Jeannine French exudes charm, while inspiring confidence and competence in those around her, according to former and new colleagues.
After meeting her once, Peters Township school directors were determined to make this psychologist-turned-school administrator an offer that she couldn't refuse.
"Through the entire process she was the prime candidate," said Peters Township school Director David Hvizdos, who chairs the district's personnel committee. "She was everyone's first choice."
Ms. French, 46, of the Mexican War Streets on the North Side, was unanimously appointed superintendent last week, after serving 16 years with the City of Pittsburgh Public School System.
Her five-year contract pays $160,000 this year, making her the highest paid superintendent in Washington County and the South Hills. According to public records, superintendents in neighboring Bethel Park, Upper St. Clair and Mt. Lebanon made an average of about $151,000 in the past school year. Washington County's second-highest paid superintendent is Paul Kasunich from Trinity Area School District, who earned $139,000 in the past school year.
Ms. French's hiring capped off a five-month, nationwide search that began shortly after the departure of former superintendent Nina Zetty, who left late last year to take the top job at Gateway School District. She had been earning $139,000 annually as superintendent in Peters. The Gateway job paid $150,000 per year.
The district had been led lately by acting Superintendent Joseph Dimperio, a retired consultant who didn't seek the permanent job.
But a fatter paycheck wasn't what persuaded Ms. French -- who had been earning $138,000 a year as the deputy superintendent in Pittsburgh -- to leave the job she loved.
It was Peters school board members. "It was their passion ... 100 percent of them wanted to raise the bar," she said. "I just felt like, how can I not get caught up in this?"
Ms. French said she never applied for another job during her tenure in Pittsburgh, and that she was approached by some colleagues and encouraged to meet with the Peters board to at least hear what they could offer.
In the meantime, Mr. Hvizdos said the board was vetting Ms. French and asking colleagues and former employers about her.
"Unanimously, they raved about her," said Mr. Hvizdos, who said the board received 20 applications and interviewed eight candidates.
One meeting led to another, then a third meeting, slowly convincing Ms. French that maybe a smaller suburban school district would be a better fit for her.
"The more I started to look the more I saw," she said. "This board was unanimous in wanting better outcomes for children and their families. You have individuals [on the board] who are all in; they are not being paid."
Mr. Hvizdos' take on the meetings was similar.
"In one of those interviews, when we were all done, we all looked at each other and said, 'That was amazing!' " he said.
But, the differences between the two districts is staggering.
With 54 schools, an enrollment of 24,463 and an annual budget of $530 million, the Pittsburgh district dwarfs the smaller Washington County district, with its five schools, 4,450 students and a $53 million annual budget -- about one-tenth of the city's.
The demographics are much different too.
The median household income in Peters is above average -- at $100,109 -- while in Pittsburgh it's $35,911. Still, the city has pockets of great wealth in places such as Squirrel Hill and Shadyside.
The Pittsburgh School system is also more diverse, with a population of about 55 percent black students and 33 percent white students. In Peters, white students comprise more than 98 percent of the student body.
Only 2 percent of the students in Peters qualify for free or reduced-price lunches based on family income, while the majority of children -- about 71 percent -- in Pittsburgh Public Schools qualify for the low-income assistance.
"I don't believe it's going to be any easier," Ms. French said of the job in Peters, which begins July 1. "I think it's just different."
The difference is that she will be able to be more focused on education. It's unlikely she'll have to worry about students who don't know where their next meal will come from or are at risk of being homeless.
"I've gone to bed every night for the past 16 years worrying about 26,000 kids," she said.
Ms. French graduated from Moon High School in 1985, and Allegheny College in 1989 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. She earned her master's degree in clinical psychology several years later from Duquesne University, where she also earned her doctorate and taught a class introducing students to psychology.
Other than that class, Ms. French has never taught students, though she obtained a secondary guidance certification and a principal's certification that allowed her to earn her superintendent's certificate.
"There's so much more to education than what happens in the classroom," she said. "There's a symphony of other activities."
She wound up in education through a mentor who created a behavior specialist position in the city schools for Ms. French. She helped to counsel kids with attention deficit disorder and other issues.
"I fell in love with being in the schools," she recalled.
Ms. French is unmarried and loves the outdoors and gardening -- it's "so therapeutic," she said -- along with her three nieces. "They keep me hopping," she said.
Ms. French said she has begun exploring her new school district -- even getting lost a couple of times -- and hopes to move soon.
Ms. French comes to the district at a time when it has been having difficulty retaining and attracting new administrators. Scores on standardized tests have been slipping, and last year the district accepted the resignations of five high-level employees, including Ms. Zetty and other key administrators. Hired for the top job in 2008, Ms. Zetty was the third superintendent in three years.
Though it is still ranked among the best districts in the state, Peters has been a hotbed of controversy and past superintendents have criticized the board for micromanaging daily affairs at the district.
It's unclear how their "hands-on" style will mesh with Ms. French, who has a reputation as a competent administrator who sticks to her guns.
"We weren't elected to run the district," said Mr. Hvizdos, who hopes the board won't interfere with the day-to-day district operations. "She has given her life to education."
Ms. French is described as being very data- and fact-driven, formulating decisions and opinions only after careful consideration.
"I very much want the input of others," she said. "I don't mind being wrong. But after decisions are made, I do stand firm."
Still, Ms. French said she believes she is flexible enough to work with the board.
The sentiments expressed by Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane -- that Ms. French's departure would be a "real loss" for the district -- weren't hollow words, said one Pittsburgh board member.
"Jeannine is very good; she was in charge of several initiatives," said Jean Fink of Carrick, a Pittsburgh Public School director who has represented the South Hills for 32 years. "It's going to be quite a loss for us."
Ms. Fink said she wasn't surprised that Ms. French had been sought out as a candidate for the job and doubts that it was the first time that another district tried to lure her away.
Mr. Hvizdos said he feels the Peters board has found a candidate who will be with the district for the long haul.
"She gives me the feeling that she's going to stay a long time and put her stamp on the district," he said.
Janice Crompton: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-851-1867.