Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Parchment school board asks for support; residents slam 'bad decision-making'

Parchment school Board President Nancy Lenz began Monday's meeting by reading a statement that asked for community support and called for an end to "making assumptions that overshadow" the district's accomplishments.

But many in a standing-room-only crowd weren't buying that message, as several residents criticized trustees for failing to communicate, violating the community trust and lack of accountability stemming from an unsolved embezzlement case, the second major controversy to involve the district's athletic office in two years.

"I used to be proud to be a resident of Parchment," City Commissioner Jon Heasley told the school board. "I'm not anymore."
He was followed at the podium by Parchment parent Sarah Terry, who was equally blunt.

"Your bad decision-making is an embarrassment for this community," Terry told trustees.
Monday's school board meeting was the first since the Kalamazoo Gazette and other media outlets reported the embezzlement of an estimated $20,000 in athletic gate receipts during the 2011-12 school year.
Unknown to the public, school officials filed a police report in June 2012. The Kalamazoo Township Police Department, which has jurisdiction over Parchment, investigated the theft for more than 18 months before closing the case this past February without an arrest.

Police officials said there wasn't enough evidence for an arrest because the cash was routinely kept in an unlocked area accessible to most of the high school staff.

It turns out the embezzlement was occurring around the same time then-Athletic Director John Thompson, who also was the assistant middle school principal, was arrested for drunken driving and fleeing police after a night of drinking with Superintendent Matt Miller.

Thompson was ultimately convicted of drunken driving and pleaded guilty to attempting to flee police. He resigned from the district, but received a $40,000 severance payment.

Monday's statement read by Lenz on behalf of the board was the first time that trustees have publicly commented on the embezzlement case.

"This board is aware that media coverage of events involving the Parchment School District over the past couple years has caused concern for the entire school district and many in the community," the statement said. "Questions have been addressed to the district which we have been unable to answer. This lack of response raises more questions and suspicions when, in fact, our legal counsel will tell you, we cannot legally respond."

The statement also addressed false rumors that Assistant Superintendent Julie Rohrer was recently put on paid leave in connection with the embezzlement case.

"This is absolutely not the case," the statement said. "Ms. Rohrer was placed on paid administrative leave to address another matter, unrelated to district finances. While we understand the public's interest in knowing more, we must balance the public's interest against that of a legal and contractual rights of our employees.

"....In the meantime, we hope members of this community will continue to support our staff and administration instead of making assumptions that overshadow the great stride we are making on behalf of our students." (Click here to read a PDF of the board's entire written statement.)

Heasley was among those unswayed by the statement.

"You can read that note and that's fine," Heasley said. "My concern is the ongoing negative publicity the school district is getting and your willingness to overlook what's going on."

Heasley said he sent an email to all seven school trustees about the latest controversy and heard back from only two.

"That's not cool," he said, adding that elected officials have a responsibility to acknowledge and respond to constituent questions.

He also criticized administration of its handling of the embezzlement situation, noting the police report indicated money was first appeared to be missing in November 2011 but the police report wasn't filed until the following June.

"It's really, really hard for us to justify our trust in you when it didn't seem anybody cared (about the money) and sat on it for eight months," Heasley said.

Terry concurred, saying the negative publicity and concerns about the district's programs had parents "investigating to transfer out of this district."

"I live five doors from Gull Lake school district," she said. "What are you going to do to keep me here?"

She linked the embezzlement to the Thompson situation, saying it appears that administrators weren't paying attention to the missing gate receipts "because of all the other drama" around Thompson's arrest.

She criticized the board for not holding Miller accountable for either the Thompson situation or the missing money.

"If I was out drinking with a co-worker who got arrested and my organization lost $20,000, I'd be fired," Terry said to Miller. "How you still here?

"We're not going to let you get away with this poor decision-making," she added. "We're not going quietly away."

Another resident who didn't identify herself said that she understands the board can't share all it knows, but said the community needs a better response from trustees.

"My biggest problem is the lack of communication," she said. "There have been good things that have happened in the schools, but also some things we would have never imagined. ... We're disappointed more than we can say."

Parchment parent Shannon Stutz said she also had emailed the board and got no response from most trustees.

"You ask that we trust you, but trust is earned," she said. "After everything that went on, you lost it and you have to earn it back.

"It's not like we're trying to cut you off at the knees," Stutz added. "We love this community. But it's very hard to be proud of Parchment and tell others why they should live here."

The final speaker from the audience was Rob Thayer, who left the board at the end of 2012 and spoke in support of trustees.

"I want you to be very careful about your criticism," Thayer told the audience. "I know you're hungry for details, but the board's hands are tied in many cases" from talking about legal matters.

Moreover, Thayer said, "they spend countless hours of their time" dealing with school issues.

"They care about your children," Thayer said. "I'm still proud to be a resident of the Parchment School District."

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