Pictured are Upshur County Schools Assistant Superintendent George 'Russ' Collett and Upshur County Schools Superintendent Christy Miller at a county board meeting in August. / My Buckhannon file photo

New superintendent addresses stakeholder concerns at first meeting before school starts

TENNERTON – On Tuesday night, Upshur County residents had numerous questions for state-appointed Upshur County Schools Superintendent Christy Miller, and she had answers – at least some of them.

During the public comment portion of the Aug. 8 Upshur County Board of Education meeting at Buckhannon-Upshur High School, several stakeholders — including pastor/educator Dr. Justin Bowers, retired Upshur County Schools teacher Debbie Shapiro and retired assistant county superintendent Jack Reger — addressed Miller, Upshur County Schools Assistant Superintendent Russ Collett and board members about a wide range of issues.

The speakers had a variety of questions, including why board members seemed to be unwilling to collaborate with community members, when a continuum of special education services would be reinstated, and how Miller and Collett planned to restore Upshur County Schools to full accreditation, among others.

Bowers, who represents a group of concerned students and parents, said his group is frustrated that board members haven’t responded to their calls for collaboration.

“We have been told that the board cannot gather too many members or that is considered an official board meeting, which we understand, but surely someone could reach out, extend an offer of relationship and extend an offer to build some community collaboration, but none of this has happened outside of one or two personal phone calls,” Bowers said. “The question we asked of this board four months ago is the same that we have for you tonight: How can we work together if our community is willing to show up and our board isn’t? We’re here on behalf of this group asking, ‘How can we work together? What is the mechanism? What is the way that we, as a community, as parents and advocates and stakeholders, can truly come together to shift the state of our schools?’”

Shapiro said she wanted to know “when the improvements are going to start.”

“I get phone calls every day; I got a phone call today from another parent who was concerned because they cannot get anyone to return their phone call from Buckhannon-Upshur High School,” she said. “[People] are scared; they want to know what your plan is. The people that are struggling want to hear from you two [Miller and Collett] to say, ‘This is what I’m going to do to make you feel better about sending your kids to Upshur County Schools.’”

Shapiro said there’s still no continuum of special education services that’s consistent across the district, and she said she’d received multiple complaints about the administration at Buckhannon-Upshur Middle School.

“People have no faith in what goes on at the middle school – none,” she said. “What are you guys going to do to ensure that we see some academic progress with our students?”

Reger lamented the long-term effects of the state takeover, calling them “incalculable.” He said businesses are now less likely to relocate here, and he’s aware of at least one family who’s moving out of state.

“When asked why, the response was, ‘How can we send our children to school here knowing the situation as it exists? We believe it is in our best interest to move to an area with a good school system,’ and as a result of that, the family is being broken, so families are being broken,” he said.

Jack Reger addresses Upshur County Schools Superintendent Christy Miller and Assistant Superintendent Russ Collett at the county board of education’s Aug. 8 meeting.

Reger wanted to know when the Central Office’s over-arching plan of improvement would be unveiled, saying it should be made widely available to the public.

“It has now been almost two months that Upshur County Schools has been under [your] charge,” Reger said. “What is the plan that will ensure the appropriate education of our students now and in the future?”

Miller addressed some of those questions in her comments. She reiterated that the county board of education has extremely limited authority, saying she is now the person to whom all questions and concerns should be directed – not board members.

“I think it’s important for the community to understand about the authority of the board as they sit before you this evening because it does speak to what they can and cannot do, which looks very different if you’ve been attending board meetings over the last several years,” she said.

In June, the state Board of Education revoked the county board’s authority to vote on matters pertaining to finances, personnel, federal programs and more; the county board is also prohibited from engaging in real estate transactions.

Miller explained she reports to the following people: West Virginia Schools Superintendent Michele Blatt, recently appointed state Schools Deputy Superintendent Dr. Sonya White, WVDE Accountability Officer Jeffrey Kelley, WVDE Chief Financial Officer Sam Pauley and WVDE Director of Facilities and Maintenance Micah Whitlow.

To Reger’s question, Miller said that in order for the Upshur County Board of Education to regain control of the school system, the state Board of Education has charged her and Collett, in consultation with the county board, “to jointly develop and present to the state board at a future meeting a set of standards and/or a strategic plan must be implemented in order for the Upshur County Board of Education to regain control of the school system.”

“It is also important to note that interference in the daily operations, in personnel or in other areas cannot and will not be tolerated,” she added firmly. “We must follow code and policy following the chain of command, and directing all questions and concerns to me as is laid out in local policy is how we are going to move forward.”

Miller provided county board members with a new organizational chart detailing a chain of command, which residents can now download on the upshurschools.com website here.

