HOLLIDAYSBURG — Eight administrators, with more than 247 years of collective educational experience have left the Hollidaysburg Area School District in about a year.
To some observers, the exodus is a red flag, especially since several of the administrators took positions with other districts.
“I’m alarmed,” former board member Pat Dandrea said. “I don’t know if it is coincidence or something more.”
Among those who left are Superintendent Paul Gallagher, who accepted a temporary superintendent position at Purchase Line School District on July 1 — the same day his retirement was official at Hollidaysburg Area.
Gallagher, who left Hollidaysburg despite signing a three-year contract in January 2012, is currently aiding the Purchase Line school board in selecting a full-time superintendent.
“I think there has been a tremendous drain of talent and leadership in the [Hollidaysburg] administration and teaching ranks,” former board member Brent Ottaway said. “Some of it would have happened anyway, but I suspect some retirements came earlier than they might have, given a more cooperative working relationship with the school board.”
Gallagher insisted, “Nobody was jumping any ship,” and said the administration did its part to work with the board.
“We went out there and took a freeze … did a lot of things that we could do as administrators to face the funding crunch,” he said. “There comes a time in everybody’s career when they are going to leave.”

Wilson went first

Former Business Manager Sam Wilson was the first in the string of administrative resignations beginning in the 2011-12 school year.
“When I left, it was because I retired. But it is very difficult working in that district,” Wilson said. “I made certain recommendations because of pension and high cost of hospitalization. They [the school board] had to raise taxes, and they didn’t.”
Current board members, though, believe they have taken leadership of the district in a way that administrators haven’t seen before.
“For the first time in history, the board is involved and asking questions. Did [administrators] feel like they lost control? Maybe,” board member Troy Keefer said. “I hate to say it, but that’s just part of change. With this economy, people are asking more questions. It’s a good thing.”
Keefer is one of four board members elected since 2011. Dandrea, the former board president, was defeated in 2009. Ottaway, formerly the board’s vice president, served two terms before he was defeated in 2007.
Gallagher, who retired a year after Wilson, said the business manager’s frustration with the board is understandable because the district relies on local revenue more than any district in the county. Funding losses from the state in 2011 and looming cost increases exacerbated what administrators saw as a need to grow local revenue.
District taxes have not increased since the 2008-09 school year.
“I felt we as administrators had support from the board in all the day-to-day work of the district. The biggest difference was that we [administrators] wanted to build up local revenue,” Gallagher said. “For years in a row, we had to cut purchasing in our schools, basic supplies. I’ve been concerned where are we going to be five years down the road. We did things to control spending. We weren’t looking for big increases [in taxes].”
Between the retirement announcements of Wilson and Gallagher were Assistant Superintendent Gary Robinson and high school Principal Linda McCall.
Robinson retired, and his position was not filled. He declined to comment about reasons why he retired.
“I don’t want to get into it,” he said.
Robinson is continuing to work as a adjunct professor for Wilkes University, which he’s done for the past five years.
Like Robinson’s job, the administrative position of grant writer, district foundation director and community relations spokeswoman Linda Russo was not filled after she resigned in November 2012. She said she resigned because she had long believed the board might eliminate her job.
“For months I heard a board member was going to cut my position, but I didn’t know whether he garnered enough support for it,” Russo said. “Last summer, I learned about another position that interested me and decided to pursue it. God is at the wheel in my life. I had a great opportunity at the right time and decided to take it.”
As the job responsibilities of Russo and Robinson were divided among remaining administrators, two more administrators resigned.
Elementary Education Curriculum Director Linda Dobbie retired, and Special Education Director Donna Messner took a job at Altoona Area.
Both women were paid to take added responsibilities left by Robinson and Russo.
Dobbie did not return phone calls from the Mirror. Messner said her job change to Altoona Area was because she sought a bigger challenge.

Pension burden

The elimination of positions held by Russo and Robinson is directly linked to cost drivers, especially the $47 billion underfunded state pension systems and state basic education funding lapse that is hurting districts statewide.
To administrators, the appropriate reaction to the state’s issues was clear — with slashed funding from the state combined with increasing pension costs bearing down on districts, the district had to raise local revenue by increasing property taxes.
Since the 2011 school board election, the board has gathered with administrators to hash out budgetary needs.
“What is the cost?” “Is it necessary?” and “What other options do we have?” are typical questions from board members on just about any expenditure proposal or recurring cost.
Board President Ron Yoder spent long afternoons examining budget information, prompting board member Aaron Ritchey to say Yoder “practically had his own office in the administration building.”
The Jackson Street building was sold by the board months ago to generate $2 million. All proceeds were used to fend off pension costs and to keep property taxes down.
The estimated $7.7 million surplus Hollidaysburg Area will have by the end of the school year should last two to three years, board members say.

