William Miller is in the midst of his 50th year in public education and is believed to be Pennsylvania's longest tenured public school district superintendent.
In 1970, he succeeded his father, Norman Miller, who held the position in the Tyrone Area School District since 1939.
It's possible a change of the guard could occur by mid-2013, when Miller's contract expires. He has not put a timetable on retirement because, he said, "On two other occasions, I said I was going to retire, and then I didn't."
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Tyrone superintendent Dr. William Miller of sits in his office. He was named Pennsylvania’s 2012 Superintendent of the Year.
If this is Miller's swan song, he would go out on top: He was named the 2012 Pennsylvania Superintendent of the Year last month by the American Association of School Administrators.
Miller, 70, addressed his gratitude for the recognition, his uncertain future and several other topics in a question-and-answer session with the Mirror last week.
Mirror: What is your reaction to being named the Pennsylvania superintendent of the year?
Miller: I'm certainly humbled by that. I was nominated by members of the school board, which was a surprise to me. And I had to complete an extensive application to support the information provided. My sincere thought is this is recognition of the Tyrone Area School District and not of me. I've been fortunate over the years to have an administrative team that works together and collaborates and our outstanding teaching staff have made this possible. I'd be remiss if I didn't say the community shares in this pride. I'm appreciative to everyone.
Mirror: What accomplishments of your tenure are you most proud?
Miller: You have to survive to make a difference, and that's certainly a challenge. It's been a roller-coaster ride with highs and lows, but the important thing is to learn from the lows and exhibit patience and persistence.
I think the successes we've had educationally, the building programs and protecting the interest of the taxpayers without compromising the quality of the education of the students have been first and foremost. We've been recognized by U.S. News and World Report, but we need to look beyond test scores to make sure our students are prepared for the world at work. I think it's a huge mistake to think every student needs a four-year college education. The trades are very valuable.
Mirror: What's been your biggest challenge?
Miller: It was the debit and fraud case (in 1997) because it was $27 million tied up in a building program, and assets were frozen. It made the front page of the Wall Street Journal; that's how monumental the case was. I remember meeting with the teachers and the citizens stating we would stay the course and work this out and they would be paid the next Friday - and that's all the money we had. I consider those three years, from 1997 until it was closed and we received vindication that we recovered all the money, the most stressful time of my life but also the most educational.
Keeping on the cutting edge of technology is also a huge issue. Joining the Vo-Tech (Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center) cost money, but we needed to do that because it's a quality program and helps the opportunity for the kids. The family is so different today. Whether it's a broken home, there are serious issues out there in society - the drugs, the economics and the commitment is quite different than what it was. Today, marijuana is almost accepted. We need to have parents more involved in the system. We need them to be more of a partner.
Mirror: What makes the Tyrone district unique?
Miller: I think you have to start with the relationships among the people and the integrity and trust that have developed over the years. The commitment staff members have and the school boards have been very positive. Not that I didn't have my (tough) years - they asked for my resignation twice before - but that's the rocky road you're on as a superintendent. You don't get into the business if you can't stand the heat.
Mirror: What is the biggest change you've seen in education?
Miller: Special ed (education) is one. I think there are times in special ed when the tail wags the dog. The funding of public education is a huge challenge - more so than ever before. We've addressed it and are in stable position for now, but we must always prepare for alternative plans. And it's even tougher today because of the attitude of some politicians toward education. There used to be more respect for the educators' opinion than there is today, but that's a reflection of society.
Mirror: Many superintendents either don't last until the end of their five-year contracts or don't want another one. What is the key to your longevity?
Miller: I guess it's my commitment. Though I've never been divorced, when I do retire, I see this as a divorce. I consider it (job) my family. I have coffee here, go through email. I sometimes bring my dog in the office. I'm just comfortable being here, and I love the challenges. They're always on my mind.
Mirror: After 42 years as superintendent, are you developing an exit strategy?
Miller: That's crossed my mind. The answer is yes.
Mirror: Do you have a timetable?
Miller: I'm not going to address retirement at this point. When the time comes, it will be final this time.
Mirror: When do you anticipate making that decision?
Miller: It will be soon.
Mirror: Do you anticipate having a hand in grooming or selecting your successor?
Miller: That's the decision of the board. Certainly, I would offer to do that when the time comes. I have groomed and mentored Cathy Harlow (Tyrone's business administrator) because part of leadership is mentoring people - especially during these challenging economic times. But that's not my decision. That's the school board's decision, and when the time comes, I'm sure they'll want to take an open look at the superintendent's position.
Mirror: What won't you miss about the job?
Miller: Calling snow days because you get immediate feedback on that, and I won't miss teacher negotiations.
Mirror: The state's $41 billion unfunded pension liability is a hot topic in Harrisburg. How would you address that?
Miller: It's unfortunate political decisions were made a while ago. I think the retirement system is positive because it attracts good teachers, and I think the vast majority of teachers are effective and don't get the credit they deserve. But all the options (to meet the deficit) need to remain on the table.
Mirror: Do you favor a collaboration of administrative services among school districts?
Miller: Yes, I don't think that's out of the question. We already have athletic programs with Bellwood-Antis that are cooperative in swimming, soccer and tennis. In a joking manner, I've said football, but I know that wouldn't fly and they'd offer me the door very quickly. In fact, I've had a running lunch bet with (Bellwood-Antis superintendent) Brian Toth. He got one on me this year.
Mirror: Do you foresee more school mergers in the future?
Miller: I think we're going to have to look at that, yes. I think all that's out there, pros and cons, needs to be evaluated. But there's a lot that goes into that - teacher contracts, the debt each district has. It's highly political.
Mirror: Who helps mentor someone with your experience?
Miller: My father mentored me. I've had an excellent relationship with my colleagues. I particularly have the utmost respect for (Altoona superintendent) Denny Murray; the Altoona district could just as easily have received this recognition. I consider him a great friend and colleague, and I think we've learned from each other in the most challenging times. We're the last of the dinosaurs.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cathy Harlow and what she's done. I call her my special assistant because we've worked so closely over the years, and Tanya Sharer has been my personal secretary and support mechanism for 25-30 years. She is a big part of a wonderful support staff we've had here.