Year in Review, Part II: Parker retirement headlines busy spring in Unionville

Election race heats up with write-ins, teachers talks get testy and HS project comes under zoning scrutiny

By Mike McGann, Editor,

The retirement of Unionville-Chadds Ford Superintendent of Schools Sharon Parker led to a multi-month process to find her replacement — and led to some exchanges on why she opted to retire during the fall election campaign.

The second quarter of 2011 saw an end — finally — to a cold, snowy winter, but if anything the storm of event picked up, with no shortage of newsworthy events as spring turned to summer — with the school budget, coming school board elections and the surprising retirement of Superintendent of Schools Sharon Parker.

In East Marlborough, the Board of Supervisors opted to continue development work on phase one of Unionville Park, behind the Po-Mar-Lin fire station. Neighboring residents argued against any use for the site beyond passive recreation, but township officials reminded them that the township spent some $1.4 million to prevent the construction of townhouses on the site, and the benefits of that tax money should be spread out to the community, not just the immediate neighbors.

Meanwhile, the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education continued to work through the budget process and in the early days of April appeared to be against raising taxes beyond .99% (4.61% in Delaware County) and going to the maximum increase of 1.4% permitted under the Act 1 state limits. This would prove to be conversation that continued for weeks.

If anything, the talks between the district and its teachers became even more acrimonious — just after it appeared some progress was being made in the talks. The two sides agreed on new work rules, leaving just salary and benefits as issues in the talks. But just a week later, citing the cuts in state aid, the Board of Education cut its offer to teachers, just days after the district reached a deal on a salary freeze with its administrators.

By month’s end, both sides were publicly sparring over content on the Web: information placed on the district’s Web site and that of the Unionville-Chadds Ford Education Association, the teachers union.

Much of that, though, was overshadowed by Parker’s announcement on April 24 that she would retire likely before the start of the 2011-12 school year.

“It’s time for me to serve my family,” she said. “The board has been kind and understanding.”

Parker’s announcement would play out through the year, with a search process for a new Superintendent — ultimately Dr. John Sanville — and what, if any, role the board had in prompting Parker’s departure throughout the election season.

Still some of the angst that seemed to surround the school district dissipated during a highly collegial Meet The Candidates Night at the end of the month. The candidates seemingly had more in common than in opposition and portended a calm, low-key election season.

Pocopson dedicated its first historical marker commemorating the Eusebius Barnard House — slated to become the new municipal building. Barnard, who still has relatives living in the immediate area, was among the township’s founding families and offered shelter to escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War.

May brought more tough fiscal news, as the Board of Education split 5-4 in straw poll voting to keep the tax increase to .99% in Chester County — meaning about $1.1 million had to be slashed from the budget, despite hopes by Superintendent Parker that the board would opt for the 1.4% state Act 1 limit. A formal vote a week later of 6-3 voted to keep the rate at .99, leading to staff layoffs and administrator furloughs during the 2011-12 school year.

The board also designated Joseph O’Brien of the Chester County Intermediate Unit to lead the district’s search for a new superintendent of schools.

Students from local elementary schools participated in an annual program to release shad into the Brandywine Creek. Students from Pocopson, Hillendale and Chadds Ford elementary schools enjoyed a warm, May morning and helped to repopulate the species into the creek.

The board also discussed potential plans to reconfigure the district’s four elementary schools — and whether more study should be considered. While some of the details were revealed during a work session (and apparently discussed in executive session earlier in the month), the subject would not be formally discussed until later in the year, when it became a highly-charged issue in the school board elections.

Those elections went from low-key to highly competitive with sudden emergence of former board member Gregg Linder and Kathy Do as write in candidates in Region C (Chadds Ford and Pennsbury). Do and Linder would go on to win the Democratic nomination for school board, with Timotha Trigg and Sharon Jones winning the GOP nod. Frank Murphy won both nominations in the primary election. In Region A, Victor DuPuis won the Democratic nomination while Rob MacPherson won the Republican nomination, setting up a November contest.

In another contentious issue, the board opted not to outsource the district’s school buses, with four of the five outside bids costing more than the district was currently spending. With some improvements in efficiency, district administrators said they felt they could bring operating costs below the lowest bid, and keep the operation in-house.

The height of the new Unionville High School auditorum and whether it met East Marlborough Township zoning became a major issue in May.

Zoning issues came to the fore in the later half of the month, as Pocopson’s Lenape Pizza sought permission to sell beer from its Lenape Road location. Neighbors opposed the application, citing parking issues and worries about underage drinking. The township’s Board of Supervisors ultimately did reject the application.

A bigger issue, literally, was complaints about the new auditorium at Unionville High School, which appeared to violate the township’s zoning ordinance. The school district appealed a notice of enforcement on the building, sparking a process that would drag on through the entire summer  before finally being resolved.

In the ongoing talks between the school district and its teachers, the teachers union offered a wage freeze and the district’s most recent salary offer, seemingly only leaving health care issues as part of the negotiation.

The district did finalize its budget, settling on a 1.1% percent hike in Chester County— above the .99% that seemed to have initial support but below the Act 1 limit of 1.4% — but, even with the tax increase, the board was forced to eliminate a number of positions, including 10 support staffers, one part-time teacher and cut hours for a number of other positions, thanks to both declining local tax revenue and the specter of proposed cuts in state funding. Most of those state funding cuts were later restored. The district did opt to restore free drivers education in Unionville High School, starting with the 2011-12 school year.

Longwood Gardens unveiled a new solar farm that will generate 1.5KW of power, a number expected to double by 2018. The solar panels are intended to provided much of the power for the Longwood complex.

Crosslands in Pennsbury revealed plans for expansion and renovation of its site on Rt. 926, cutting the overall number of beds, but improving the facility.

Work began in earnest on the Route 52 rerouting, as PennDOT contractors slashed through the forest to build a new route — and a new bridge — from the Rt. 926 intersection out to US-1. While the new roadway was slated to open during the fall, the complete project would not be completed until 2012.

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