School status ruffles feathers

Poor ranking means students may be able to study elsewhere

As the Claysburg-Kimmel School Board fends off criticism over its handling of a leadership transition, the district faces a new concern: its high school’s placement in a state program for some of the worst-performing schools.

Claysburg-Kimmel High School now sits in Pennsylvania’s bottom 15 percent, based on standardized test scores. The new status puts added pressure on administrators, with students there now theoretically eligible for scholarships to let them study elsewhere.

“We don’t want to go into panic mode. I’ve seen districts that have gone into panic mode,” high school Principal Stephen Puskar told the board Wednesday. “It’s not just going to magically disappear.”

Puskar was referring to the district’s qualification in the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program.

Since 2012, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program has allowed businesses to donate money toward scholarships that let children in low-performing schools go elsewhere. While the program theoretically allows students to travel to participating public schools with better performance, in practice it largely covers private education, interim Superintendent Norman Hatten Jr. explained.

“Placement on this list is unacceptable. We can’t have this continue,” Puskar said.

Puskar noted that the high school’s placement in the bottom 15 percent derives from several years of scores, including years that preceded his own 2015 hiring. It could take equally long to pull the school from the list, he said.

Reforms are already underway to reverse the trend, Puskar said. Teachers are set to use technology to share their curricula, pull sample curricula from other schools and use individual tutoring to ensure students are ready before they transition from elementary school.

“We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “Someone else out there has done this already. Let’s grab onto that.”

It remains unclear how many students would or could use the Opportunity Scholarship program at Claysburg-Kimmel. The program relies on participation from business owners and community groups, which administer the scholarships for families below a set income level.

Regardless of its effect, board members and administrators stressed that the bottom 15 percent placement is a black eye for the district.

The placement — and the new effort to pull out of it as quickly as possible — comes as the board ramps up its search for a new superintendent. The district has employed Hatten as an interim leader since former head Royce Boyd announced her departure in May.

Board members voted 8-1 Wednesday to pay $3,500 for search help from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

The district’s superintendent transition has drawn criticism — including from Stan Finnegan, a former board member who accused the board Wednesday of paying Boyd off to leave before her contract expired.

Boyd left a year before her contract concluded, having negotiated an $89,000 lump-sum payment in addition to $26,000 for unused vacation and sick days. Finnegan publicly accused the board this week of wasting taxpayer money to end a personal dispute with Boyd, throwing the district into uncertainty at the worst possible time.

“I don’t have anything against Superintendent Boyd. She’s the smart one here,” Finnegan said Wednesday. “The people who let us down are the board.”

His complaints echo those from the district teachers union head, who argued in June that the board hadn’t been open with the public on its decision to release Boyd ahead of schedule. On Wednesday, for the second time, the district solicitor said the issue couldn’t be discussed in detail publicly because it is a personnel matter. The state open meetings law, however, does not forbid discussing personnel issues.

“For them to hide what happened to that money is unconscionable. … I believe that is public information, and it should be able to be discussed in public,” Finnegan said a day afterward. “That’s taxpayer dollars.”

Some on the board sharply disputed his criticism and vowed to fix the district’s problems. A district parent accused the board Wednesday of lacking a plan forward, even as it faces new concerns without a permanent leader.

“The past is the past. I can’t fix the past,” board member Rich Gergely said. “But we’re going to fix this. We’re going to talk about a game plan.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.

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