Wilkinsburg school board votes to fire superintendent

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Nine months after taking the reins of the Wilkinsburg School District, superintendent Lee McFerren has been placed on administrative leave and will be terminated from the district at the end of June.

The Wilkinsburg school board, in a Friday-night session, voted 9-0 to exercise an early severance option in the three-year contract Mr. McFerren started on July 1.

The option allows the board to buy Mr. McFerren out of his contract for one year's salary -- $115,000 -- with a 90-day notice.

That notice began Thursday and expires on June 26, when Mr. McFerren's contract will be terminated. He will be paid his $115,000 in monthly installments over the next year because the district cannot afford to pay a lump sum, board President Ed Donovan said.

In a prepared statement, Mr. Donovan said the board's decision resulted "from differences of opinion regarding the administration and operation of the school district."

"Wilkinsburg needs a superintendent who is a leader -- someone who can work with the board to craft a strategy for the future; someone who is strong enough to weed out malfeasance and mismanagement and help us build a stable foundation; someone who can inspire the entire district, who can engage the community, who can build alliances and support; someone with unimpeachable credentials," Mr. Donovan's statement said.

He declined to go into further detail, saying the decision to terminate Mr. McFerren is a personnel matter.

To replace Mr. McFerren, the board appointed Donna Micheaux, assistant executive director for organizational leadership and development at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, as substitute superintendent until June 26 at a rate not to exceed $45,000.

After June 26 she will become acting superintendent at a rate to be negotiated and will serve until a permanent replacement is found.

Resident James Randolph questioned why the board had to pay Mr. McFerren after he was gone from the district, saying he was "tired of the district wasting money on bad decisions."

Mr. Donovan said he understood Mr. Randolph's concerns, but that the board "believes it is in the best interests of the school district to do this."

The Wilkinsburg district also will receive support on curriculum, human resources, finance and other issues from the AIU, making the arrangement an attractive package for the district, he said.

Ms. Micheaux, who did not attend the meeting, holds a bachelor's degree in special education from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and a master's of education degree and doctorate in educational administration and policy studies from the University of Pittsburgh, according to her biography on the AIU website.

She started her career with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, where she was a special education teacher and held various administrative posts from 1977 to 1998. She also has worked as a consultant for the Pennsylvania Department of Education and served as the chief of schools/chief administrative officer in the Dallas Independent School District in Texas from September 2007 to November 2011.

In Dallas, she provided oversight for the district's 230 campuses that served 156,000 students. Ms. Micheaux has been with the AIU since August 2012.

Mr. McFerren was hired last May over the objection of community members who cited the fact that he had been fired from his previous job in the Farrell Area School District in 2008. His firing was initially upheld by then-state Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak, but Mr. McFerren won back his position of high school principal and assistant to the superintendent after a Commonwealth Court appeal.

The judge ruled that although there was a strained relationship between Mr. McFerren and the district, the district's evidence did not prove it had a "valid cause" to discharge him.

At the time of his hiring in Wilkinsburg, some board members staunchly defended Mr. McFerren.

"He was hired to do a job. Anybody is going to ruffle feathers. We want him to have a fair chance," said then-board president Karen Payne.

Also at the time, school director Richard Bradford said of Mr. McFerren: "The candidate exhibits the qualities that we as a board are looking for in a superintendent."

But both Ms. Payne and Mr. Bradford voted in favor of Mr. McFerren's termination Friday.

The board's decision to release Mr. McFerren from his contract follows several months of tumultuous events that include the election of a new board majority, which fired controversial educational consultants from Louisiana in January, a month after taking office. Though the consultants were originally hired by former superintendent Archie Perrin, Mr. McFerren recommended renewal of their contract shortly after taking office and defended their work, for which they were paid $10,000 a month plus expenses, for a total of more than $500,000 over three years.

In December, it was revealed that a certified art teacher was teaching chemistry at Wilkinsburg High School and a certified physical education teacher was providing instruction in high school French.

In February, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the district had no state-mandated attendance officer despite a 76 percent truancy rate at the high school and middle school.

And in March, the district made headlines when it was reported that the director of a federally funded after-school program for middle school students was charged with theft for attempting to sell a 3-D printer and laptops belonging to the district at a Downtown pawn shop.

In addition, the board also recently found that reports due to the state Department of Education that document, through student and teacher schedules, students are taught by certified and highly qualified teachers were not filed on time, placing a portion of the district's federal funds in jeopardy and putting it in danger of being reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

Though Mr. McFerren insisted at the March 11 finance committee meeting that he could handle the report, the board authorized district business and human resources consultant Ramona Pope to work on the report and she was able to submit it a day before it was due March 21.

In recent months, Mr. McFerren and board members often seemed at odds at public board meetings, where Mr. McFerren was known to argue with board members that he was superintendent and should be permitted to make decisions about the district independently.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590. First Published March 28, 2014 7:40 PM

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