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Potential changes in Middletown schools rile many: Bright could be out at Reid, Shaffer out at Fink, King out as AD

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 6/16/17

In what one resident called “a head scratcher,” the Middletown Area School Board is set to approve several personnel moves at its meeting Monday, including removing Jeremy King from his …

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Potential changes in Middletown schools rile many: Bright could be out at Reid, Shaffer out at Fink, King out as AD

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In what one resident called “a head scratcher,” the Middletown Area School Board is set to approve several personnel moves at its meeting Monday, including removing Jeremy King from his position of district athletic director.

But the public outcry over removing King — after arguably the most successful athletic year in Blue Raiders history — pales compared to that being directed at the board over an administration recommendation that Earl Bright IV, the popular principal of Reid Elementary School, be transferred from that job to principal of the district’s new in-house Alternative Education program.

Bright’s proposed move apparently is directly related to preventing a tax increase for the district.

The new in-house alternative education program already has been incorporated into the district’s 2017-18 budget, which is also before the board for final approval during the June 19 meeting. It will be held at 7 p.m. in the boardroom, although it might be moved if a big crowd is anticipated.

Bringing alternative education in house will save an estimated $180,000 and was credited during the June 13 meeting by district Chief Financial Officer David Franklin as being “by far the biggest contributor” to the school district avoiding a tax increase for the third straight year.

The board in May had been looking at a 1.23 percent increase in the real estate tax that would have cost an additional $27.15 for a resident with property assessed at $100,000, but the tax increase has been eliminated.

The moves also include transferring Fink Elementary School Principal Tom Shaffer to a language arts teaching position at Middletown Area Middle School. Shaffer would be replaced as Fink principal by Marie Drazenovich, who is the assistant principal at Fink.

It is not clear if the moves involving King and Shaffer also would end up saving money.

Suski responds

In an email the afternoon of Friday, June 16, MASD Superintendent Lori Suski said Bright, King and Shaffer all had agreed to the job changes.

"Each employee was treated fairly and respectfully and is fully cognizant of the reasons for the proposed changes. The district realizes that people may not understand why changes are sometimes necessary because the reasons behind them are not always explainable in a public forum. We recognize that this can be very frustrating; however, out of respect for our employees, the district cannot and will not elaborate publicly on personnel matters. To do so would violate employees’ privacy rights."

The proposed changes are not part of an administrative restructuring, and the moves are not tied together, she said.

In regard to the Alternative Education program, she said: "Bringing these students back to Middletown as opposed to placement in private alternative education settings in either Shiremanstown or Carlisle affords students the opportunity to work their way back into the regular education environment, even for a period or two per day, which is ultimately the goal. All students have the right to be educated in the least restrictive environment whenever possible."

Bright was approached for the job, she said, because he knows the district and its students well.

"It is important that the person who takes on this role can build positive relationships with students and parents and can 'hit the ground running' from the start. Mr. Bright is skilled in managing disruptive student behavior. He relates well with students and parents, has a strong but caring demeanor, and an affinity for adventure-based activities which is an important component of a successful alternative education program. He has worked with the high school wrestling program the past two years and has demonstrated that he can build positive relationships with secondary students and not just elementary students. Students respect him. He is the best person on our administrative team to take on this new challenge and will play an instrumental role in making the program successful for our at-risk students."

Suski told the Press & Journal that the school district has not yet advertised or interviewed for the new athletic director position, and that King is to continue in the AD role until Aug. 11.

King told the Press & Journal he would be willing to speak, but not until after the board’s June 19 meeting.

Shaffer told the Press & Journal in an email that he would have no comment regarding his transfer from Fink Elementary.

Bright did not respond to requests for comment left by phone and email.

Residents not happy

Word of the changes began spreading Wednesday, June 7, when Reid parents received an email from Bright informing them of the upcoming move.

By the time of the board’s public agenda-setting meeting of June 13, the board found itself dealing with a firestorm of opposition to the move involving Bright, fueled by Facebook. Reid parent Renee Buck launched an online petition to retain Bright that had 452 signatures as of the board meeting. The change.org petition has 467 signers as of Friday, June 16.

About 15 people attended the June 13 meeting. Buck and several others who spoke at the meeting seemed as frustrated over the board and the administration’s lack of providing answers over the proposed moves, as over the moves themselves.

The board’s answer to those concerns was to provide a written statement that was read by district Solicitor Jeffrey Litts at the start of the June 13 meeting.

“The district does not make it a practice of discussing the details of personnel matters with the public. Those discussions are best left between the district and individual employees,” Litts said. “Moreover, common courtesy and reasonable expectations of confidentiality dictate that personnel matters be kept private until such time as the school board is required to take action for any approval.”

Litts went on to say that the district felt “compelled” to respond “to some of the social media posts that have been recently made about district personnel matters being brought before this school board. Unfortunately, some of those social media postings have contained factual inaccuracies, half-truths and unfortunately in some cases outright lies.”

However, Litts provided no examples to illustrate the alleged Facebook falsehoods.

Buck in her comments following the statement read by Litts noted that the district itself “did not put anything out to the parents” regarding Bright leaving.

“What this did was leave us as parents holding the bag trying to find the words to explain to our children why their beloved principal would not be back,” Buck said. “We struggled for words because we as parents ourselves were not given any explanation from the district.”

Communication questioned

Several other parents who spoke found the move and the district’s lack of communication equally perplexing.

“If I’m looking at you kind of crookedly, it’s because I don’t understand” the reasons behind transferring Bright, said Reid parent Chris Templeton of Middletown.

Richard Swartz, a former Middletown school board member, said he was hesitant to speak out on the issue “because I know the tough decisions you make.”

But the moves of Bright and King in particular seemed so incomprehensible that Swartz felt he had to get out of his chair in the high school auditorium.

“I’m kind of dumbfounded by what is being contemplated here,” Swartz said. “I can’t fathom why a guy like Earl Bright would be taken out of a building if he doesn’t want to be.”

“Jeremy King resurrected this athletic program at this school. I’m sure he’s not perfect, but I was here when they got rid of a very good athletic director and we went through a period when things weren’t so good,” Swartz continued. “Jeremy King started communicating with the Blue and Gold club. He started bringing us requests again and we started being able to use money that is donated to the club to help students of the school district. He came up with the idea for the Blue and Gold gala. The teams this year had unprecedented success, at least for decades.”

“That’s a head-scratcher as well,” Swartz said of removing King from the AD position. “I’ve been impressed by the work he has done, and it’s hard to fathom how he’s better going to serve this school district teaching business.”

Lower Swatara influence?

Dawn Knull, a Middletown borough councilor whose son had attended Reid — although Knull was not speaking as a councilor — questioned whether Middletown residents are adequately being represented by the board, which is now dominated by members from Lower Swatara Township — three of whom were not elected but have been appointed to the board over the past year.

“Everybody who is sitting up here except for one is from Lower Swatara. Does everybody know the Middletown residents, the Middletown kids? Do you know their home life, do you know about them?” Knull asked. “You are sitting up here making a decision that’s going to affect Middletown residents and Middletown students. What would you say if this was happening at Kunkel (elementary) in Lower Swatara? Would you be up in arms like these parents? Probably.”

Few answers

Neither Suski nor anyone on the board offered any comment in reaction to the statements from parents, Swartz, and high school sophomore Terrance Jefferson — who said pulling Bright out of Reid would lead to “unimaginable” consequences for the school’s nearly 500 students.

Instead, board President Linda Mehaffie again deferred to Litts, who defended the district’s recommendation that Bright lead the new alternative education program.

“He (Bright) is going to be working with…some of the toughest kids in this district,” Litts said, including those “with mental health issues, kids that have had brushes with the juvenile justice system, and kids that have had difficulty transitioning to a traditional classroom setting.”

“Earl has agreed to step up and take on a leadership role in that program,” Litts added. “Many of the things that were reflected in the public comments, those same skills are going to be used with some of these most vulnerable students to ensure they succeed educationally, and that’s something that Earl agreed to do.”

Suski and the board for months have been discussing the district creating its own in-house alternative education program, to replace the current practice of Middletown sending its own students to outside agencies for alternative education services.

Mehaffie did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

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