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From left are school board members Dr. Tammy Samples, Jan Craig and Sherry Dean.

School board vows to correct legal error, will revisit superintendent vote

BUCKHANNON – The president of the Upshur County Board of Education pledged to rectify a mistake made at the board’s last meeting when a majority of members voted to extend the contract of Interim Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison.

At its meeting Tuesday, the board of education had been set to consider an item under personnel regarding the extension of Interim Upshur County Schools Assistant Superintendent Melinda Stewart, according to the Feb. 21 agenda. But board president Dr. Tammy Samples made a motion to table that decision until the board had a chance to correct an error regarding Harrison’s contract extension made at their Feb. 7 meeting.

“I would move to table that,” Samples said of Stewart’s proposed contract extension. “It is my mistake. I realize we made a mistake with the superintendent’s contract and the way that was handled. We are working to rectify that. There wasn’t time to get it on the agenda for this meeting.”

“Once we make a decision with that, then we will move forward with an assistant superintendent’s contract and post, so that is coming,” Samples added. “We’re aware that there’s an error, so I would entertain a motion to table Item 21A for a future meeting.”

Upshur BOE Vice President Jan Craig made a motion to table the contract extension, which was seconded by BOE member Sherry Dean before passing unanimously.

The error with Harrison’s contract involved renewing it as an interim position.

Under West Virginia Code, if a vacancy arises in the county superintendent’s position, interim superintendents who are appointed to the position before March 1 may only serve until June 30. Former Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus resigned from her position in August 2022 to accept a position as a state deputy superintendent, and Harrison moved into the interim role at that time.

In January, Upshur BOE members met in executive session during two special meetings to address agenda items listed as “superintendent discussion.” Then at their Feb. 7 meeting, the BOE voted 3-0 with two abstentions to extend Harrison’s contract as interim superintendent with all its current terms and conditions from its original end date of June 30, 2023 for an additional year — beginning July 1, 2023, and ending June 30, 2024.

However, according to code, the position cannot be extended on an interim basis, and that’s the error the board must now correct. Samples said the superintendent position would be on an upcoming agenda.

Prior to the board’s decision Tuesday, two members of the public raised questions about the legality of the previous vote as well as the leadership and culture within Upshur County Schools during the delegations and public comment period.

Upshur County resident Susan King said she read West Virginia Code and called the West Virginia Department of Education to check into the issue of an interim superintendent’s contract being extended for an additional year.  

“The hire that you did was not a legal hire,” King said of the Feb. 7 vote. “In looking at state code, it specifically said that in the event of a vacancy in the superintendent’s position that results in an incomplete term, the board may appoint an interim county superintendent to serve only until July 1, if the vacancy occurs before March 1.”

“I’m curious as to why no one looked at state code prior to doing this?” King continued.

Another resident and parent, Joshua Stump, read aloud a letter from concerned parents and Buckhannon-Upshur community members asking the BOE to post the superintendent’s position and “give us a fresh start.”

Stump said the people who signed off on the letter represented parents with students “across the age spectrum — high schoolers, middle schoolers, elementary children.”

“Some of us have family employed by this county as teachers, service personnel and even administrators,” he said. “We are all deeply invested in our school system. We have advocated on your behalf.”

“We know you have incredible hearts and passion for children and education,” Stump continued. “We know you care, but it has become increasingly more difficult to advocate for this county school district because our trust in the leadership of Upshur County Schools continues to erode.”

The four-page letter says Upshur County Schools has problems with its culture, support and leadership.

“We cannot tell you the numbers of students, parents, staff and others who regularly tell us how negatively they’ve experienced the culture of Upshur County Schools,” the letter said. “At every level, the words frustrated, grouchy, exhausted, unhelpful, dismissive [and] touchy seem to effectively describe our school culture as a county.”

The letter warned of waning support for the school system, as evidenced by the recent failure of the levy for the first time since 1999.

“Good PR (public relations) does not equal strong support,” Stump said.

The letter says that of all the school system’s issues, a failure in leadership is the most significant, citing constant programmatic changes and “trend-chasing” that doesn’t give new educational initiatives adequate time to work. Stump also pointed to a pervasive lack of responsiveness.

“Principals do not answer emails. Issues are swept under the rug. Behavioral issues are ignored,” he said. “We are losing teachers in droves. What makes it so difficult for us to continue advocating for you, to continue trusting you all with our children’s education, is a failure of leadership.”

Stump said the people who authored the letter want to help improve the school system.

“We want help, but we have one ask,” he said. “It’s that we want to have the superintendent position posted as soon as possible. Give us a fresh start. The Upshur County Board of Education is at a precipice when it comes to the health of our county. When it comes to the levy, when it comes to existing as a county that draws students and families here rather than causes them to leave, you are at a precipice. You are at an edge that requires more than positive spin; it requires truth and commitment and honesty about failures and strength to press on.”

“We want you to confront these things and be better and do better,” Stump concluded. “Post this position.”

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