Despite at times fervent objections from community members, the Wilkinsburg school board voted Tuesday night to hire a Farrell Area School District official -- who has had a rocky relationship with his current employer -- to succeed acting superintendent Archie Perrin Jr.
At an unusually well-attended and contentious meeting, residents raised concerns about Lee McFerren, who is an assistant to the Farrell superintendent.
"The individual who is hired into this position needs to be a bridge-builder, a compromiser," said Bernie Wetzel, chairman of Neighbors Unite Wilkinsburg. "I didn't see that in this individual."
A shouting match between board member James Richard and several members of the audience broke out shortly after the roughly 20 residents in attendance were invited to address the board. An audience member shouted, "You don't belong up there." Mr. Richard responded by screaming, "I've been here for 18 years -- you never came here before."
The board voted overwhelmingly to hire Mr. McFerren, with eight "yes" votes and one abstention. He will be paid $115,000 per year under a three-year contract with the Wilkinsburg district beginning July 1.
When board member LaTonya Washington was called to voice her vote, she said, "with hesitation, yes." Ms. Washington said the district needs a superintendent and couldn't wait much longer, but added, "I don't know he was the best candidate."
In July 2008, the Farrell school board voted 7-2 to fire Mr. McFerren, arguing that he "had acted immorally; had persistently failed to comply with school laws and acted with persistent negligence; had willfully neglected his duties; and had acted with intemperance and incompetence," according to a lawsuit Mr. McFerren filed against the district, which he eventually won.
Commonwealth Court Judge Mary Leavitt wrote in her opinion reversing the decision to fire Mr. McFerren that "the district's evidence did not prove that it had a 'valid cause' to discharge McFerren." Nevertheless, "the relationship between the district's school board and McFerren was an unhappy one," Judge Leavitt wrote.
"He was hired to do a job," said Wilkinsburg school board President Karen Payne in response to the Farrell's decision to fire him. "Anybody is going to ruffle feathers. We want him to have a fair chance."
Mr. McFerren will become the leader of a district facing a number of serious challenges, including the district being placed on the state's financial watch list after it took out a $3 million loan to cover general operating expenses earlier this year.
One community member expressed support for Mr. McFerren, saying he would be an excellent choice because he is from outside the district and "doesn't have an agenda."
But that view was dwarfed by others. In comments that drew applause from the crowd, Richard Wertheimer, 59, of Wilkinsburg said, "We should get the best, we should get the brightest, someone with who has hope, who believes in children ... there are many of them out there."
Alex Zimmerman: email@example.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.