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Westmoreland School Board rescinds transfers, still gets an earful

In an attempt to defuse a growing controversy, the Westmoreland County School Board rescinded the controversial transfers of a popular teacher-coach and a guidance secretary prior to its Monday night meeting. The school administrators still got an earful from Washington & Lee students, parents, teachers and community leaders.

The five-member school board and Westmoreland Superintendent of Schools Rebecca Lowry sat grimfaced while they were repeatedly criticized during a three-hour meeting attended by more than 230 people, including four members of the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors.

“I am not happy to be here,” said Supervisor Board Chairman Darryl Fisher. “I have not attended a school board meeting in 22 years, but I am here tonight because of disturbing events. When citizens have to call their supervisors because they cannot reach you, that is a bad sign. Please do a better job.”

Monday’s meeting brought to a head several events over the past three months that have damaged the school board’s respect in the county. On April 12, without any prior notice or warning, Cole Vanover, an award winning teacher-coach, and Stephanie Payne, a popular guidance secretary, were handed letters transferring both of them from W&L High School to Montross Middle School.

The letters, signed by Westmoreland County School Board Asst. Superintendent James Cook, said Vanover and Payne were being transferred in a move the board said would be “beneficial to students.” The sting of the transfers was heightened by a comment made by Lowry who responded to those questioning the moves by saying, “You will just have to trust me on this.”

Coming on the heels of the school board’s failure to take any action against W&L Principal Andrea Roane who was arrested for drunk driving on Feb. 12, spent a night in jail and still has charges pending, the demotions of Vanover and Payne were a cause of anger and concern among faculty, students, parents and community leaders who showed up at the Monday meeting.

Many of the students Monday were wearing blue and white shirts that read “Eagle Pride, We Are W&L.” “We demand better,” said student Jeremy Saunders, who organized a Facebook petition that got more than 300 signatures calling for the board to rescind the transfers of Vanover and Payne.

Realtor Cathy Reed said parents and students have grown weary of the school board’s “mumbo, jumbo” and admonished the board for the damage it is doing to the community and the school system. “When your teachers are treated with disrespect, the good teachers are going to leave,” Reed said.

Former W&L student Heather Straughan criticized the board for not suspending or firing Roane. “What message is that sending to our children?” Straughan asked. “We should have a policy of zero tolerance on the a use of alcohol or drunk driving. What if she had been in an accident and killed one of our children?”

W&L cross country star Kathryn Beddoo, in a tearful presentation to the board, said, “These things should have never happened. It upsets me that I cannot be proud of being a W&L student.” And, W&L wrestler Manoa Wurth said, “It is time for our leaders to step up to the plate, acknowledge their mistakes, listen to the community and the employees, learn from experience and understanding, and pave the way to a better school system.”

“I am asking you, members of the Board, to listen to your community and act appropriately. Listen to what the teachers, students, and parents have to say, and don’t wait until there is an uproar before you decide to let us voice our opinions. Let your decisions be public, let it be clear to the community as to what you plan on doing before you do it and then listen to the concerns and opinions and alternate solutions before making your final decision. Give the public, as well as your employees, your explanations and reasoning as to what you decide to do,” said Wurth.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Lowry addressed the crowd and apologized for the transfers. “I made a decision on insufficient information and insufficient facts,” Lowry said. “A decision of that type will never be made again.” She did not address Roane’s drunk driving arrest or apologize for the board’s inaction in that case.

Richard Leggitt

 

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