West Mifflin superintendent mostly works from home

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West Mifflin Area School District Superintendent Patrick Risha manages the school district of about 3,200 students largely from his home in Belle Vernon with the apparent permission of the school board.

The issue came to light last week when Phil Shar, the longtime coach of the West Mifflin Area High School girls basketball team, called Mr. Risha "an absentee superintendent" and said Mr. Risha "seldom comes to work in West Mifflin."

Mr. Shar made the remarks after a meeting he said he had with athletic director Scott Stephenson and high school principal Mark Hoover in which they informed Mr. Shar that his coaching contract was being opened at the direction of Mr. Risha.

Mr. Shar, a retired West Mifflin teacher, has been the girls' varsity basketball coach for 19 seasons and has a 379-153 overall record.

Mr. Risha. whose 2008-09 salary is $137,606, has not responded to requests for an interview about whether he works from his district office or from his home about 18 miles away in Fayette County.

School Board President Ned Mervos confirmed last week that the board gave Mr. Risha permission to work from home and initially declined to give any further explanation.

In a later interview, after school director John Donis and district solicitor Jack Cambest said Mr. Risha's permission to work from home was related to a health matter, Mr. Mervos confirmed that it was the superintendent's ill health that prompted the board to allow him to work from home.

Mr. Mervos said he could not release any further details on the arrangement, including when or if Mr. Risha is expected to return to working regularly from the district office. Mr. Cambest said releasing any further information would be a violation of health privacy laws.

Mr. Risha has been with the district since 2006. No one would say when he started working from home or when the request was granted.

Mr. Donis said it was his recollection that the board granted Mr. Risha permission to work from home while he recuperated from a medical condition. But Mr. Donis also said it was his expectation that Mr. Risha would return to working in the office once the medical condition was resolved.

Mr. Mervos pointed out that Mr. Risha worked in the district one day last week when he met with architects and construction managers to discuss an upcoming middle school construction project.

He also said Mr. Risha has attended board meetings and other meetings within the district.

Board Vice President Albert Graham refused to discuss any details.

School directors Diana Olasz, Kathleem Bracco, Richard Fialkovich, Michael Jakubovic, Edward Scheuler and Michael Price did not return phone calls.

It is unclear whether Mr. Risha has used any of his official sick days for his illness or if they continue to accrue while he works from home.

According to his contract, which runs through Oct. 1, 2011, Mr. Risha was permitted to carry over from his previous employers -- South Allegheny and McKeesport Area school districts -- 55 unused sick days. The contract says those days can be taken, but Mr. Risha cannot receive financial reimbursement for them if they are unused.

In addition, Mr. Risha receives 10 days of sick leave from the West Mifflin district each year that "shall be accumulated without any limitations."

Mr. Mervos said it is his expectation that Mr. Risha or any employee of the district would have used his sick days before asking permission to work from home.

But, Mr. Mervos added that, as board president, he does not monitor employees' sick time.

Mr. Cambest also said he did not know whether Mr. Risha had used any sick time. But the solicitor said an argument could be made that if Mr. Risha is performing his duties from home, he is putting in a full day's work and wouldn't need to take a sick day.

Mr. Risha's contract requires that he have a comprehensive medical and visual examination on a yearly basis. From that examination, the physician is to file with the school board president a statement certifying the superintendent's physical competency.

Mr. Mervos said this is done annually and there is no question that Mr. Risha is physically competent to do his job.

Because Mr. Risha conducts school district business from his home, other district administrators travel there to deliver information or to attend meetings. It's uncertain if they receive mileage reimbursement for the travel.

One of those administrators is Assistant Superintendent Janet Sardon, who said she frequently travels to Mr. Risha's home on district business and though she submits mileage to the district for other trips she takes on district business, she does not seek reimbursement for her trips to Mr. Risha's home.

Dr. Sardon said any criticism of the superintendent working from home is unfair and unwarranted. She said that Mr. Risha "is not in the best of health" but that he takes on a heavy workload on a daily basis.

"He's worked with the board, administration and staff, whether sitting in his office or from his home, the amount of work he has done is incredible," Dr. Sardon said.

She called Mr. Risha "the most phenomenal superintendent that I have ever seen."

Dr. Sardon acknowledged that she has worked with Mr. Risha in three of the districts where she has been employed: South Allegheny, McKeesport and West Mifflin. She noted she worked under a previous South Allegheny superintendent.

Dr. Sardon said that under Mr. Risha's direction, the West Mifflin district implemented two state-sponsored programs, the Pre-K Counts preschool and Project 720, which calls for a more rigorous high school curriculum.

The district also instituted a freshman academy at the high school to ensure a smooth transition for ninth-grade students, and the district has received $2.5 million in grants during Mr. Risha's tenure.

In addition, since Mr. Risha's arrival, the district has made Adequate Yearly Progress on its PSSA scores in math and reading for 2007 and 2008.

She said Mr. Risha also directed the smooth transition of high school students from Duquesne, who were reassigned by the state to West Mifflin high school when Duquesne High School closed.

Dr. Sardon also said that it wasn't Mr. Risha who ordered Mr. Shar's contract to be opened. She and Mr. Cambest said because of a new clause in the newly negotiated teacher's contract extension, all fall and winter sports extra-duty contracts have been opened.

The tentative contract extension that was recently approved by the board gives teachers the first rights to any supplemental positions for which they are qualified, Mr. Cambest said. He said that required that all positions be opened.

Mary Niederberger can be reached at mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1512.


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