The Berks-Mont News (http://www.berksmontnews.com)

Coatesville schools in crisis after racially-charged text messages surface


By Michael N. Price and Kristina Scala, mprice@21st-centurymedia.com, kscala@21st-centurymedia.com

Monday, September 23, 2013

The abrupt departure of the Coatesville Area School District superintendent and another senior administrator came two weeks after numerous exchanges of inappropriate and racially-charged text messages were discovered on their district-issued cell phones, and multiple sources have indicated that school board officials were not only aware of the exchanges, but were prepared to allow the pair to remain in their positions until the conduct prompted a criminal investigation, the Daily Local News has learned.
The Coatesville Area School Board is expected to formally vote to approve the resignations of former Superintendent Richard Como and former Director of Athletics and Activities Jim Donato at Tuesday’s public meeting. Como announced his “retirement” through a letter posted on the district’s website on August 29. Reports of Donato’s resignation surfaced several days later. Both came unexpectedly during the first week of the school year.
Text messages exchanged from school-issued cell phone numbers between Como and Donato contained repeated use of a commonly known derogatory phrase referring to African American or black individuals. In one instance, the term was used 14 times in one conversation.
LINK: Transcript excerpts (PDF document)
LINK: Employment procedures (PDF document)
The school district has not commented on the resignations, but two sources with knowledge of the situation said the departures were the direct result of discoveries found on Donato’s cell phone. More disturbingly, the sources said the school board was made aware of the text messages and was prepared to allow Como and Donato to remain in their positions until the transcripts were leaked to the Chester County District Attorney’s Office, prompting a criminal investigation.
On Friday District Attorney Tom Hogan confirmed the existence of a criminal investigation for the first time.
“The Coatesville Area School District has stated publicly that the Chester County District Attorney’s Office is involved in an investigation related to the district. That statement is correct,” Hogan said. “As a result of that investigation, the District Attorney’s Office became aware of certain telephone text messages between district personnel. At the request of the district attorney, those messages and telephones were turned over to the Chester County Detectives. The District Attorney’s Office will not have any further substantive comment on this investigation until the conclusion of the investigation.”
School board solicitor James Ellison refused to comment on the text messages, claiming he has never seen them and was unaware of their existence.
“You’re asking me to offer comment regarding messages in your possession, which I have never seen. No matter what your sources say I have not seen what you have in your possession, and I cannot offer any comment unless and until I do,” Ellison said in an e-mail after being asked to comment.
According to text message transcripts from Donato’s cell phone that were obtained by the Daily Local News in West Chester, a sister publication of The Mercury, Como and Donato exchanged the first round of racially-charged text messages on the morning of June 4. The cell phone numbers used to send and receive the text messages in question were confirmed by a copy of Donato’s contact list also obtained by the Daily Local News. Multiple other sources have privately confirmed the authenticity of the transcripts.
In an often unintelligible exchange of messages, the pair repeatedly used well-known and offensive racial slurs while discussing students, faculty, and members of the athletics department.
“All should just have whatever first names they want...then last name is N----R!,” Donato wrote to Como. “Leroy N----r, Preacher N----r, Night train n----r, clarence n----r, Latoya n----r, Thelma n----r and so on.”
“Great idea!” Como responded. “Joe n----r bill n----r snake n----r got a nice ring to it.”
The conversation did not end there, as Como and Donato continued to use the slur as they appeared to discuss students in the school district.
“Could have whole homerooms of n----r!” Como wrote.
“Hahahahaha!” Donato responded. “Will N----r report to the office, pardon the interruption but will n----r report to nurses office. N----r to lunch now!”
On June 7, the pair exchanged another round of text messages discussing the then pending layoffs of district teachers and the recent firings of other black employees.
“Man some week for sure but will be topped Tuesday night by Delco vs. Ritter. Campbell fight over Dunn financial claims and sneak attack in wings,” Como wrote.
“Jesus christ! Can’t get much better (worse),” Donato replied. “Blood in water…”
“Right this could be classic conclusion to board meetings by end of month 23 (teachers) get clipped Tuesday a.m. before committee meeting and prob 6 to 9 more in July if Ritter budget numbers right,” Como said.
“How many n----rs out of 23?” Donato asked. “Not enough!”
“Don’t know but think it’s only 4-5. At most until last minute rush of firing by Goo of Phoenix and Kamara,” Como answered.
“Good hangings there,” Donato wrote. The conversation continued with more obscene language.
At the school board’s June 25 meeting, board members approved the suspension or furlough of 14 school district employees based on Sections 1124 and 1125.1 of the Public School Code. The board approved to recall five of the 14 employees at the Aug. 27 meeting.
Board members including acting Superintendent Angelo Romaniello, were contacted Friday for comment. The Daily Local News was able to speak to two board members, but neither were able to go into detail regarding the text messages.
Voicemails were left for other board members, with the exception of Campbell whose voice mailbox was full. Those phone calls were not returned.
“I was advised by counsel not to comment,” school board member Laurie Knecht said.
“I would love to comment, but I am biting my tongue here. We are stuck and I can’t say anything until the district attorney gives us permission to talk. Our internal investigation is not within the board. It’s concerning other things. The only thing we can say is that he is investigating. As soon as he breaks us loose, we can tell you everything,” school board member James Fox said.
On June 9, Como and Donato exchanged another round of messages that seemingly focus around student athletes.
“Hell yes he hold own good stock great genes from family and Mac adds killer instinct to fellows total package,” Como said. “We should talk about this but no share with crooked staff.”
“He is gonna put 5000 in pocket me thinks today...worth a sit down haha,” Donato replied.
