Four Wyalusing School Sold; Board Honors Fleming
By Rick Hiduk
While comments and questions regarding recent flooding were sprinkled throughout the Sept. 12 Wyalusing Area School Board meeting, the primary topics of conversation were focused on several revamped policies that the board hopes to approve and the announced sales of the four former elementary school buildings.
The meeting started with an amendment to the agenda by assistant to the superintendent Chester Mummau to honor outgoing superintendent Ray Fleming by the Wyalusing Area School District as Superintendent Emeritus. Chairperson Deborah Stethers read the proclamation that was presented to Fleming, and the board members stood and extended to him a lengthy round of applause before Fleming sat back down to resume an active role tackling weighty issues during the course of his last public meeting with them.
Administrators and contract supervisors alike agreed that the beginning of the school year at the new Wyalusing Valley Elementary School has gone exceptionally well, despite the unexpected three and a half days off because of the flood.
The cafeteria budget was scrutinized by board members who were unsure of who exactly was handling payroll and calling the shots now that the district has contracted with the Nutrition Group, a company that manages school cafeterias across the state. Nutrition Group general manager Mary Filler, who also spoke at length later in the meeting, assured board members that all revenues and payroll are handled by the district’s business office.
Filler noted that the new free breakfast pilot program offered to elementary school children has been a big hit, and, though high school students must pay for breakfast, there was more interest among them in buying breakfast with each new day of school. She also introduced board members to new food district food service director Nancy Iseminger, who is an employee of the contracted company. The biggest challenge in keeping the children fed so far, Filler related, is getting both students and staff used to utilizing ID cards that access prepaid accounts for their purchases. Soon, she added, parents will be able to prepay for the lunches as far in advance as they would like via the internet. Several board members who have children in the district shared their enthusiasm for the new menu with Filler.
After reviewing bills paid recently by the district, board member Brian Zeidner cited much lower mileage reimbursement as tangible evidence of savings that the district will realize from the consolidation of the elementary schools.
Fleming asked for a motion to hire a new secretary to replace Nancy Townsend, who has been transferred to the position of payroll secretary, and approve the decision retroactively at the next school board meeting, which is scheduled for Monday, Oct. 3. A new person is needed immediately to focus on the coordination of transportation and taxes, which Townsend has been helping with despite her new duties.
The sales of the remaining three elementary school buildings was announced, and the board was asked to approve a 90-day extension on the sales agreement revealed last month concerning the purchase of the Camptown school by Southwest Energy. Tuscarora Wayne Insurance was cited as the probable buyer of the Wyalusing building, which is adjacent to the company’s headquarters on Route 6, at a cost of $700,000. Flynn Group LLC is slated to purchase the New Albany and Laceyville buildings at $300,000 each.
According to Mummau, Flynn Group plans to renovate their two buildings into apartment houses. Tuscarora Wayne President and CEO Jay Chadwick explained that the insurance company bought the Wyalusing building in an effort to expand its own property, as it has done with similar purchases through the years. Chadwick related that the company initially plans to lease the building to businesses and organizations that will suit the needs of the community.
Each of the purchases is contingent on approval by the respective counties in addition to satisfying zoning discrepancies. Southwest Energy, for example, requested the 90-day extension because the company has not yet met the requirements of Wyalusing Township for rezoning the Camptown building as an apartment house. Southwest can pursue its project with a conditional use permit by which its worker housing will be classified as a boarding home, but sewer and water upgrades will be needed to complete the venture.
Closing on the deals with Tuscarora Wayne Insurance and the Flynn Group could come as early as Sept. 15 and 17, respectively.
The Wyalusing Building will already house two tenants when Tuscarora assumes ownership, a deal also approved by the board during the meeting. Wyalusing Valley Children’s Center and ProCare Physical Fitness Performance and Therapy, both of which were inundated by floodwaters, will move into the former elementary school for a term of 60 days while their former locations are restored for business.
A lengthy policy discussion brought to light varying personnel positions on a number of issues. Some of the policies presented at the meeting had already been modified from their first reading in August, but the language of several points was challenged once again, which will necessitate another revision before the board can vote on them in October. A policy regarding interscholastic athletics, for example, stated that such activities were offered to students “at no cost,” which almost everybody in attendance agreed was not at all true. “There’s definitely a fee,” said board member Tari Trowbridge, who suggested that the policies also should not draw a distinction between sports and other extracurricular activities. High school principal and coach Gary Otis agreed, noting that senior high school students pay $45 per activity, while the fee for junior high students is $25.
Another point of contention inadvertently evolved into a discussion about implementing an anti-nepotism policy. Initial comments centered on an employment policy line item that forbid the hiring of anyone immediately related to a school board member.
Board member Crystal Hons questioned the fairness of such a policy. “It’s not their fault that we are here,” she stated, a general reference to the prospect of family members who might want to apply for openings within the school district. “I don’t see that there is an issue.”
“It just doesn’t look good,” said Trowbridge, who said that the board’s overall stance on that issue had changed in the time that she has served on the board because of several hirings some years ago that were questioned by the public.
Stethers noted that there were already employees in the district who have relatives on the school board. Zeidner agreed, but added that they were already employed when the board member was elected, which is permitted. Stethers pointed out that the district is in great need of qualified substitute teachers and several potential candidates could present challenges to such a doctrine.
“We’re not in favor of nepotism,” board member Chad Salsman remarked, “but if we don’t have any say in the hiring process, that’s not really nepotism.”
“We’re not the ones who do the hiring. We just approve it,” Hons agreed.
“We also need to hire the best people for our kids,” Fleming interjected, which board member Richard Robinson echoed, adding that such a policy is especially challenging to a small school district.
Zeidner acknowledged the feelings on the topic that had been expressed but indicated that he would support a district-wide anti-nepotism policy. “It does keep everything above the board, and there would be no questioning of the integrity of the board members,” he stated. Trowbridge agreed, noting that every new hire by the district invites scrutiny by the public.
Board member Vince Amoroso asked Mummau if he could solicit advice on the matter from the PSBA (Pennsylvania School Board Association), which had already helped to rewrite most of the policies in question, so that it could be discussed again at a later date.
A recommendation by Mummau to increase the pay rates for substitute teachers in the district was approved with a majority vote, but Salsman and Zeidner objected to the increases based on budget constraints already faced by the district.
Technology coordinator Tim Yale reported that all systems in both buildings were operating efficiently, and he commended teachers and other staff members at the elementary school for their quick assimilation to new systems in place there. Yale also related that an internet switch by the district from satellite to fiber optic transmission has already resulted in fewer outages, especially during bad weather.
District maintenance supervisor Bob Brigham was proud to report that the rubber seals on the doors leading to the lower-level classroom wing kept almost all of the floodwater out of the school, even though the river lapped several inches up the sides of the new school building. The elementary school is temporarily using water buffaloes and strategically placed coolers until the building’s water system can be inspected as the well-cap was submerged during the course of inundation. Athletic fields suffered considerable damage, he noted, and a large tanker truck came to rest on the fence of the girls’ soccer fields.