The Southeast Delco School Board, during a highly contentious special meeting last week, voted 6-3 to rescind the five year contract extension of Superintendent of Schools Dr. Stephen Butz. Despite numerous calls from the packed public meeting for an explanation why, board members remained mum on any reason for the recession.
Just two weeks prior, Butz’ new contract, which would have run from July 1, 2018 – June 30, 2023, was approved by a unanimous 9-0 vote.
Board members voting in favor of contract rescission include board President Theresa Harris-Johnson, Tanya Cavalieri, Racquel Irons, Tammi Forbes, Edward McBride, and Sheree Monroe. Board members voting against the rescission include board Vice President Dr. Sharon Wilson, Donald Young and Dorothy Gallagher.
As of Monday’s board reorganization, Cavalieri and McBride are no longer members, and that, among other procedural items, were raised throughout the meeting.
“Some of these board members have been after Stephen (Butz) for a while,” said Young. “You all approved the evaluation of the superintendent, and three of you were on the (Evaluation) Committee. The evaluation didn’t get him out because he was rated proficient or higher in every category. The board had a verbal agreement with Dr. Butz that if they were going to replace him, or do anything with his contract, he would be told to avoid public embarrassment. Dr. Butz is embarrassed by this erratic behavior. ”
Young said after the meeting that Wilson and Gallagher were also never consulted about rescinding the contract, and questioned why a private discussion was not held among the entire board prior to a public meeting.
Although Harris-Johnson was repeatedly asked by some board members and residents attending the meeting, she refused to disclose a reason for the action. However, she acknowledge receiving calls from board members following the initial contract extension vote.
Butz said he also was not given a reason for the rescission.
One by one, residents rose to defend Butz, including Academy Park High School Principal Nathaniel Robinson and District Facilities Director Harry Young.
Robinson, an African-American, praised Butz’ leadership and credited the superintendent for having faith in him.
“A lot of positive has come from the leadership of Dr. Butz and I want to thank you, Dr. Butz, so much for believing in me,” Robinson said. “We hope to continue to make you proud at Academy Park High School.”
Former school board member, Folcroft resident Helene Calabro, said the current board was doing a disservice to the community.
“I think some of you have personal grudges and you need to put them aside and think of this community,” Calabro said. “Eliminating Stephen Butz is about the worse thing you can do.”
Calabro asked solicitor Robert DiOrio if the meeting and contract rescission were legal. He responded, that he gave a legal opinion to the board to proceed with the meeting.
Collingdale resident Michele Feterolf, who serves as Butz’ secretary, accused the board of abusing its power and acting recklessly.
“You are operating in a way that puts the district at risk,” Feterolf said, referring to potential legal action. “When I found out about this meeting, I contacted a board member and asked if (members) realized they could be on the hook for a significant amount of money if they followed through with this action. I was told they are not thinking about that and don’t care about the money. I also asked if they were concerned about the effect it would have on staff, or people who would likely follow Dr. Butz out the door. I was told, yes they knew, but those people would have been out the door anyway and they did not care.”
Feterolf said no agreement will be safe and there will be no security for any person on staff.
“By not honoring this contract the board demonstrates it cannot be trusted,” she said. “The perception will be that no agreement is safe. Since the contract was initially approved 9-0, I am curious as to what promises were made to board members to get them to change their vote. The whole affair smells of backroom deals and compromised principles.”
Harris-Johnson said no employee need be concerned about losing their job.
“We have a lot of employees here tonight and you don’t have to worry about your jobs,” she said, adding that no one has been selected to take the superintendent’s position. However, Wilson said Harris-Johnson told her that the board should put “feelers out” to talk to other superintendents.
Following the vote, Butz expressed appreciation to the residents, teachers and administrators who came out to support him adding that he has retained legal counsel.
“A contract was approved by a 9-0 vote,” Butz said. “It was signed by the board president and witnessed by the secretary pro-tem and attested. It is a duly executed, binding contract. Several solicitors in neighboring counties have the same legal opinion. …I did seek legal advice and the board is aware of the potential for damages, just for having this meeting…I have clearly communicated my position on this action trough a letter sent to Mr. DiOrio, which was read to the board.”
Butz said board members had ample time to tweak the terms of the contract prior to its subsequent approval, if that had been an issue.
“…The day of the meeting we had a conversation,” Butz said. “A 9-0 vote was taken. Nothing has happened since that time to change my work in the district and what I do day-in day-out…I am fully committed to the Southeast Delco School District and fully committed to fulfill my responsibilities for my current term and new contract.”
Butz received an extended standing ovation from those attending following his statement.
Calls to the Harrisburg-based Strokoff & Cowden, the law firm representing Butz, and the state Department of Education were not returned as of press time.
Steve Robinson, director of communications for the PA School Boards Association, said the situation “sounds atypical,” adding that there are no black and white answers without knowing all the facts.
“This pivots on the interpretations of the Sunshine and Right-to-Know laws, both of which have provisions for allowing personnel decisions to be made in executive sessions as long as the final vote is taken in public,” said Robinson.
The concern of Young, Gallagher and Wilson is that there was no executive session held prior to last week’s special meeting to rescind the contract extension and they were not, in Gallagher’s words, “given the courtesy” of being informed of any decision to rescind.
Wilson promised to make a motion at the board’s next meeting to “rescind the rescission.”