At a county board meeting in May, newly selected Upshur County Schools Superintendent Russ Collett is congratulated by board members. / My Buckhannon file photo by Katie Kuba

Newly hired Upshur County Schools Superintendent Russ Collett says he’s still ready to lead the school system if chosen

BUCKHANNON – Who will take the reins of the Upshur County School system following the West Virginia Board of Education’s takeover Wednesday is now in question.

However, the man tapped to lead the county into a new era in May remains steadfast in his commitment to becoming the next county superintendent and addressing the issues raised by two recent state reviews.

Russ Collett, director of transportation, maintenance and the safe schools coordinator for Barbour County Schools, said he hopes he’s selected to start in the position as planned on July 1.

During Wednesday’s meeting, the state board appointed recently retired Preston County superintendent Stephen L. Wotring to serve as the interim superintendent of Upshur County Schools from June 15, 2023, through June 30, 2023, but also made it clear that Deputy State Superintendent Michele Blatt “or her designee” has the authority to hire a county superintendent to replace Wotring.

That announcement raised questions about whether the Upshur County Board of Education’s decision to hire Collett will remain unchanged. While acknowledging the gravity of the situation, Collett said he’s still enthusiastic about rising to the challenge of righting the ship in Upshur County.

“This was one of the largest financial violations – possibly in the history … and we don’t know for sure, but it’s not good, and it has to be fixed, so I understand the state’s concern,” he said.

Collett said he respects the West Virginia Board of Education’s decision but plans to seek clarification about the next steps.

“We’ll do whatever they tell us we need to do,” Collett said. “The way I understood it is that the Deputy Superintendent (Michele Blatt) has control of the situation, and they’re putting Mr. Wotring in to work with her and help solidify the office so they can gather more documentation without interference from anybody with the current administration and make sure they have access to records.”

“The Deputy Superintendent will then choose the county superintendent and establish the salary for whoever she thinks is best for the county, and I hope that is me,” he added.

Collett clinched the position after a unanimous board vote following a communitywide superintendent forum in early May featuring three finalists.

“I’ve already started to build relationships with different members of the community and tried to come to board meetings,” he said. “I’ve been using my own personal vacation days and personal leave days to make sure that Barbour County’s in good shape and then coming over [to Upshur County] to start looking at who needs to be in what positions and what things we need to revamp.”

“I’ve met with principals already, I’ve met with board members, and I’ve met with a lot of the office staff already, and honestly, that’s about all I can say to that right now – this is all still in motion,” Collett added.

Collett said he would be disappointed if Blatt doesn’t tap him to step into the position as planned on July 1.

“If I were not allowed to continue, I’d obviously be disappointed because we’ve already put a lot of work in, and I do think I am very experienced and the best person for that job,” he said. “The biggest thing is, it doesn’t matter what system you’re in: You have to follow policy, and it has become very evident through today’s update that Upshur County was not following policy in many areas – not just finance.”

“That has to be revamped; there are going to be things that have to occur, and those are difficult conversations, and as a longtime administrator, I’ve had many of those,” Collett continued. “The only difference now is, it’s kind of like dealing with discipline with children – we’ve moved from ‘you may’ to ‘you shall,’ and the state is going to designate what we shall do, and if that doesn’t include me, I will be very disappointed, but I will understand and work with them in any way we can.”

Upshur County Board of Education President Dr. Tammy Samples, along with former interim Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison, attended the extraordinary all-day meeting in Charleston Wednesday. When contacted for comment Wednesday, Samples said she had not been provided a copy of the Special Circumstance On-Site Review Report. That report was not posted on the WVDE’s website until Wednesday’s meeting concluded that evening.

“I am confused about several details with regard to that meeting,” Samples said in a message. “Also, as I wasn’t given the courtesy of a copy of that document, I can’t at this time speak to it.”

Harrison declined to comment due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.

Upshur County Board of Education Vice President Jan Craig provided a statement Thursday morning about Wednesday’s takeover.

“Yesterday, Upshur County Schools hit rock bottom, all due to the actions of a former superintendent,” Craig said. “Today is a new day, and we now have the difficult task of rebuilding Upshur County Schools into the stellar school system we once were.”

“It will take time to rebuild the lives, careers, ethical values and trust again that one person took, so may we move forward working with the West Virginia Board of Education, West Virginia Department of Education and the citizens of Upshur County to bring this about.”

Craig said she thinks voters in the May 2022 General Election elected people with multiple years of experience in the public school system for a reason.

“The people of Upshur County knew something was rotten in Denmark,” Craig said. “That’s why they put three people on the board who each have 30-plus years of experience in the Upshur County School system.”

Board member Roy Wager, who retired from the Upshur County Schools Superintendent post in 2018, said he wasn’t sure what would transpire next.

“I know that in a takeover, there is still a board of education, but we have no say — we are there, but whatever the [deputy state] superintendent says is going to happen, that’s what’s going to happen,” Wager said Wednesday evening. “We don’t vote on it because we don’t have a say; we’re just there as a board, so I don’t know what’s going to happen as far as that goes.”

Wager wanted to emphasize that most current board members weren’t on the Upshur County Board of Education when the noncompliance issues and alleged misspending occurred.  

“Four of the five board members that are current board members were not on the board during those two years — we were not there,” Wager said, “And in fact, I know that I ran because I was concerned about accountability. There was no accountability at the Board Office, so that’s what I was concerned about, and that’s why I ran – and I know that I can say that’s why Jan [Craig] ran, and we appointed Daya [Masada Wright] when Pat Long resigned.”

“I’m so embarrassed for Upshur County,” Wager added. “I’ve been involved in the school system for 46 years, and we’ve never had anything like this — never, ever was there a question about finances or anything like that. And I’m not just talking about when I was superintendent; I’m talking about previous superintendents even before that until this happened. We were always on the up-and-up about everything.”

Wager said he and other board members hadn’t known about the noncompliance findings noted in the final ESSERF LEA Monitoring report until May, despite it being posted publicly in March.

“I called one of the board members and said, ‘Have you seen the monitoring report?’ and we weren’t told anything about it until May when I found it on the [West Virginia Department of Education’s] website,” Wager said. “I just can’t believe it. I’m just – it’s sad. It’s really sad.”

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