Wilkinsburg substitute superintendent optimistic in tackling truancy, financial problems

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As the substitute superintendent in the Wilkinsburg School District, Donna Micheaux knows there is a long list of negatives that she and the school board have to deal with to move the district forward.

There's a chronic truancy rate at the high school and middle school of 76 percent and school performance profiles with some of the lowest scores in the county and state. There's poor morale among the district's employees, an unsettled contract with the teacher's union, decreasing enrollment, and empty administrative posts in key areas such as technology and curriculum.

But that's not going to stop Ms. Micheaux from looking at the positive.

"I am excited to be here. The district has great potential and is poised to move forward," she said Friday, the end of her first week in office. "We are going to move forward with optimism."

She said she is ready to tackle the truancy problem, not just by issuing citations at district court, but with prevention programs, and to dig into the district's finances to formulate a 2014-15 budget that will likely include some personnel changes. She'd also like to make some immediate cosmetic changes at the aging high school to make it more inviting for students.

"I've been meeting with all staff members and trying to make sure we have appropriate positions for the work that needs to be done," Ms. Micheaux said.

Among her top priorities will be spending time in the schools and arranging appropriate professional development for both teachers and administrators to ensure they have the support necessary to help improve student achievement -- including both academic and social service supports. She plans to use each Wednesday to visit the district's high and middle schools and Turner and Kelly elementaries.

Ms. Micheaux replaces Lee McFerren, who was hired as superintendent in July 2013, but who was placed on administrative leave last week. Mr. McFerren will remain on leave until June 26, at which time the district will buy him out of his contract for $115,000, the cost of one year's salary and benefits.

At the March 28 board meeting where school directors voted to place Mr. McFerren on leave and terminate his contract, board President Ed Donovan said the decision resulted "from differences of opinion regarding the administration and operation of the school district."

Of Ms. Micheaux, Mr. Donovan said, "She has the expertise and experience to make measurable improvements in not just our education but the systems that support the district -- finance, human resources, scheduling and academics, among others. For the first time, I am hopeful that we can attract new students into our schools, especially at the elementary level."

Ms. Micheaux will remain substitute superintendent until June 26, at which time the board is expected to appoint her acting superintendent, a position she can hold for up to one year and a position in which she looks forward to serving, she said.

In the meantime, the board will conduct a search for a permanent superintendent.

Ms. Micheaux holds a doctorate in educational administration and policy studies from the University of Pittsburgh and spent more than 20 years with the Pittsburgh Public Schools, starting as a special education teacher and moving onto various administrative positions. She later 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.

Since August 2012, Ms. Micheaux has been employed as the assistant executive director of organizational leadership and development at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a position she still holds. She emphasized that her work in Wilkinsburg will be part of a team effort that includes the school board and administrators in areas such as finance, technology, human resources and public relations from the AIU. For Ms. Micheaux's services and those of others at the AIU, the agency will be paid $45,000 between now and June 26.

Mr. Donovan said he believes the support from the intermediate unit "will determine whether we can thrive or merely survive."

As for Wilkinsburg's finances, Ms. Micheaux said the district will make it through this school year without borrowing money -- unlike last year when it borrowed $3 million to make ends meet. The district is paying off that loan.

Among major decisions district officials must make is whether the current configuration of the district will remain the same. The high school and middle school building is larger than needed for the number of students enrolled and currently not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. The board had been in the midst of a plan to build an elevator in the building, but Mr. Donovan asked last month to put the project on hold until permanent decisions could be made about the building's future.

Ms. Micheaux said she is open to all ideas about the future configuration of the district, whether they call for remaining the same or making major changes to better serve high school students.

"If it stays the same, then that's what happens. But if it has to change it will. You have to take the option that would provide the best education for the children," she said.

Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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