Here's a copy of my print column from this week, with my view on the dominant story of 2007. Can you guesss?
In just a few hours, we will put 2007 in the rearview mirror. I think I know some people who can’t wait. Those would be the overwhelming number of good, decent people who live and work in the Penn-Delco School District. They have suffered a year unlike any seen by a school district in this county in a long time.
They have watched as their school board became something of a merry-go-round, with members coming and going at blinding speed. They should have posted a turnstile at the entrance to their meeting room.
They suffered — not always in silence — as the whispers about what was going on in the district grew louder and louder.
Then, on March 20, the whispers became headlines. This newspaper reported that a county grand jury was investigating the school district’s business dealings with an entity called Quick Start Preschools LLC, a popular firm brought into Penn-Delco to offer pre-school and full-day child care.
It was like putting a match to gasoline.
Suddenly, the district was a conflagration.
Before it was over, the prim, seemingly ultra-professional superintendent of schools would resign her post without warning.
Eventually, Leslye Abrutyn and former board President Keith Crego would face criminal charges in connection with the probe. On Friday, Abrutyn entered a plea in the case. Crego still faces trial. Abrutyn has agreed to testify against him. The district’s longtime solicitor, Mark Sereni, would be ousted in a citizen revolt. Still, another board member, John Green, entered a plea to a single felony count on an ethics violation for failing to disclose that he earned commissions on some work the district awarded to the company that employs him. Quick Start, the company at the center of this mess, pleaded no contest as a corporation to felony charges of corrupt organization and theft by unlawful taking.
It was maybe the only thing that was not contested in this sordid story in the months this newspaper devoted to covering it.
Ironically, no officials from the firm were charged. As a result of the plea, the company will cease to exist. As our ace court reporter Marlene DiGiacomo put it in her story on the plea, Quick Start will have a fast finish.
It will not so quickly fade from the memories of district residents.
That was one of the things that fascinated me about this story. Everyone who commented and those we talked to, including a string of parents and community activists at a succession of school board meetings, had high praise for Quick Start, which had been brought in a couple years before to take over programs once handled by the Rocky Run YMCA.
As it turns out, the problem with Quick Start wasn’t in the services they provided, but the people behind it. Or, more correctly, as county investigators would later allege, the people who were secretly behind it.
It turns out Quick Start was about making a fast buck. And the allegations, as did much of the controversy and outrageous stories surrounding the school board, swirled around one man.
Keith Crego first really came across my radar screen, ironically, not on a story about Penn-Delco, but instead on another perennially troubled school system, Chester Upland.
Crego was a hard-charging new star of the Aston GOP, where he served as co-chairman. In July 2000, he was appointed to fill a vacancy on the Penn-Delco School Board. A year later, he was elected board president. Two months later, he was re-elected to the board in a rout.
But Crego, for whom the meeting room where the board held their meetings would eventually be named, had even bigger aspirations. He was a finalist to be the new CEO of Chester Upland. He lost out to a lifetime educator, Gloria Grantham.
In the meantime, investigators say Crego was busy back in Penn-Delco. They allege that he set up Quick Start, incredibly got Abrutyn to go along for the ride, and then started to rake in the money the firm was making.
For the life of me, I will never understand how Abrutyn could allow herself to be put in such a position.
Both eventually were criminally charged. Crego was slapped with 21 felony offenses and 11 misdemeanors; Abrutyn with a single felony and several misdemeanors.
The sight of the two of them, once leaders of a school district and community, arriving in court in handcuffs, remains one of the enduring images of 2007.
It is at this time of year that news organizations routinely compile their stories of the year. In fact, we published a special section in Sunday’s paper to do just that.
For me, figuring out the top story was not difficult. The Penn-Delco scandal easily topped my list.
Not that there weren’t other big stories. The county continues to battle the Federal Aviation Administration over the hated airport redesign plan. One of our own, Delco native John P. Foley was elevated to cardinal, a prince of the Roman Catholic Church. Longtime Haverford commissioner and county courthouse presence Fred Moran was convicted of bribery charges in connection with the Haverford State Hospital probe. Harrah’s opened a new era of gambling in the state with a slots casino in Chester. The city itself is in the midst of a startling economic renaissance. Democrats’ efforts to crack the stranglehold the GOP holds on the county courthouse were rejected by voters, who sent three more Republicans to County Council.
One thing we did not do was appoint a “person of the year.”
That does not mean I don’t have one. I do.
I nominate the people, employees, administration and families of the Penn-Delco School District. People like Janice Fromal, who tirelessly worked to bring the ugly truth of what was going on in the district to the light of day.
They likely are glad to bid 2007 adieu. Here’s hoping 2008 holds better news for a school district that deserves better.