Journal Register News Service
The controversy in the Owen J. Roberts School District may in the end provoke some lasting good.
The school district's summer-long struggle with the actions of a lame-duck school board majority has inspired state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19th, of West Whiteland, to write legislation that could improve voter laws in Pennsylvania.
And Dinniman says the proposals just might be successful.
Dinniman several weeks ago proposed a bill which would limit the ability of a lame-duck school board to extend or end the final year of a superintendent's contract. He said last week the bill has already been moved by unanimous vote out of the Senate's Education Committee, on which Dinniman serves as minority chairman.
The bill was proposed in direct response to the June 22 5-4 vote of the OJR board to remove former Superintendent Myra Forrest from her post with a year still left on her contract.
"... It seems that what's happening in OJR has happened in a number of districts across the state," Dinniman said. "No one spoke against it," he added, referring to the committee action.
Dinniman said he has heard tales from across Pennsylvania about lame-duck school boards not only getting rid of or extending superintendent contracts, but also committing to building projects or bond financing with which the incoming board will then be saddled.
Specifically, Dinniman's bill, S.B. 1007, would prohibit a board on which three or more incumbents have been defeated in the May primary from ending or extending a superintendent's contract when there is 11 months or more left on it.
While this bill may move to the Senate floor this fall for a full vote, a second bill Dinniman intends to sponsor may make it moot. Calling the second bill "even stronger," Dinniman explained that it would eliminate primary elections for school boards altogether.
He said he had done some research on the issue, which found that nationwide only Pennsylvania, Mississippi and Massachusetts retain partisan school board elections.
This bill, which he said he will submit in September, would require only that a candidate submit a petition with 250 valid signatures to be listed on the November ballot.
The bill would more fully involve voters registered as independents in school board contests, eliminate lame ducks by only having three weeks between the election and seating of a new board, establish "that education and partisanship should not go hand in hand," and eliminate the long-outdated practice of "small groups within a polit
ical structure determining who the candidates will be."
Dinniman said the momentum currently exists in Pennsylvania for this change. OJR is not the only district where the actions of a lame-duck board have come under fire. Just last week, a Pittsburgh area newspaper reported on a lawsuit in Fayette County involving a school board there. Two board members in the Connellsville Area School District have sued five other board members seeking an injunction to stop a planned grade reconfiguration. The 5-4 vote setting in motion the reconfiguration was supported by four board members who lost in the spring primary.
In filing the lawsuit, the board members said the new board will overturn the new configuration, so the action is a waste of taxpayer money.
In OJR, the 5-4 vote to oust Forrest included three lame-duck board members. The community outcry has included pleas with the board to leave things as they are for now and let a new board decide on a superintendent.
The controversy has embroiled the district and gotten the attention of media and other school organizations from throughout Pennsylvania. But the attention in the state Senate just might do some good.
"Who would have thought that movement for good government and reform to remove partisanship in school boards would result from everything that has occurred in OJR?" said Dinniman.
Bringing reform to Pennsylvania is a welcome result.