Miller, Collett and Mr. Stephen Wotring — who stepped in immediately after the June 14 state takeover — have been poring through policies, procedures, agreements, contracts and memorandums of understanding to look for “the appropriate following of procurement procedures and the authority to enter into an implementation of consistent work hours for both professional and service personnel,” Miller said.

“We have looked at protocols and procedures for procurement of goods and services at the county and school level,” she continued. “We have completed a certification audit and have responded to those employees that do not have the required certifications; we’ve called them in, and we’ve actually supported them through that application process.”

Hiring personnel at schools has been challenging.

“We are working to hire personnel to support students at each of our schools,” Miller said. “We still have openings. We continue to work on personnel to fill those openings.”

Miller then addressed questions about the district’s delivery of special education services or lack thereof.

“There are many, and it’s multi-layered, but we continue each day to meet with the current county special education director (Ann Osburn) and ask questions and then ask for her to get things into place,” she said.

The superintendent and her staff have been reviewing alternative education programs, expulsion procedures and “overall response to behavior.”

“I’m a firm believer that we only make a difference if we keep our students in school in a fashion that meets the needs that they exhibit at that time,” Miller said. “Yes, students do misbehave, and there are times that we have to put them in alternative placement, but it should not — and never was — intended to be a placement that they stay in for their entire academic career.”

At each board meeting, Miller will supply updates on progress made in various departments, she said.

“We are addressing each of these areas [of concerns] according to West Virginia Code, State Board policy and local policy,” Miller said. “At each meeting, updates will be provided as to the progress being made to ensure that policy is followed, and if there are any that need to be repealed and/or replaced that that will take place in a uniform, efficient manner.”

Finance and personnel are the first two areas of policy the Central Office is evaluating and, where necessary, revamping. A detailed breakdown of expenditures and financial information compiled by interim treasurer Sarah Wills — including amounts, vendors and rationale for payments – will be supplied at each meeting.

“To continue this transparency, during the consent portion of each agenda, I will share the contract amounts and reasons for entering such contracts as well as any agreements or MOUs,” Miller said. “Each of these [items] has been approved by the WVDE before appearing on the agenda. Believe me — they ask me multiple questions as to why we want to enter into those contracts, agreements and MOUs.”

Miller said the state department’s Office of Child Nutrition will pay a visit to the district Aug. 22.

“They are going to do their examination of policies and the county’s use of funds to ensure that they have been appropriate and have not been spent in ways that are against policy and procedure,” she said. “I am hopeful that after this concludes, we will receive our ‘punch list’ — which is the best way to describe it — of areas that the state department needs for us to correct to return the county to full accreditation status and Board Authority.”

Absenteeism is another targeted area the superintendent’s office plans to tackle.

“We have too many students that are not in our schools daily for various absence reasons, and we’ve got to get that back under control,” Miller said.

Miller agreed that the age and turnover among principals within the district demonstrates the need for additional training, so the superintendent’s office is opening a principals’ academy.

“We share the same concerns,” Miller said. “We have a young workforce in leadership at our schools, and they need a great deal of support, and Mr. (Stephen) Wotring is going to continue to provide that boots-on-the-ground type of support.”

In addition, the Central Office has hosted a two-day transportation academy for bus drivers, and Miller assured stakeholders she’s been meeting with parents, employees and others to gather feedback and ensure employees understand their responsibilities. 

To that end, she plans to create a Superintendent’s Advisory Council comprised of one service employee representative and one professional employee representative elected via each school’s Faculty Senate to consult with her once a month. A couple of residents informed her that in the past, a Community Superintendent’s Advisory Council was created to act as a liaison between the superintendent’s office and the Buckhannon-Upshur community, and she wants to revive that, she said.

“That will be my next step so that we can get the community involved, so I hope, Mr. (Justin) Bowers, that this helps a little bit to be understanding what I hope to be doing in the future,” Miller said. “We have much to celebrate, and we should be proud of our employees. We have much work to do, but together I do feel that we are working towards a much brighter future for our students.

Miller cautioned that type of over-arching change takes time, but in the short-term, she assured meeting attendees Upshur County Schools would be prepared to open as scheduled on Aug. 16.

“We have the right leadership team in place at the county office, and now we’re working on our schools and strengthening their leadership,” she continued.

“This is a tedious and cumbersome process that takes time,” she said. “My commitment for two years will remain, and nothing I have found with anyone I’ve spoken to makes me want to run the other way. I am committed to you and to your students to make sure that together in two years, we will turn things around, and it can be a lighthouse example for others to follow.”

On behalf of the Foundation for Better Schools in Upshur County, Don Nestor extends an offer of assistance to the new administration.

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