The hiring of a new superintendent in the Peters Township School District was overshadowed Monday night by a screaming match between two warring factions of the district's school board.
The board had been interviewing candidates for the top job for months since the departure of former superintendent Nina Zetty late last year. They unanimously selected Jeannine L. French, 46, the current deputy superintendent at the City of Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The Peters district has been led lately by acting superintendent Joseph Dimperio, a retired consultant who did not seek the permanent position.
Ms. French received a five-year contract and an annual salary of $160,000 plus benefits; she will be the highest-paid superintendent in Washington County and in the South Hills of Allegheny County. Her contract begins July 1.
And though there was no discussion before the vote to offer Ms. French a five-year contract, the board had a heated battle over a $1,346-a-year extra-duty position, with directors accusing each other of being hypocritical and petty.
At issue is the leadership of the girl's high school dance company, which has been sponsored for years by Barbara Deliere, a world language teacher who helped lead the team this year to an undefeated season and first place in a nationwide competition.
Though Ms. Deliere would typically be reappointed with little fanfare to the position, which involves organizing the team's activities around high school schedules, her name did not appear on the agenda along with the volunteer dance team coaches who were being reappointed.
This drew dozens of dance company members and their parents to the school board meeting to vent their anger at a faction of the board, which apparently removed her name from the agenda, the board majority says, without cause.
The removal of Ms. Deliere's name from the agenda that was prepared by Mr. Dimperio was done improperly and possibly with malice, according to board member Sue Smith, who read into the record a statement about the issue.
"I think it is well past time for board members to stop interfering with the process," Ms. Smith said. "We need to follow an open and transparent process. ... I would like to see all of the names for extra duty positions as they were originally put forth by the high school administration be put onto the agenda for a public vote."
Ms. Smith's comments drew a standing ovation from the audience, including two former school board members, who also asked that Ms. Deliere be reappointed.
"We're kinda stymied," said Denise Abraham, former board president and dance mom. "We've worked closely with this sponsor for years. I just don't get it."
Mark Buzzatto, former school board member and dance dad, asked the board to explain the process by which Ms. Deliere wouldn't be reappointed. District solicitor Jack Cambest provided some answers, though there was never an explanation for why her name had been removed from the agenda.
Mr. Buzzatto suggested that some might interpret the board's actions as "misogynistic" because the dance team -- its 27 members all female -- is the only team at the high school which has no practice space.
Student and dancer Sydney Scott broke down into tears and had to take a moment to compose herself as she pleaded with the board to reappoint Ms. Deliere on behalf of the varsity and junior varsity teams.
"Barb Deliere is the heart and soul of the Peters Township Dance Team," said Sydney, who said Ms. Deliere organized several community service projects for the girls, including compiling rape comfort crisis packages and collecting donations for victims of the tornado in Moore, Okla. The dance team from that high school had placed second behind Peters in the National Dance Team Championships that were broadcast on ESPN from Orlando, Fla., in February.
Ms. Smith's accusations drew a sharp response from outgoing board member Lori Cuervo, who lost her re-election bid in the May 21 primary, along with board President Cynthia Golembiewski. The two are members of a minority faction that also includes board members Lynn Erenberg and David Hvizdos, who lost the Republican nomination in the primary, but will appear on the November general election ballot as a Democrat.
Ms. Cuervo raised her voice, saying she was "sick of the hypocrisy," from certain board members, including Ms. Smith, whom she accused of using similar tactics to push through her own agenda two years ago.
Ms. Smith was successful in her re-election bid and garnered more votes on both ballots than any other incumbent. She moved to table replacing Ms. Deliere with three coaches until more information could be gathered. The motion was approved by a 5-4 vote, with Ms. Cuervo, Ms. Golembiewski, Ms. Erenberg and Mr. Hvizdos dissenting.
A motion to reappoint coaches Dominique Schuster, Ashlee Olivo and Megan Chicone was approved unanimously. The minority board faction had sought to have the coaches also named as co-sponsors, replacing Ms. Deliere and sharing her stipend among them.
The board called an emergency executive session when confusion arose over how Ms. Deliere's name was removed from the agenda and whether the coaches had sought the sponsorship. Though Ms. Deliere did not attend the meeting, two of the coaches did and were prepared to tell the board they did not seek the sponsorship.
Ms. Cuervo did not attend the private session, saying that some of her board colleagues could not be trusted to keep the meeting confidential.
When the rest of the board returned 35 minutes later, Mr. Cambest announced that he recommended the board pass a measure naming two assistant coaches, Ms. Olivo and Ms. Chicone, as temporary sponsors until a final decision is made next month. It passed unanimously.
Members of the dance team and their parents said they plan to attend the next board meeting on June 24 en force again to urge the board to reappoint Ms. Deliere.
New superintendent visits
Ms. French made a surprise entrance into the board room after her appointment was finalized and seemed to take all of the infighting in stride.
"I'm very honored," she said of her selection from a group of about a dozen applicants from across the nation, as Mr. Dimperio pinned a Peters Township "Indian" to her lapel. "I love the passion; I can't wait to begin to serve."
Before serving as deputy superintendent, Ms. French spent 16 years in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system as its chief of school performance, as a principal and as the director of the district's Middle Alternative School.
In news release, Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane expressed sadness over Ms. French's departure.
"Dr. French is extremely talented, and her commitment to the children of the Pittsburgh Public Schools has been unmatched. Her departure is a real loss for Pittsburgh, but we're happy she will continue to serve children in southwestern Pennsylvania," Ms. Lane said.
In the Pittsburgh news release, Ms. French called the moment "bittersweet."
Ms. French holds a doctorate in clinical psychology from Duquesne University and a bachelor's degree in psychology from Allegheny College.
"We are excited to have found such an excellent candidate in Dr. French," Ms. Golembiewski said. "She is the right person to lead this district to the next level."
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.