In Pennsauken, where tough talk, sharp elbows, and short fuses are hardly unheard of in local politics, officials past and present are at odds over pretty much everything about the public schools – Pennsauken High especially.
Superintendent Ronnie Tarchichi and School Board President Nick Perry say new college credit courses and in-house vocational and professional “academies” linked to employment opportunities will transform the landmark school, which opened on Hylton Road in 1959.
Despite a proud history, Pennsauken High in the last decade has seen its enrollment plunge from about 1,800 to just over 1,300. Improving PHS would help the traditionally blue-collar township attract new residents, Tarchichi and Perry say, adding that the district is preparing a new promotional brochure for, among others, local real estate brokers.
“We’ve listened to community members, and we are building programs that will bring students back,” says Tarchichi, who was hired away from Woodlynne’s single-school district in 2016, after five leadership changes in Pennsauken’s superintendency in 13 years.
Meanwhile, three former board presidents -- Matthew McDevitt, Michael Stargell, and Cheryl Link – are scrutinizing and criticizing Tarchichi, Perry, and others on the current board. They say Pennsauken’s educational leadership is unprepared for the challenges of a complicated and evolving school system of 5,000 students.
The district, like Pennsauken itself, has become majority nonwhite. In 1990, the township of about 35,000 was nearly 80 percent white. It is now less than 40 percent white; while the African American population has held steady, the numbers of Hispanics and Asians have skyrocketed.
“The tides have changed,” says McDevitt, an 18-year board veteran who lost his seat in 2013.
“They’re dumbing down education because the ethnic makeup is changing,” Stargell, who is African American, says, referring to the new focus on construction and automotive trades, as well as culinary and cosmetology training.
Says McDevitt, "We really want to see there be positive leadership district-wide, from the building level on up, and have [all schools] working together so we can raise our test scores.
"We lose too many kids at the middle school level who don't go on to Pennsauken High. We have to have them thinking positively about going there," McDevitt adds.
The superintendent and the board president insist this is the very thing they're trying to accomplish.
“We want to start putting a more positive spin on our schools. We want to be a district that offers vocational as well as academics," Tarchichi says.
"Some students are not interested in going to college, but we have academic programs that lead to collegiate education, and will have dual [high school and community college] enrollment programs, and we have professional programs. We are not dumbing it down.”
Stargell and his fellow former presidents – all three have lost board re-election campaigns in recent years -- are a regular presence on Pennsauken Talks, a Facebook page overseen by veteran township Republican leader and self-described “troublemaker” Bill Chester.
Pennsauken Talks offers 3,400 followers a lively mix of queries about lost pets and broken streetlights, as well as more pointed posts about matters such as the operation of the school district, particularly what critics charge is a lack of transparency in meeting schedules and agendas.
Meetings “are held at convenient times for residents … [and] we’re going to use tools like social media more, so that parents and community members are kept informed,” says longtime township spokesman Frank Sinatra, who has begun working part-time for the school district as well.
Tarchichi “has an open-door policy and encourages any resident who has a question or concern to reach out to him directly,” Sinatra adds.
The three former presidents and their supporters also question the current leadership’s qualifications, competency, and regulatory awareness.
“The board is illiterate” about the technical requirements of certain procedures, says Link. “And they did not do their due diligence with regard to the application and certification of the superintendent."
“They keep trying to crucify me,” Perry, a 40-year veteran of public education in Philadelphia, says. “I’m retired now, and I’m on the board because I want to give back.”
Says Tarchichi: “I have four master’s degrees. And I recently defended my doctoral dissertation at Rowan University. It’s 300 pages, a two-year report on [how to improve] test scores.
“I never had anything negative written about me until I got here.”
School district politics can indeed be personal in Pennsauken; the superintendent and the board president both suggested I view a YouTube video of a 2011 school board meeting at which McDevitt and Stargell almost came to blows.
It wasn't pretty.
“I was wrong,” Stargell says. “I was out of line. But we buried that long ago.”
Glad to hear it.
And I wonder whether a similar reconciliation might be possible in the larger dispute.
After all, everyone involved insists, quite convincingly, that they’re interested not in power, or politics, but simply in improving public education for Pennsauken’s kids.