates came with baggage.

Taschner, following the advice of her district's solicitor, didn't immediately tell police about a rumor that an assistant principal was in a relationship with a 16-year-old student. Harner lost his temporary position as state education secretary after state officials discovered he sent an inappropriate e-mail to a staff member.

Members of the community were also upset that only about 30 invited members of the community were allowed at the meet-and-greets with the candidates. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, which helped the district in its superintendent search, said the closed meetings with a few invested members of the community were standard operating procedure.

Joseph O'Brien, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which the district originally tapped to aid the search, said he wished the board was more transparent. "I think they have a great superintendent [in Taschner] I'm willing to work with," said O'Brien, whose agency provides services to the county's 12 school districts. "What do I think of their process? Not much."

The school board said in October that it decided to drop the Intermediate Unit in favor of the School Boards Association. O'Brien said his agency wanted to hold as many as 20 open meetings with members of the public, but the board "wanted a tighter, more controlled process."

District residents, some of whom say the district did not act on the text messages quickly enough, have been calling for more transparency since they found out about the messages. And so have county, state, and federal agencies that have been scrutinizing the district over the last several months.

The Chester County District Attorney's Office has been investigating the possibility of kickbacks in the district from athletic camps mentioned in the text messages. The office is also investigating the district's solicitor, James Ellison, over the possibility he overbilled the district and defrauded taxpayers.

In October, about a month after the public found out about the texts, District Attorney Thomas Hogan accused school district officials of hindering his investigation by withholding documents and making district employees unavailable. The school district said it directed its employees to cooperate and it had turned over documents.

In the school board election in November, district residents soundly voted out board member Tonya Thames Taylor, who was the first member to know about the text messages. Residents said she should have acted more quickly and told them what was happening. Taylor said the board had to protect itself legally by taking its time and following procedure.

After five months of gathering district residents' complaints of bias against the district, the state chapter of the NAACP issued a report March 14 recommending that the federal Department of Justice and Office for Civil Rights monitor the district. The NAACP told the district to keep residents informed of its actions.

Monday night, the state's civil rights commission said it will monitor the district to make sure it keeps its promises to be equitable and transparent going forward to prevent anything like the texting scandal from happening again.


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8105 @MichaelleBond

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