When I went on vacation 10 days, I left fairly confident that I wouldn’t miss much while I was gone. After all, I thought, in this post-election, pre-holiday lull, how hot a news week could Springfield have?
Certainly, I assumed, nothing could top the bombshell of a story that broke just before I left: School Committee member Antonette Pepe’s assertion that Mayor Domenic Sarno had told her he would support her bid to become the committee’s vice chair only if she pledged her unwavering support to Superintendent Alan Ingram, and if she stopped asking questions about his administration’s controversial decision to move the School Department into the old federal courthouse without seeking competitive bids for leases at other spots. Pepe accused the mayor of “blackmail”; Sarno denied her story.
Well, shame on me for underestimating Springfield’s ability to generate juicy political intrigue—witness Springfield Republican reporter Jack Flynn’s ongoing coverage of the scandal at the Robert M. Hughes Academy charter school.
No, not the original scandal, which saw the school facing questions about the curiously dramatic rise in its MCAS scores this year—an increase that has prompted an investigation by state education officials. In the wake of that turmoil, the school’s board placed principal Janet Henry on leave. The board’s choice of a replacement for Henry set off the second wave of scandal: in her stead, members named Fred Swan to lead the school. Swan, the former director of Springfield’s Caring Health Center, pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges in 2007 for bid-rigging at that publicly funded agency, and was sentenced to house arrest.
Shortly after that sentence ended in March, Flynn reported, Swan was hired to a $79,000-a-year job as a development officer at Hughes Academy. In a letter quoted in the Republican, Henry claims she was pressured to hire Swan, that he rarely showed up for work and that he bullied staff, including trying to get her to sign off on a backdated “bonus check” because the state was seizing his regular paychecks to satisfy back taxes he owed. Swan’s wife, Lorraine Swan, and sister-in-law, Norma Baker, were both on the board at the time he was hired, according to Flynn.
Flynn also reported that only six of the board’s 14 members were present at a November vote to put Swan in charge of the school after Henry was placed on leave. According to board president W. Calvin Walls Jr., the group moved ahead with the vote with a minority of board members because of the urgency of the matter.
Swan has refused to comment for Flynn’s stories, while the school’s attorney has also deflected questions, citing the ongoing state investigation. But at a parents’ meeting conducted by Swan, Flynn reported, the new principal defended himself, noting “Nobody’s charged me with anything.” Nonetheless, Flynn wrote, “Irate parents called on [Swan] to step down …, saying that his nine felony convictions could damage the charter school’s image and jeopardize its future.”
Swan also had a number of supporters at the meeting—including, curiously, Chelan Brown, co-founder of the anti-violence group AWAKE. Brown had once worked for Swan at the health center he ran, and enjoyed the political backing of the extended Swan family, which includes Fred’s brother, state Rep. Ben Swan. But that relationship had soured in recent years, in part due to a disagreement over a state grant between AWAKE and Northern Education Services, where Fred’s son, the Rev. Talbert Swan II, and his sister-in-law, Baker, both work.
In 2008, Brown ran unsuccessfully against Ben Swan for the 11th Hampden state rep seat. At the time, she spoke to the Advocate about what she considered the Swan family’s undue power in the district. “That’s part of the reason why I’m running,” she said. “For too long, we’ve had a family that has controlled resources and dollars, and that has not been fair.”
Meanwhile, Springfield Intruder blogger Bill Dusty, in his new gig writing for MassLive.com, weighed in on the drama at Hughes, describing it as just another example of the backroom dealing and backscratching that pervades city government.
Finally, Tom Devine reported on the sad fate of MassLive's smart and well-written Local Buzz. According to Devine, MassLive laid off Local Buzz writer Bill Peters; while the company has retained Peters' colleague—Devine calls them "buzzlings"—Greg Saulmon to do other web-based work, Saulmon's opted not to continue Buzz without Peters. While that's perhaps not surprising news, given the intense financial pressures on the news business, it's hard not to think MassLive could have averted that fate by more aggressively and effectively promoting Local Buzz.