Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series detailing My Buckhannon’s in-depth interview with new Upshur County Schools Superintendent Christy Miller following the West Virginia Department of Education’s takeover of the school district. You can read the first article here.
TENNERTON – The new superintendent of Upshur County Schools wants residents to know the West Virginia Department of Education’s June 14 takeover of Upshur County Schools wasn’t just about the misspending of federal pandemic recovery funds, or free passes to the county pool or West Virginia Wildlife Center.
During an exclusive interview with My Buckhannon following the July 11 Upshur County Board of Education meeting, Miller called the questionable spending of COVID-related federal funds “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“I think it’s important that the community knows that was the impetus for the takeover,” Miller said. “As we continue to move through all of the areas that a Board Office and the directors and superintendents are responsible for, we’re finding protocols and procedures that are not in place that need to be in place.”
Personnel is a prime example, Miller said.
“We’re not finding things that should be in an [employee’s] personnel file; we’re not finding contracts for some folks; and we’re not quite understanding – and this kind of brings personnel and finances together – how all of the supplements over the years have been structured. We can’t find explanations for them,” she said.
In some cases, policies that are outlined in the board of education’s policy manual weren’t being followed; for instance, certain items that require annual approval weren’t approved on a yearly basis, according to Miller.
The new superintendent said she was frankly embarrassed that she had no minutes from the June 13, 2023, meeting – the last meeting before the WVDE seized control of the district – to place on the July 11 agenda for approval. In many cases, board of education meeting minutes haven’t been posted publicly, and she plans to rectify that.
“I’m going to do my best to see what we can do to reconstruct those minutes and start getting those posted and making sure that we’re doing what we need to be doing – again, following policy,” she said.
Since she and Assistant Upshur County Schools Superintendent Russ Collett took the helm on July 1, Miller said they’ve discovered notable disparities when it comes to how people were compensated and more.
“I think [employees and residents] saw some of the things that were going on, and they were questioning them, but they didn’t know who to actually go to and question,” she said. “As we’re discovering things, we’re seeing some inequalities across the workforce, and I’m just amazed at some of the things we’re finding.”
“Coming from Taylor County and knowing right from wrong and what you can and can’t do financially, I’m just going to say I’m flabbergasted at some of the stuff we’re seeing,” Miller added.
Realigning the district’s practices with proper protocols won’t be easy, she said.
“It’s going to be a big learning curve for a lot of different people,” Miller said, “but our goal is to help folks understand, not make them feel bad about the things they’ve done when they did not have the necessary leadership to provide the information that they needed to do things the right way.”
She acknowledged morale is low among employees and doesn’t want Central Office administrators to worsen an already discouraged workforce.
“People don’t know what they don’t know, and they cannot be constantly beaten down for things they don’t know; they have to be supported,” Miller said. “They have to be given the opportunity to learn, and once they’re given that opportunity, allow them to make mistakes, but then support them through that learning again.”
So, how does one go about restoring the trust of employees, parents and community members in the school district? Miller believes it’s important for administrators to make themselves available to employees and community members, be true to who they are and “take a good healthy look at their ‘why?’”
“I think you have to start with yourself and ask yourself, ‘Why are you doing [this job]?’” she said. “The grassroots work of starting is also making sure that everybody understands that while you’re here to do a job, you’re also here to support them because I do feel that the workforce and the community are feeling very defeated right now.”
Miller says she’s been intentionally making herself available to residents who have questions or simply want to meet her.
“You also start by having conversations with people, and the Central Office staff have been amazed that when someone walks in off the street — if they come in and just want to say ‘hello’ — that I dropped what I was doing and I purposefully allowed them to speak with me,” she said.
“It’s so important to be present, and that’s why I don’t mind when people come in and say, ‘Hey, I would just like to introduce myself,’” Miller added. “It is absolutely wonderful because those are the folks who are going to remember that you took the time to introduce yourself to them and allowed them to introduce themselves to you – and then just that little bit of connection can grow.”
“I can’t wait to start meeting other people in the community,” she said. “It may be another six weeks, but I’ll have that opportunity.”
The next regular Upshur County Board of Education meeting is set for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 8 in the Buckhannon-Upshur High School Auditorium.