Penn Hills man vows to chain himself to White House to bring attention to school district
A Penn Hills man, the son of the Penn Hills School Board president, has caught the eye of the U.S. Secret Service, with an online petition to have federal authorities help bail out his financially strapped school district.
Phil Vecchio posted his plea to Change.org in June.
He said he took to Facebook to promote it and pledged to “chain myself to the gate of the White House” if it garnered at least 1,000 signatures.
It was the social media comment that helped lead to about 1,180 signatures, a few hundred away from its overall 1,500 goal, and resulted in the petition’s purpose: federal attention.
A Secret Service agent recently came to his apartment and questioned him.
“I deeply respect the Secret Service after having dealt with them,” he said. “They’re totally professional. I think they’re just doing their job.”
Vecchio, 30, said he explained his plan and petition, and plans to keep his word when visiting the nation’s capital July 5.
“I do have plans to go down and protest at the White House, that’s not a lie,” Vecchio said. “That’s probably going to happen. We need the attention. Maybe 40,000 other people in Penn Hills just don’t have the nerve to do it. If nobody brings in federal investigators, the opportunity to seek justice is going to be gone forever.”
The district is about $172 million in debt largely due to the construction of the high school and elementary school in 2013 and 2014.
In May 2016, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale published a report that he described as “one of the worst school audits” he’d ever seen, citing alleged mismanagement of funds and district credit cards, among other concerns.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. launched a grand jury investigation shortly after DePasquale’s audit was released and, in February, released a two-part grand jury report that resulted in no recommendations for indictments, but blasted the district for fiscal mismanagement.
Agents also reached out to Vecchio’s mother, school board President Erin Vecchio, who said her son was just trying to help and not make any threats, and denied he would actually chain himself to the gate.
“We’re just trying to draw attention so someone investigates this matter,” she said. “When people say it’s not a federal problem, it is a federal problem because the district gets federal funds. He has the right to protest. He just doesn’t need to chain himself.”
However, the son doubled down on his White House pledge, saying he will stay in contact with the special agents and thanked his supporters.
“That’s what matters,” he said. “It isn’t about anybody but them. We need more people to sign the petition, and share it and speak to their federal representatives about it.”
He said the lack of action by other state and federal authorities help fuel his protest.
Erin Vecchio reached out to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to start his own investigation into district finances but was denied.
She wrote to President Donald Trump seeking relief from the debt that she described as “being used for a kickback scheme involving the Penn Hills School District.”
A reply, dated June 10 from the White House, indicated her query was a local matter and not to be addressed at the federal level.
“After carefully reviewing your correspondence, we have determined that your concerns involve state or local matters,” the White House response read. “Please contact government officials in your state who can best address your situation …”
The school board recently adopted its 2019-20 budget with no tax increase, courtesy of a $3.3 million state funding boost.
The proposed tax hike was 1.9172 mills, or 6.69%. The current millage rate is 28.6646 mills, already among the highest in the region.
The boost also allowed the district to bring back six teachers and one specialist furloughed in May. The budget still included more than 20 other teacher furloughs.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .