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Proposed New Position Sparks Heated Debate at School Board Meeting

Sale of One Elementary School Among Meeting Topics

By Rick Hiduk

From the onset, it seemed that the heat of July 11 had cast a lethargic pall on the first school board meeting of the Wyalusing Area School District (WASD) since the approval of the 2011-12 budget. Despite the fact that all of the board members and administrators were present, the gathering was, initially, not much of a public affair, as the participants could barely be heard over the rush of an industrial fan brought into the cafeteria to stir the humid air. It was only after the fan was shut off and new assistant superintendent Chester Mummau introduced a plan to hire a new assistant principal/curriculum coordinator, as well as a new secretary, that the voices in the room reached a volume audible to anyone other than fellow board members and service dogs.

With the help of WASD business manager Donna Repsher, Mummau had crafted a proposal that resembled a congressional budget amendment with its seemingly irrelevant earmarks that board member Richard Robinson said “muddied” the initial intention of putting in place an administrator/instructor who could oversee and help facilitate a K-through-12 curriculum that would mirror the school’s mission statement and enhance testing scores.

While Mummau entertained variations on his plan to hire an administrator who would work with both principals and a new central office secretary instead of a pre-budgeted assistant business manager, Repsher’s segment of the presentation brought into play the potential approval of a food service management company to reduce the district’s cafeteria budget—an idea that has been floated before the board previously without much success.

“It appears that you’ve dressed it up and turned it around, but it’s pretty much the same thing that has been proposed from the start,” said Robinson. “I have no problem with that (new) position, but I do have a problem with attaching all of these other things to it.”

Elementary school principal Joe Darrow readily supported Mummau’s plan to use funds previously allocated for an assistant business manager to pay part of the projected cost for a new administrator who could keep an eye on instructional elements from which Darrow and high school principal Gary Otis are often diverted by the disciplinary or logistical needs of their respective student bodies. Darrow related that there are many days when he and Otis will confer with each other after school and lament that one or both of them did not feel that they were as involved with the instructional aspect of the school day as they would have preferred.

An assistant principal/curriculum coordinator would report to both principals, Darrow noted, and work with teams of teachers in both schools. “We won’t have to alter our schedules,” Darrow explained in reference to him and Otis. “This (new) person would be able to work for days at a time” on specific elements of the curriculum, he remarked.

The new employee would be charged with maintaining the flow of the curriculum from instruction through PSSA testing, Mummau explained. The assistant principal might conduct sample testing at 9-week intervals to make sure that the curriculum is on target. “Teachers may have to back up to reteach something before they move on,” he suggested. Despite scrutiny that evolved into solid objections to the plan, Mummau maintained, “This is simply a restructuring. We need someone who is focused on our mission. This isn’t new money. It’s already in the budget.”

Board member Tari Trowbridge pointed out several times that the budget in question runs a deficit that is, in her opinion, not going to disappear in one or even three years. “We’ve already accounted for all of that stuff,” she stated in response to comments by superintendent Ray Fleming and board member Chad Salsman that the budget committee had found some funds to tap to meet most WASD budget needs. “Next year’s budget isn’t going to be any better because of the sale of those four buildings,” she added in reference to the hopes of board members that selling the four former elementary schools, coupled with more money than expected from the state, might completely offset the budget deficit.

Trowbridge questioned the pairing of the new administrative position with the food service proposal but met the latter head-on by suggesting that the perceived savings of adopting a plan that has a significant number of opponents was negligible in the larger picture. She also challenged the concept of having the new administrator work 35 less days than other school faculty members as a way of keeping down the cost of his or her contract. “Why would a curriculum coordinator not want to work in the summer?” she asked. “Are they supposed to come in in August and say, ‘Well, I guess I’ll get to work on the curriculum now’?”

“I thought that bringing all of the kids together under one roof would bring these efficiencies,” board member Barb Hugo added. She then echoed a suggestion by fellow board member Brian Zeidner that the district might be better off working through the first full season in the new building before deciding to add another administrator.

“I’d hate to wait too long,” Mummau responded quickly, noting that the pressure for the district to produce high PSSA test scores was already building as the administrators and faculty prepare for the new school year.

Otis agreed. “We’re still ahead of the curve,” he said in regard to aligning the district’s curriculum to meet PSSA standards, but he cautioned that fully integrating a new administrator could take as long as three years.

Fleming suggested that the school district has so far “gotten away” without having a person in what he agreed with Mummau and Darrow is a critical position, “but that level of proficiency is getting harder and harder to maintain.”

“If we’re in the top 25 percent (of school districts within the state) and still don’t hit our No Child Left Behind target, we’re still ahead of 75 percent of the other schools. We just have to be ahead of the other schools,” Trowbridge asserted.

“How do we advertise for this position to get the right person for the job? My concern is that we’re not going to get the applicants that we need,” Salsman interjected. “And what if we don’t like this food service company? What is our plan then?”

In an apparent effort to prevent the conversation from becoming mired or reaching a stalemate, chairperson Deborah Stethers, who seemed to share the reservations of others about a major overhaul of the school’s cafeteria system, suggested tabling the motion to advertise for the new positions until the bids from the food service companies were received and reviewed. In theory, acquiring the services of a food management company at $50,000 per year as opposed to the current $89,000 cafeteria budget would help the district justify the budgetary shift to hire new faculty members. The bids from food service companies are anticipated over the next two weeks.

Although there was general agreement to Stethers’s proposal, board members continued to express confusion as to why school lunches were even a part of a conversation about apparently crucial potential faculty additions for the district. “There are too many things here that are wrapped together,” said Salsman.

Robinson pressed Mummau to assign a higher priority to either the assistant principal position or that of a central office secretary, if the board were to have to make a choice between them. Mummau asserted that, from what he has experienced so far at the district office, the need to fill both positions was essential. “I think we need them both,” he stated.

Board member Crystal Hons remained unconvinced. “The only ‘pro’ I see here is that we want it, and it may help with No Child Left Behind,” she remarked. “Everything else stands against it. There are a lot of things that people in Wyalusing want that don’t fit their budgets.” Hons too feels that getting the children into the new school for a full year was more important.

“We need to be honest. This is not going to save us money; it’s going to cost us more money in the long run,” Salsman concurred. “I agree with Crystal. This is more of a want than a need.” He added that he would be willing to reconsider the new administrative position at the end of the 2011-12 school year.

WASD technology coordinator Tim Yale spoke up in regard to the point that Mummau had made in his presentation that a curriculum coordinator would also be responsible for integrating the new Standards Aligned System (SAS), a state-mandated technology system designed to help school districts identify six primary elements of their respective curriculum. While Yale lamented that implementing school curriculum has evolved into a method of “teaching to test,” he warned that SAS will be a massive undertaking that will require more attention than he will be able to devote to it.

“It started slowly, but it (SAS) is snow-balling into something that eventually will be a big part of what we do,” said Yale.

“I don’t think that a lot of people understand how much of a headache this is going to be for the district,” Fleming added. “A curriculum coordinator would streamline this.”

As the discussion about the new positions came to a close, board member Vince Amoroso voiced his hope that whomever would be selected as a curriculum coordinator, either this year or next, would have a personal attachment to the Wyalusing area and therefore be loyal to both the job and the district. Fellow board member Larry Franklin thanked Mummau for his presentation, but the future superintendent was no likely disappointed by the reaction to his first major proposal to the board.

Elementary School Updates, Etc.

An earlier agenda item that was all but overshadowed by the aforementioned debate was the unexpected report that completion of the new elementary school has fallen slightly behind schedule, and elements of the project that were supposed to be finished by July 4 now have a deadline of Aug. 12.

Zeidner questioned project manager John Waltman, who expressed his confidence that everything will be completed by the first day of school.

“What are you doing to ensure that we meet that target date?” Zeidner asked.

Waltman related that the contractors have stepped up their efforts and are bringing in more people to wrap up the project. As per Zeidner’s inquiry, Waltman conceded that penalties will be imposed on several contractors for missing the mark once the school district assesses the impact of the delay. “We don’t anticipate any impact,” Waltman remarked.

“Your prodding seems to be effective then?” Zeidner asked.

“Not as much as I’d like,” Waltman admitted, noting that an inspection of the building is slated for Friday, July 15.

As the school board meeting drew to a close, Fleming was pleased to announce that a potential buyer for the former Camptown Elementary School has submitted a bid and contract for the building. Southwest Energy plans to purchase the school in Wyalusing Township, which the company intends to modify into employee housing, for $300,000, which will net WASD approximately $293,500 after commission and other fees are deducted. Fleming noted that a special provision was made to extend the standard 45-day limit for a hearing before the district attorney to 60 days.

The board approved the measure, but Franklin, Hons, and Robinson remarked that they cast their affirmative votes with reservations. “I’m disappointed,” said Franklin. “I think we could have done better.” Amoroso reminded Fleming that the court date must be advertised at least three weeks in advance.

In other business, the board approved the transfer of district office secretary Marilyn Burke to the high school office to fill a position vacated by Carol Lent, who is retiring. Board members were unanimous in their admiration and well wishes for Lent, as well as their confidence that Burke, who has been with WASD for more than 30 years, will master what was referred to as a complex office position.

Several changes in the district’s coaching staff are detailed in the sports section of this week’s Rocket-Courier.

In his monthly report to the board, Otis noted that 25 to 30 students who started summer school classes on July 11 are enrolled in a number of courses that will help them keep up with the curriculum. Classes will run for three weeks.

Fleming brought up changes in the upcoming hunting season as determined by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Rather than extending the Thanksgiving break by two days to accommodate student deer hunters, there will be no school on consecutive Mondays, Nov. 28 and Dec. 5.

 

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