‘This board is different’

“This board has been different from other boards. Not saying that’s good, bad or indifferent,” said Wally Tomassetti, who has served on the board since 2005, at a time when the boards were in a tradition of heeding administrative recommendations.
He also is on the current board, which has been headstrong against recommendation of the administration to raise revenue through tax increases.
“Could that be the reason [for the resignations]?” Tomassetti asked, repeating a reporter’s question.
He said he did not want to guess.
Aside from Russo, a majority of administrators who resigned were of age to retire.
Hollidaysburg may not be the only district losing longtime leaders. Statewide administrators are aging. More than half of the state’s superintendents have between 25 and 64 years’ experience in education, qualifying them for retirement if they are at least 55 years old, state Department of Education online records show.
Those 2012-13 records include superintendents from Altoona Area (Dennis Murray) and Tyrone Area (William Miller), who retired in August.
Gallagher, 59, said he remembers anticipating a wave of retirements at Hollidaysburg Area a decade ago.
“We always knew there would be a group — with everybody’s age and years in public [education] — where we would lose a majority of our administration,” he said.
People can become so used to routine, and if that’s changed, they seek change for themselves, Tomassetti said.
A majority of employees who resigned continue to be employed as adjunct faculty at universities, but that is not uncommon, said Ritchey, because public school teachers and administrators usually retire in their 50s.
“It seems like a major coincidence that we are all going,” former Athletic Director Dean Rossi said.
He said the board never interfered with his job. They never denied anyone he wanted to hire or recommend to the board, he said.
“The budget was fine,” Rossi added. “But I sensed down the road, with money getting tight, there were going to be problems.”
His decision to leave, though, was voluntary.
“They didn’t force me out,” Rossi repeated several times for emphasis during a telephone interview.
Since he retired from Hollidaysburg Area, he took a part-time job as Huntingdon Area School District athletic director because he “got cold feet” and because he wanted to remain a Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association committee member, he said.
Rossi is running for Hollidaysburg Area school board in November but not because of any vendetta, he said.
“I’m running on a platform that I don’t want to see education deteriorate. The current board has let it be known that they are not raising taxes. If you want to keep quality education, you can’t continue to do that,” he said. “Where will the district be if the bill keeps going up and nobody is paying it?”
The board has said repeatedly that it would raise taxes if the revenue went directly to fund education.
“I’ll raise taxes to better education. My issue is, in this world, there is no way anybody should be able to retire at the age of 50 with a full pension,” Keefer said.

Looking to the future

The district’s decision to reduce staff through attrition has affected teaching staff and has led to larger class sizes across the board, said teachers union President Jim Murphy.
“Teachers leave and retire for many different reasons; however, I can tell you that we have lost 34 positions, roughly 12 percent of our teaching staff over the last few years.”
According to state records, Hollidaysburg has 229 teachers.
By contrast, Chartiers Valley and Twin Valley, districts immediately above Hollidaysburg Area in rank of student enrollment, had teaching corps of of 242 and 226, respectively, in the last school year, state Department of Education records show.
With the administrative consolidation, Hollidaysburg has a similar number of management positions as other districts its size, state records show.
“We are happy with where we are at right now,” Ritchey said.
Board members say tax increases are inevitable, but so far, they believe they have done what they can to not increase the burden on local taxpayers, who bear 84 percent of the local tax effort, and provide half of the district’s $43 million budget.
Gallagher’s departure created “an opportunity for young folks,” he said and paved the way for Hollidaysburg to promote Bob Gildea.
“I am very pleased about the people in place at Hollidaysburg,” he said. “They will do some really great things.”
Gildea, 45, said the board has been “nothing but cooperative.”
“The administrative team we are in the process of building at Hollidaysburg has individuals who have a vast array of knowledge and skill,” he said. “Together we can move forward and make decisions based on what’s best for our community and children of Hollidaysburg Area.”
But each year the school board chooses not to raise taxes, an opportunity to generate a few hundred thousand additional dollars annually from that point on is lost. Past board members worry about where the current board is leading the district as it balances annual budgets without raising taxes to shore up finances for the future.
“I’m not saying they are doing anything wrong. They are trying to save money [where] they can and not raise taxes. But that seems to be their only concern,” Dandrea said. “If they can still run a top-notch level district with the budget cuts and not raising taxes, then more power to them. But if it is purely financial … the future will show whether it’s a good move or not.”