In an often-contentious meeting last Thursday night, the Upper Perkiomen school board voted to spend up to $15,000 to hire a consultant to help them find a replacement for District Superintendent Dr. Timothy Kirby, who is retiring in January.
The need and search for a consulting firm was largely discussed in committee meetings last month and split the board. While some board members, like Bill Scott and board president Harry Quinque, said they felt a consultant would do a better service than the board could do themselves to fill such an important position, others, like Rob Pepe, said in the end he thought some of the legwork could be done in-house.
“I want to get the right person who wants to be here,” said Scott. “Cost-wise, I think you get what you pay for. There are many things that need to be looked at and I think if we tried to do it ourselves it would be a total disservice to the community.”
The public, though, largely echoed Pepe’s sentiments.
Tom McCabe of Upper Hanover said he disagreed with Quinque’s statement that the board was not made up of professionals capable of handling the process.
“All you guys are professionals in my opinion…George [Bonekemper] was a superintendent, Harry worked closely with superintendents [as an administrator at Quakertown School District] and Jennifer [Allebach] and John [Gehman] worked closely with superintendents. You hire and fire people every month. You don’t need a consultant to tell you what you want.”
“I agree, you have nine people here, some have been here for years, you don’t need to pay a consultant,” said Upper Hanover resident Jeff Krempasky who identified himself as an administrator in another school district. “You have students in the high school; these are your top, upper echelon students, paying for textbooks. Why?”
Board member Jeff Feirick said he wasn’t prepared to rule out hiring a superintendent who wasn’t certified, according to new state law, despite the fact that he or she may need on-the-job training.
After lengthy discussion on the attributes of each of the three consultants for hire, and several failed motions, one to table the hiring of the consultant, the board moved to discuss the matter further in executive session, along with the acceptance of an agreement to freeze wages for Act 93 administrators in the district for 2013-14.
Those administrators, including the directors of facilities, special education, athletics, transportation, food services and their colleagues, and all principals and vice principals employed by the district, would, in turn, get a one-year extension to their contracts, similar to the agreement between the district and the Upper Perkiomen Education Association earlier this year.
Pepe said he didn’t think the board had done their job with reviewing that agreement.
“I don’t think the board has had ample time to discuss in executive session about the nuances of the agreement…It was brought up once in executive session and the potential for a freeze was mentioned but that was it.”
But after Quinque convened the session saying they would come back and vote on the two issues, and several board members left to go into executive session, Bonekemper and Pepe said publicly they wouldn’t participate in talks about hiring the consultant behind closed doors as it was a violation of Pennsylvania’s Sunshine Act. Board member Margie Gehlhaus agreed.
Members of the public attending the meeting also objected, saying the discussion should be made public.
Pepe said the board had been specifically instructed by their solicitor, Ken Roos of Wisler Pearlstine, not to hold the talks in private. He noted if the matter was discussed in the room, he would leave.
According to state law, and Pennsylvania Newspaper Association general counsel Teri L. Henning, public officials are not permitted to discuss hiring independent contractors or consultants in executive session. They also must announce the specific reason for holding the session just prior to or following the session, so the public knows if they are properly being excluded from business.
Following the executive session, no announcement was made as to what was or was not discussed. Quinque said Tuesday that the board didn’t discuss the consultants in their executive decision.
The board came back and voted to hire Dr. William J. Leary of according to his proposal not to exceed $15,000. Board members said Leary’s proposal included the assertion that should he not find a candidate the board was happy with, he would go back and start his search over again at no charge.
Leary also said he would come out to interview custodians, support staff and teachers in the district, people who have the knowledge of what’s needed to succeed at the top, noted East Greenville Mayor Ryan Sloyer during the public comment period.
He will also reportedly facilitate public forums to get input from residents.
Leary will be directed by the board to hold a regional search and, as of the meeting date, had no definitive start date. Quinque said the board wouldn’t hesitate to let the process go longer than Kirby’s retirement date to find the right candidate.
The board later voted to accept the administrators’ pay freeze and contract extension.
But more than three hours into the meeting, during the board comment period, Scott said he was unhappy with the way the consultant hiring was done.
“I’m very upset tonight. We as a board need to rethink our position sometimes and how we do things…I have a lack of trust in the confidentiality of members of this board,” he said of the superintendent search. “I’m losing my confidence in the decision-making of this board.”
“As an elected official, you have a responsibility and I’m not going to violate the Sunshine Act to make you feel good,” Pepe answered, referencing Scott’s desire to discuss the candidates further in private.
Dr. Kirby reiterated the importance of complete confidentiality during the superintendent search as many of the candidates may not want to notify their current employers of their interest unless they are a finalist, among other potential issues.
The board agreed to get some direction from their solicitor as to what should and shouldn’t be done in public in reference to the superintendent search.
In other business, the board tabled action to waive facility use fees for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life in May 2012 until they could determine exactly how much money they were waiving. Several board members contested waiving the fees, saying they didn’t want to tell the public which charities to invest in, despite having several district teams participating in the event.