School Board Accepts Resignations of N-Word-Using Administrators

Prosecutors investigating whether duo were skimming money from district coffers

By Vince Lattanzio and David Chang
|  Wednesday, Sep 25, 2013  |  Updated 3:47 AM CDT
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Residents Angry Over Coatesville School Text Message Controversy

Coatesville Area School District

Coatesville Area School District Superintendent Richard Como (L) and Athletic Director Jim Donato (R) both resigned from their positions earlier this year amid an criminal investigation by the Chester County District Attorney's Office.

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The Coatesville school board accepted the resignations of two top administrators who sent racially-charged text messages on their district-issued cell phones.

Coatesville Area School District Superintendent Richard Como and Director of Athletics and Activities Jim Donato resigned from their posts last month after an IT staffer, fixing Donato's phone, discovered N-word-laden text messages.

The district said it started the process to fire the pair once the text messages were found, but that the men resigned pending the board's approval.

During a meeting, the nine-member board voted to accept the resignations of both Como and Donato. The only dissenting vote was School board member and Coatesville Area NAACP Chapter President Dr. Tonya Thames Taylor, who left the meeting early.

Coatesville Area School District President Neil Campbell says the board agreed to allow Richard Como to resign as superintendent to avoid a long legal battle. He also vowed that Como would not get "one red cent" of his remaining contract.

During the meeting, several Coatesville residents demanded answers and resignations. The school board also confirmed for the first time that Como and Donato are being investigated criminally for kickbacks in the athletic program.

The messages, first reported by The Daily Local of West Chester on Sunday and obtained by NBC10 Philadelphia on Monday, were uncovered by the district IT employee before the start of the school year, according to officials. That employee brought it to the attention of the school board on August 18, prompting Como and Donato to later resign. Chester County prosecutors eventually launched a criminal investigation and asked that more than 100 pages of transcripts be turned over to detectives.

"All should just have whatever first names they want...then last name is N-----! Leroy N-----, Preacher N-----, Night train n-----, Clarence n-----, Latoya n-----, Thelma n----- and so on," read one message sent from Donato’s phone on the night of June 4.

"Great idea! Joe n----- bill n----- snake n----- got a nice ring to it," Como replied.

“hahahahahahahahahahahaha could have whole homerooms of N-----,” came another message from Como’s phone.

“hahahahahahahahaha! Will N----- report to office, pardon the interruption but will N----- report to nurses office. N----- to lunch now!” Donato said.

Amid the racist messages were also conversations about district money.

"Gonna give them til Aug 1st to raise coin still want district to give at least 40k on top," wrote Donato in one of the texts.

Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan tells NBC10 Philadelphia on Tuesday that prosecutors have spent several months looking at whether Como and Donato were skimming district cash.

Sources say concerned parents went to prosecutors four months ago asking officials to look into potential financial wrongdoing in the district. The discovery of the text messages came months later.

"There are references in these texts about financial improprieties of missing money," Hogan said.

Hogan says an electronic forensics team has been deployed to look for additional evidence, but would not elaborate further citing the on-going investigation.

The district attorney's office asked the district to turn over copies of the conversations and the phones used once Hogan was made aware of the racist messages.

"The texts that we have reviewed are appalling," Chester County District Attorney Tom Hogan said Monday. "They look like something from the 1800s, not 2013."

NBC10 made multiple attempts over several days to speak with Como and Donato by phone and in-person, but at the time of publication, have been unable to make contact.

Como, a longtime and well-liked administrator, shocked the school community when he abruptly resigned from his post in the beginning of the school year on August 29. Donato left his job the same day. Coatesville is a predominately black community and both Como and Donato are white.

More than a week later, on September 10, school board officials said the two left their posts amid a criminal investigation by the county prosecutor. Officials, however, would not comment further, citing the investigation.

School board member and Coatesville Area NAACP Chapter President Dr. Tonya Thames Taylor was the first official to learn about the text messages on August 18. Officials say she immediately notified other board members and that an investigation was launched.

Following the initial report, Dr. Taylor posted a message on her website explaining her involvement in the situation.

"Despite this newspaper reporting, I am still bound by a legal responsibility to protect the school district from any liability that could be caused by any statements that I make which could be misconstrued," she wrote. "I cannot comment about any matters that involve district personnel, which are confidential matters. Also, I cannot comment on any matters that are associated with an ongoing criminal investigation."

Dr. Taylor was the only dissenting vote during Tuesday night's meeting.

“The racist and sexist language expressed by the two men was sickening and obviously unacceptable. The Board followed state and federal laws and moved as expeditiously as possible while simultaneously cooperating with the District Attorney,” Board President Neil Campbell said in a statement Monday.

District officials say they will now provide mandatory sensitivity training to all staff, faculty and administrators in light of the text messages.

Como and Donato have not been paid since their resignations. It's unknown at this time whether they will be paid their pension after they leave the district. School leaders say that will be up to a state pension board and that only potential criminal charges could stop the payouts.

Angry residents started an online petition asking the school board to delay its retirement vote until the criminal investigation is finished. The petition garnered more than 1,200 signatures ahead of the meeting.

On Monday, residents also protested outside the district's headquarters. One man held a sign reading "Como worse than KKK!"

"They shouldn't even be in the school and they shouldn't be able to get a job no other place teaching anybody," said another resident Willie Woods.

During Tuesday night's meeting, the district employees who first discovered the texts claimed the district did not respond quickly enough, even though they feared for their jobs.

"A little integrity is better than a career!" said Dr. Theresa Powell, a Coatesville employee.

District officials insisted they had worked furiously behind the scenes to investigate the authenticity of the texts. They also acknowledged however that the messages only came to light as part of a larger criminal investigation into misspending on athletic programs.

"Attorney Ellison was told that there was an investigation regarding potential kickbacks involving high school football camps," said Coatesville School Board President Neil Campbell.

Also during the meeting, the Pennsylvania NAACP chapter announced they planned on holding a series on diversity conferences in Coatesville.

 


Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, vince.lattanzio@nbcuni.com or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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