WVDE: Only two Upshur County school contracts voided, next board of education meeting date to be announced later

BUCKHANNON – In the wake of the West Virginia Board of Education’s takeover of Upshur County Schools, the only contracts that have been nullified are that of the former interim superintendent and the former interim assistant superintendent, a spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Education said Friday.

Christy Day, director of the West Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Communications, said just two contracts – that of former Interim Upshur County Schools Superintendent Dr. Debra Harrison and former Interim Assistant Superintendent Melinda Stewart – had been voided.

“The only contracts voided were at-will employees, and those are the positions of the superintendent and deputy superintendent,” Day wrote responded in an email. “No school-level administrators have had contracts voided.”

Both Harrison and Stewart were already set to leave the county’s employment at the end of June. Harrison was to retire, while Stewart will become the Superintendent of Schools in Lewis County starting July 1. Each served in their current role for less than a year after assuming the interim positions in September 2022.

Many other aspects of the takeover — from when the Upshur County Board of Education will meet to who will serve as county superintendent beginning July 1 — have not yet been determined, Day said.

Following the West Virginia Board of Education’s June 14 decision to assign non-approval status to Upshur County Schools, the West Virginia Department of Education issued a press release outlining the various facets of the state Board of Education’s ruling. However, the ruling raised more questions than it answered.

Some major decisions are expected within the next week, given the tight timeline established by the West Virginia Board of Education.

The WVBE selected longtime Preston County educator Stephen Wotring to serve as Interim Upshur County Schools Superintendent from June 15-30, 2023. The ruling gives the deputy state superintendent the authority to hire a county superintendent to replace Wotring on July 1.

That throws into question the employment of Russ Collett, who was scheduled to assume his new post as the next superintendent of Upshur County Schools on July 1. When asked if the deputy state superintendent was interviewing candidates for the Upshur County Schools Superintendent position in addition to Collett, Day said a plan had not yet been finalized.

“A plan will be in place for a smooth transition for Upshur County,” she wrote in an email. “Once decisions are made and details finalized, that information will be made available to the public.”

Another question is what will happen to April Senic, who was hired to become the next assistant superintendent starting July 1. The Upshur County Board of Education approved her employment on June 13, just a day before the state’s takeover.

Further adding to the uncertainty, the state’s only current deputy state superintendent, Michele Blatt, was selected as the next West Virginia State Superintendent of Schools Friday and will take over that role on July 1. The other deputy state superintendent, Dr. Sara Stankus, retired earlier this month. That means the position of deputy state superintendent could be vacant as of next month.

It’s also not clear when the Upshur County Board of Education will meet again. Day said while the state Board of Education doesn’t have the authority to suspend current board members, the state board has significantly limited their decision-making power regarding finances, personnel, federal programs “and any other area designated by rule.”

Prior to state intervention, the county board of education had been scheduled to meet Wednesday, July 5. A new date will be announced once finalized, according to Day.

“Mr. Wotring sets board meeting dates and agendas and will announce the next Upshur County Board meeting at the appointed time,” she wrote.

Four of the five current Upshur County Board of Education members have served in that role for less than a year. In 2022, voters elected Sherry Dean, Jan Craig and Roy Wager — all former school employees with decades of experience — to the board, while Daya Wright was tapped to fill Pat Long’s vacant seat in October 2022. Dr. Tammy Samples, a longtime member, serves as president of the Upshur County Board of Education.

The state Board of Education’s decision to assume control of Upshur County Schools came on the heels of a routine monitoring of the county’s expenditures of federal funds related to the COVID-19 pandemic that found numerous instances of noncompliance. That monitoring report led State Superintendent of Schools David Roach, who will retire June 30, to order a surprise Special Circumstance Review of Upshur County Schools May 22-23 conducted by the State Department of Education’s Office of Accountability and Assessment.

The preliminary findings of that review found myriad questionable transactions and multiple problems related to the operation of federal programs, employee compensation and poor internal controls. Officials with the WVDE’s Office of Accountability and Assessment said some of the findings had to be turned over to the West Virginia State Police and the Office of the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Education because they were potentially criminal violations.

The 16-page Special Circumstance Review report also reveals that local residents had requested a “complete and forensic audit” of Upshur County Schools’ finances.

“In addition to the federal programs monitoring report, the WVDE received a letter written on behalf of a concerned citizens group dated March 28, 2023,” the report states. “The letter requested a ‘complete and forensic audit’ of the finances of Upshur County Schools, specifically with regard to federal funding. In response to these concerns regarding the use of federal funding, WVDE personnel monitored additional information regarding financial indicators and purchasing procedures at the Upshur County Schools’ central office.”

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