Pine-Richland superintendent Mary Bucci blinked back tears as members of the school board met in a closed-door session a few feet away Monday night. She knew they were deliberating her fate and she knew the vote likely would be a thumbs down.
"It's hard, but I'm going to do my best to hold up my end of the bargain and do the best job I can until the end of my contract in June," said Mrs. Bucci who has has served since May 2007.
The 64-year-old administrator from Cranberry is in the final year of a four-year contract, set to expire June 30. When she was interviewed for the job, she told the board she would stay for two contracts and that's what she had hoped and expected would happen.
She didn't know it, but her career at Pine-Richland began to unravel a few months ago when the board -- four of whom have served for less than a year -- started her annual performance evaluation, which flowed into a discussion of the contract coming to a close. Under the law, if a school district does not intend to extend or give a new contract to a superintendent, 150 days' notice must be given.
Shortly after the executive session ended, board members voted 5-3 to seek new candidates for the job, which brings her $135,000 annually.
Voting to open the superintendent job were Dennis Sundo, a seven-year member; Katie Shogun, who joined the board in May; and Peter Lyons, Virginia Goebel and Laura Ohlund who were elected last year. Marc Casciani, who was attending his first meeting Monday night, abstained.
President Stephen Hawbaker, Jeffrey Banyas and Therese Dawson -- all veterans on the panel -- delivered impassioned statements of support for Mrs. Bucci.
The lengthy meeting began with a public comment session in which virtually every speaker, including former board members, parents and educators, spoke in favor of Mrs. Bucci. Several criticized the lack of transparency in the process.
Kiki Cherry of Richland warned board members that many supporters of Mrs. Bucci would be incensed at the lack of public notice for the special meeting.
The school board directed staff to advertise on the district's website and in a local newspaper that the Sept. 24 meeting was moved to Monday. Despite that advertisement, though, the board did convene a a closed-door executive session Sept. 24 that was not announced until midway through Monday's meeting and only after a reporter queried the board secretary about the session and why it was held.
The board secretary privately communicated the question to the solicitor who then quietly directed Mr. Hawbaker to announce that the session had been held a week earlier to discuss a personnel issue -- Mrs. Bucci's contract.
She said she was notified by Mr. Hawbaker after the executive session Sept. 24 that there were enough votes to give her notice that a replacement superintendent would be sought.
"I don't get it," said Marilyn Reed, a former school board member. "We have a gem in Dr. Bucci. I just can't believe it."
Mrs. Bucci said she is planning to stay until the end of the year and will not reapply for her job.
There was little reason given during the public meeting about the motivation behind the decision to seek other candidates. Mr. Lyons said his vote was "not a vote against [Mrs. Bucci] ... but a vote to engage in more growth and change." Ms. Shogun alluded to "division" in the community's support for Mrs. Bucci. Mr. Sundo declined comment.
Mr. Banyas presented a slide show outlining a range of accomplishments from curriculum improvements to high national rankings of the school district by objective evaluators to completion of building projects to high student test scores.
He suggested that Mrs. Bucci was being blamed for the board's "difficult" decisions in recent years, especially in regard to recent budgets that required program cuts, new fees and higher taxes.
Mrs. Dawson, who chose to speak from the public's podium instead of her seat on the board, talked of Mrs. Bucci's leadership, integrity, productivity, stability and graceful demeanor.
Mr. Hawbaker expressed shock at the views of his fellow board members who wanted the change.
Karen Kane: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-9180.