Delaware school boards have been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. But the most alarming school board controversy is getting no attention.
Several articles have been written about offensive comments made during Odyssey Charter School board meetings and the corresponding backlash. Christina school board member Fred Polaski’s “take ‘em away from mom” comments made the front page of The News Journal and drew responses from legislators calling for his resignation. Another Christina school board member just resigned after six years while confessing that the board “has been entirely too focused on the grown-ups and not the children.”
We should all be up in arms about the conduct of these important board members who have oversight over more than $1 billion in taxpayer funds and make decisions that affect more than 140,000 students. But it is telling that there is no outrage about a sitting board member who has been charged with 19 felony counts of rape and sexual abuse of two minors but continues to keep his elected seat on Colonial School District’s school board.
Colonial school board member Ronnie Williams is currently being held in prison, with bail set at $345,000 cash, after he was charged in September of 2019 with several counts of sexual abuse of a child by a person of trust, four counts of second-degree rape, three counts of continuous sexual abuse of a child, four counts of unlawful sexual contact with a person less than 13 years old and five counts of second-degree unlawful sexual contact with a person less than 18 years.
When the news broke, Colonial School District said “Williams retains the ability to remain on the board” because the district “does not have the authority or responsibility under the law to interfere with publicly elected individuals.”
Governor Carney’s team noted that the Governor “lacks the ‘unilateral authority’ to remove elected officials from their positions unless they have been convicted.”
Yet, the Governor does have the power to care deeply about this issue and to encourage the legislature to do something about Delaware school boards. And Delaware’s legislature has the power to pass a law to create a process for removing school board members under such circumstances, just like there are processes in place to remove state legislators, judges, and even the Governor.
But despite all the disgust expressed by policymakers in September, it is now March and there has been no action or urgency about this matter.
This means that a Delaware school board member could miss every meeting during their 5-year term and there is no process in Delaware law to have them removed.
Or, in the case of Ronnie Williams, it means that a board member could be charged with committing crimes against a student and the victims and other students have to watch him retain his position of authority over students.
It was with this disbelief that I was approached by one of my mentees —a Colonial School District student— in September of 2018 to tell me that his friend was being molested by a sitting school board member in his district.
My mentee could not believe that someone could be accused of such things and still be able to represent the school district.
I immediately reported what he told me to the police and the school district. I thought charges would be brought promptly.
After checking in on the case every few months, it took a year until charges were filed. Imagine what message all of this sends to victims or to any student for that matter.
It does not have to be this way.
We can push policymakers to pass legislation immediately that creates a process for removing board members who are not meeting the standard our children and community deserve.
We can demand that our legislators pass legislation that requires background checks for candidates running for elected office in Delaware. Delaware law (Title 14 Chapter 5 Section 511 (r)) requires that charter school board members complete criminal background checks. Ronnie Williams was charged with sexually assaulting three boys in 2004 even though he was ultimately found not guilty.
We also need to reduce the term lengths of Delaware school board members from five years to three years to give voters more opportunity to hold these boards accountable.
Then we need people to actually vote in school board elections each May and engage with their local school boards throughout the year. Only around 10,000 Delawareans vote in these elections each year across the entire state.
Students need us to step up and care about who runs their schools.