RIMERSBURG – School security. Allegations of plagiarism. Plans to switch to Mass Customized Learning. Sports hirings. A cheerleading controversy.
Pick a topic, any topic, and one thing was clear: Union School District residents are not happy.
More than 60 people packed the Union High School library last Thursday evening to voice concerns to the school board on a wide range of topics, during a meeting that culminated with a controversial closed door session during which the crowd was allowed to stay while district administrators were asked to leave.
After contentious meetings the past couple of months, school officials changed up the usual public comment portion of the meeting, going from a one-time opportunity for people to speak at the start of the meeting, to offering times at the beginning at the end of the meeting for public concerns.
With six of the nine school board members present — president Brade Guntrum, vice president Terry Rush, Eric Shick, Adam Vogle, Melissa Ford and Jeff Kriebel present, while members Mike Graham, Jeff Shirey and Mark Rummel were absent — only one person opted to speak at the start of the meeting.
“Who is running our school board meeting?” Brittany Bowser of Madison Township asked, setting the tone for the remaining two-hour session. She questioned whether the school board president or superintendent Jean McCleary ran the meeting, noting that in other districts, the school board president led the discussions.
Union solicitor Ralph L.S. Montana said it sometimes depends on what the topics is, and the superintendent is sometimes best able to address certain issues.
“We try to make as much transparent as possible,” Montana said.
A Switch to MCL
After conducting the board’s regular business (see story elsewhere in today’s L-V), elementary principal Tom Minick gave a presentation about Mass Customized Learning, and a recent trip taken by district administrators and teachers to a California school that has implemented the approach.
Minick said MCL is a change from the traditional teacher-focussed approach to school to a learner-centered approach that takes into account that all students move at different paces. He said Union needs to “move from an industrial age assembly line approach to the information age.”
Under the current system, Minick explained, if a students does learn a particular skill, the class moves on. Under an MCL approach, he said, students would instead master each skill before moving to the next thing.
Minick said the MCL approach also works on teaching life skills, such as being caring and being civic-minded.
“As a school, I haven’t led us in a way where we’re learning those life skills,” he said.
Minick said that implementing MCL isn’t something that can happen overnight, and that he has already planned a series of public meetings for the next school year to present information and gather input from parents and community members.
“This is a journey,” he explained, noting that at the board’s June meeting, the teachers who went on the California trip will give a presentation, and that the community meetings will start in September.
“I think people do believe things need to change,” he said. “We have a challenge. Schools are doing it, but it is change.”
The board then heard from local resident William Coradi III, who said he was speaking as a parent who was concerned about sending his young boys to Union schools if MCL is implemented.
Coradi said he spent a lot of time researching MCL, speaking with university professors and other teaching professionals. Through all his conversations and internet research, Coradi said he could find no hard evidence that MCL works.
Becoming more skeptical, Coradi claimed his research showed that MCL was being pushed by people who could profit from the new educational system, including data mining interests such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Coradi said that for schools that have adopted the MCL approach, test scores have not improved, and parents and teachers dislike it. He said students spend too much time at computers and are becoming robots.
“It is still a mass produced system that is being sold to school districts for a lot of money,” Coradi said. “Personalized learning is a data driven money grab.”
Coradi questioned how long it would be until the district would replace teachers with aides who simply oversee the students while they work online.
“I want my boys taught by teachers and not a website,” he said, noting that the large majority of local residents he has spoken with are opposed to the system. He said many are looking at home schooling, cyber schooling and other private school options if MCL is approved.
“This district cannot afford a mass exodus,” Coradi cautioned. “I fear this move will be the nail in the coffin for this school district.”
Coradi asked school board members to do their own research and form their own opinions, rather than just viewing what administrators give them.
Following the MCL debate, parent Brandy Gallagher of Toby Township asked the board to meet with the residents without the administration present.
Board president Brade Guntrum agreed, asking the administration to leave the meeting room. Although the district referred to the meeting as an “executive session,” no one from the public, including the media, were asked to leave the meeting.
The closed session started with a group of residents speaking on a wide range of issues.
Lacy Smith of Rimersburg questioned the cost of sending teachers and administrators to California to study MCL, saying that she sees MCL as a way to segregate students which will rise to more bullying.
Resident and parent Tressa Smith of Rimersburg brought up the topic of proposed cheerleading tryouts, while another woman told the board that teachers in the district want to talk with the board but are afraid of retaliation from the administration. She called on the board to adopt a whistleblower policy.
Yet another woman criticized the board for what she sees as nepotism since two of the current board members are in a relationship. She also questioned the atmosphere in the schools where the business manager recently resigned, and the high school principal will also soon be leaving.
Another resident asked the board why school safety was not a top priority.
One woman spoke in favor of MCL, stating that the current model of teaching needs to be updated to give teachers more freedom to meet the needs of their students. She said MCL did not mean that kids would be sitting in front of computers all day, nor that grade levels would be abandoned.
A woman who identified herself as Amanda from Madison Township said MCL was too radical of a change, and that commonsense is what is needed in the schools. She cautioned the board that if they jump on the MCL bandwagon too soon, “you’ll make this town bust.”
“These kids are becoming robots,” she said of MCL students, asking the board to also “try to figure out why your staff doesn’t want to be here.”
Gallagher spoke up again, this time leveling allegations of plagiarism against McCleary. She referenced a packet of information that has been circulating among the district and community for several months, that reportedly shows similarities between a letter first sent out by the University of Pittsburgh chancellor, and then sent by McCleary to Union staff to welcome them back to school.
“She’s ruining our school and you can’t see that,” Gallagher said of McCleary. “She’s running this show; she’s running all you guys.”
Gallagher said that while students are suspended for plagiarism, McCleary was not punished.
Guntrum cautioned Gallagher about making accusations, saying that it was a personnel matter.
“You guys should be standing up for us and our kids,” Gallagher countered.
Guntrum acknowledged that the board had discussed the matter with McCleary in a past executive session.
Tressa Smith asked the board if McCleary plagiarized the letter. Board member Eric Shick stated that since the work was not published, it did not meet the criteria for plagiarism.
Guntrum added that the board “came to a conclusion and stuck with it.”
The topic then quickly switched to the board’s recent controversial hiring of a new football coach when resident Shelly Atzeni said that the district violated open meetings laws when the new coach was notified that he was hired for the job before the board officially voted on the matter.
Guntrum said that Atzeni was basing her argument on hearsay, and that the district goes through a similar process with any job candidate. He said that the new coach was contacted to make sure he would accept the position under certain stipulations.
The topic again changed, this time to school security. Union teacher Lisa Hummel, who serves as president of the teachers’ union, said that the Union Education Association urged the board to vote on adopting security for the schools.
“The security of our kids is very important,” she said, noting that something needed to be done that night to move forward so that something can be in place for the start of the new school year.
Guntrum said that the board had met with retired state police troopers Alan Carmichal and Mike Boltz about a security proposal, but that the district needed to look more into the expense and where the money would come from.
A woman who did not identify herself received a standing ovation when she asked for McCleary’s resignation. Those at the meeting also gave a show of hands of who would cyber school their students if the board refused to address their concerns. Many hands went up.
Guntrum said residents can reach out to him and other board members outside the meeting to discuss their concerns. Rush also encouraged residents to talk with him about various issues.
“That’s why I’m here,” he said.
Parent Sara Weaver finished out the closed door session by asking the board to be open and to listen to the people. She said the public should not encounter hostility or be made to feel that they shouldn’t speak their thoughts.
When the administration was allowed back in to the meeting, the school board adjourned into an executive session, asking Boltz and Carmichael to remain to discuss security matters.
Responds to Allegations
With the allegations levels against her at last week’s public meeting, Union superintendent Jean McCleary was asked for her comments with regard to the allegation of plagiarism.
McCleary confirmed that the matter was addressed on two occasions with the school board, and that it was determined that plagiarism did not occur. She said that she saw the Pitt chancellor’s welcome back letter as “eloquent and well done” and that she thought it had a good message that she wanted to share with her staff.
“The board, with legal counsel from Mr. Montana, stated during the meetings, the allegation was unfounded since the work was not published nor was there any claim for benefit,” McCleary said.
In a written statement to The Leader-Vindicator, McCleary wrote, “When allegations of this nature occur and are made public with with no merit, it places individuals in a position to counterpoint with defamation of character. According to Brette Sember, Esq. published in August 2015, ‘defamation is a false statement presented as a fact that causes injury or damage to the character of the person it is about.’ Since the plagiarism allegation is untrue, this anonymous information is damaging to a person’s character.”
“In my opinion, the allegation was with the intent purpose of defaming me and my character,” McCleary continued. “It was malicious, reckless and had a complete disregard for me, my family and our district.
“Although the superintendent position has many challenges each and every day, it disheartens me to know there are individuals who are on a ‘witch hunt’ making allegations for the public to believe are facts.
“Honestly, I believe certain individuals have lost sight of what is imperative for a superintendent to operate a school district effectively. Looking back at the last six years as the superintendent, I am proud to say as the leader of our administrative team, we have not raised taxes in six years, we have settled two early bird union association contracts which were ratified for the next 4-5 years, we are educating learners each day and ensuring the safety of our students to the best of our ability given financial constraints. In addition, we are meeting the state and federal regulations as evident from our varying audits for the last six years which have come back with no findings.
“It is my hope, individuals will focus on the positive aspects and evidence supporting these statements rather than allegations that are meant to harm and hinder progress.”