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SCHOOL SHAKEUP: Bright moved from Reid, King out as AD, Shaffer leaving Fink

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 6/21/17

Despite an online petition with nearly 470 signatures and opposition expressed by a number of residents, Middletown Area School Board voted 9-0 on Monday to approve transferring Earl Bright from …

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SCHOOL SHAKEUP: Bright moved from Reid, King out as AD, Shaffer leaving Fink

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Despite an online petition with nearly 470 signatures and opposition expressed by a number of residents, Middletown Area School Board voted 9-0 on Monday to approve transferring Earl Bright from principal of Reid Elementary School to a position as principal to lead the school district’s new in-house Alternative Education program.

The board by the same 9-0 vote June 19 also approved transferring Jeremy King from his position as athletic director/assistant high school principal to a position as a business education teacher at the high school, effective Aug. 14.

King said he sought the transfer, despite it resulting in a pay cut from his salary as athletic director/assistant principal. King was making $75,100 in that position as of 2013. His current salary was not immediately available.

King in taking the business education teacher job will be paid $67,935, a salary based on the school district’s current contract with the teachers’ association.

The news of the district looking to transfer King did not lead to anywhere near the vocal outcry that followed from news of the intent to move Bright, the popular principal at Reid for the past 16 years.

Instead, several residents praised the job that King has done as athletic director. The closest comment to opposing the move came from Richard Swartz, a former Middletown school board member, who on June 13 called the decision to transfer King “a head scratcher,” given the almost unprecedented success of Blue Raider athletic teams in 2016-17.

The board also by 9-0 vote approved transferring Thomas Shaffer from his position as principal of Fink Elementary School to a position as a language arts teacher at Middletown Area Middle School.

Shaffer will replace Georgina Hamer, who retired at the end of the 2016-17 school year, and he will be paid $77,280. The transfer is effective Aug. 14.

Shaffer will be replaced as Fink principal by Marie Drazenovich, who is now assistant principal at Fink. Drazenovich will be paid $98,161.58 as principal.

After the board meeting, Superintendent Lori Suski said that the district soon will be advertising for a new principal to replace Bright at Reid, and a new athletic director/assistant principal to replace King.

The school board does not normally meet in July. However, a special board meeting could be held in July if necessary to ensure that both positions are filled in time for the 2017-18 school year, Suski said.

Pleas from residents

Before the board’s vote on the personnel moves, Middletown resident Renee Buck — who started the online petition seeking to retain Bright at Reid — again addressed the school board with the same impassioned plea.

“The way you are going about this is not only wrong, it is not the right thing to do. Before you vote, ask yourselves, is this the right thing to do? Is there an ulterior motive? Do I simply play follow the leader tonight? We are asking you to do the right thing and vote no to this move,” Buck said.

She also left no doubt as to how board members’ votes on whether to retain Bright would dictate her own vote for school board candidates in the general election later this year.

“I voted for each and every one of you to be elected into these positions to do the right thing for our children. Your vote tonight will certainly determine my vote in November. I can promise you that if you vote yes today, I certainly will not make the same mistake and vote for you in November.”

Buck was followed by another Middletown resident, Dan Valley, who asked that the board delay acting on Bright and the others.

“I honestly, honestly feel that the personal changes are most assuredly not the will of your constituents,” he said. “At the very least, put this vote off a little while longer, do some research, and truly, truly get a feel for the will of your constituency.”

A few minutes later, the board proceeded to approve all of the personnel moves, without comment or discussion from board President Linda Mehaffie or from any of the other eight board members who were present for the votes.

Instead, Mehaffie and the other board members have left the comments to district Solicitor Jeffrey Litts and Suski.

No tax increase

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 was approved Monday.

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.

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.”

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 frustrated

Word of the changes started spreading on 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.

About 15 people attended the board’s June 13 meeting that was held to set the agenda for the board’s June 19 action meeting.

Buck and several others who spoke 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 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.

Swartz, the former 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.”

As far as an answer, Mehaffie again deferred to Litts, the solicitor, who defended the district’s recommendation that Bright lead alternative education.

“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.