“Will bring in Alim to speak on Lockup for decisions that affect N----RS,” Como answered.
On Aug. 15, a member of the district’s IT department discovered the text messages on Donato’s phone while copying data to a newly-purchased device. The employee presented the text messages to a school administrator, and the next day they were shown to school board member Dr. Tonya Thames Taylor, according to multiple sources.
Taylor, who is also the president of the Coatesville Area NAACP Unit, met with Ellison on Saturday, Aug. 17. The meeting was held in the high school cafeteria and was also attended by the IT employee who discovered the text messages and another senior district administrator, sources said.
That Monday, Ellison and Taylor met with school board president Neil Campbell and vice president Rick Ritter and presented them with the text messages. According to the sources, Campbell and Ritter met with Como that day, and the superintendent reportedly broke down and confessed to sending and receiving the text messages.
On Aug. 23, the full school board met and reviewed the transcripts, the sources said. Four days later the school board held their regularly scheduled public meeting, but Como was not in attendance.
On Aug. 28 Como met with the district’s senior administrative staff and informed them he was retiring. The next day he held a meeting with 25 district teachers and announced he was leaving his position due to an exchange of inappropriate text messages, according to multiple sources.
That night a letter announcing Como “has decided to retire and resigned from the district” was posted on the school district’s website.
The school district’s meeting policy clearly states a notice of all meetings, including public board meetings, committee meetings and discussion sessions must be announced to the public in a timely manner. Included in the announcement should be the date, place and time of the meeting.
The board is allowed to hold executive sessions before, after, at the same time or at the end of an open meeting, or at another time. The meeting must be announced. Although it can be vague, a reason must be given in a public setting, for holding executive session.
At that time of executive session, board members are allowed to discuss matters pertaining to “employment issues, labor relations, purchase or lease of real estate, consulting with an attorney or other professional advisor regarding potential litigation or identifiable complaints that may lead to litigation, and matters that must be conducted in private to protect a lawful privilege or confidentiality.”
There was no public mention of the Aug. 23 or 28 meetings.
Rumors continued to appear to the Daily Local New via phone calls and e-mails, even after Como’s resignation was reported on Sept. 3.
Rumors of Donato’s departure filled the air. His resignation was confirmed by 9/10 Center Principal Brian Chenger on Sept. 3.
The school board committees meeting was held Sept. 10, packed with parents, teachers and taxpayers demanding more information on the resignations. Campbell read from a preplanned statement, confirming Donato and Como’s resignations. He said the board or administration could not comment due to an ongoing criminal investigation by the Chester County District Attorney’s Office and an internal, noncriminal investigation being performed by the school district.
No further details were provided regarding the reason behind the internal investigation.
On Sept. 4 and 5 the Daily Local News submitted several Right-to-Know requests in an effort to gather additional information about the resignations. One request asked for a complete list of district-owned cell phones and the names of district employees associated with specific phone numbers. A second request asked for all school district employees names, titles, salaries, and lengths of stay. A third request asked for details regarding specific employees.
Six days later the Daily Local News received three letters signed by Ellison stating the district was conducting a legal review to determine if the requested information was public record.
The board has yet to vote on both Como and Donato’s resignations, and the school district has not officially announced a job opening for Como or Donato’s positions.
“There is no provision in the Public School Code that requires the posting of vacancies, including the position of the superintendent,” said Tim Eller, spokesman for the state Department of Education after asked if the state requires school districts to post position openings.
The school district has its own policy in place concerning the employment of a superintendent and assistant superintendent.
According to the policy, the board can appoint a superintendent and assistant superintendent by a majority vote. The board sets the salary and term of office.
The policy also has written guidelines stating that “board members should actively seek the best qualified and most capable candidate for the position.” Board members would be aided by a committee of board members or professional consultants.
Before the search process, the board must prepare a written job description; specification of qualifications, along with proper state requirements for all applicants; informative materials that describe the school district and its goals; the opportunity for applicants to visit schools; establish a screening process that ensures that board members have the opportunity to interview “a sufficient number of finalist candidates;” and recruitment and consideration of candidates according to board policy,and state and federal law.
As for the terms of Como’s contract, he can resign at any time during his four years, but is required to provide the district with at least 60 days notice “prior to the effective date of resignation.”
It is unknown if Como submitted his resignation within the specified time.
Como entered into a four-year contract with the school district in 2005, with a starting salary of $155,000. His contract was extended for an additional five years in 2007, and another five in 2012.
Como’s increase in yearly salary is based on his performance – he could receive a no more than a 3 percent increase for satisfactory performance, or no more than a 6 percent increase if he exceeded the expectations of the district’s set goals and objectives. Como’s increase in salary had to be approved by the board.
According to school board meeting minutes, Como received a 4.25 percent salary increase, or totaling $184,675 in 2009; and a 4.45 percent increase, totaling $192,897 in 2010. Salaries were not indicated in meeting minutes in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
The next school board meeting is Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. in the 9/10 Center auditorium on the high school campus, 1445 E. Lincoln Highway, Coatesville.
Follow Michael N. Price on Twitter @MikePriceWrites and Kristina Scala @Scala_Kris.