Lack of information raising tensions in Penn Hills School District investigation
Frustrations continue to grow in Penn Hills as an investigation into school district’s finances stretches into its third year.
“I’ve been in the community all my life,” said Heather Malone, resident and high school basketball booster. “It’s like we don’t have a voice, and it’s time for us to have a voice.”
Malone was one of 30 to 40 people who took part in a protest outside the old municipal building along Frankstown Road on Jan. 12.
The protest, which lasted about an hour while temperatures were in the 20s, was in response to the lack of a public report or indictments from Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr.
Zappala’s office launched its investigation in response to the May 2016 release of an audit by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, which alleged mismanagement of funds, bad decisions and lack of oversight put the district more than $170 million in debt.
The debt is largely due to high school and elementary construction projects. Penn Hills also borrowed $18 million in October 2015 to fund day-to-day operations.
Zappala spokesman Mike Manko said via a Jan. 14 email he “cannot comment on anything involving Penn Hills.”
Some demonstrators carried signs reading “Honk for Justice” and wore red T-shirts with the phrase “Penn Hills Just Charge It!”
The shirts worn at the event were in reference to one of the problems flagged in the 74-page audit, which covered July 2012 through June 2015.
It cited abuse and numerous violations of board-approved policies for credit card use, including a failure by the district to review, authorize and account for purchases — such as a $359 residential water heater not found on district property.
“The more that we’re out here showing our faces, somebody’s going to say something,” Malone said. “There needs to be some accountability for the money that was taken. People need to be prosecuted. That’s the bottom line. It’s money that was taken from our community, and it’s not fair. I love my community. It’s a nice community, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it.”
Malone said she believes politics are to blame for the public not having more information from investigators.
School board President Erin Vecchio, who organized the protest, agreed.
“I think it’s political games being played as usual in Penn Hills,” Vecchio said. “I want the truth. I want all the statements and testimony from the grand jury.”
Vecchio’s first protest consisted of her, by herself, standing outside the Allegheny County Jail on Oct. 1.
She said she did not alert anyone of the protest ahead of time and wanted to raise awareness that no one was behind bars for allegedly stealing money from the district.
Vecchio promoted last week’s protest event via her Facebook page and received multiple comments.
“All I know is, the people are tired of waiting and the people are tired of paying higher taxes because of the people who stole from us,” she said. “I think it’s time to call the FBI.”
Penn Hills Councilman John Petrucci, a former North Braddock police officer and Allegheny County sheriff’s deputy, said he understands why Zappala would wait to release anything from an investigation.
“When you go into something like this, you want to get your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed before you get into a grand jury,” he said. “I know it’s a lengthy investigation. I know from being in prior law enforcement these take time. It should come out soon.”
Petrucci also understands residents’ patience is wearing thin.
“It’s affecting 42,000 people in this community,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are seniors. We have a lot of people who have moderate incomes and the price of living has gone up a lot with tax increases. Something needs to be done. I have full support in what the (school) board president is doing. She’s looking out for the goodness of the people, and so am I. That’s what we’re elected for. This is a rough predicament.”
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .