His ap­proach: Treat stu­dents like his kids

The Hazleton Standard-Speaker - - FRONT PAGE - BY KENT JACK­SON STAFF WRITER

When Brian Uplinger starts his new job on Mon­day as su­per­in­ten­dent of the Ha­zle­ton Area School District, his re­spon­si­bil­ity will grow by ap­prox­i­mately 10,000 stu­dents.

Com­pared to the Central Greene School District in south­west­ern Penn­syl­va­nia that Uplinger is leav­ing, Ha­zle­ton Area doesn’t just have more stu­dents.

More of its stu­dents are learn­ing English and liv­ing in house­holds with low in­comes.

Ye t Uplinger be­lieves in all of them.

“My ed­u­ca­tional phi­los­o­phy is that ev­ery in­di­vid­ual can learn when given a safe, clean en­vi­ron­ment along with the ap­pro­pri­ate bal­ance of high-qual­ity ed­u­ca­tional cour­ses, com­pet­i­tive ath­letic chal­lenges, en­gag­ing ac­tiv­i­ties and won­der­ful op­er­a­tional ex­pe­ri­ences,” he wrote in a mes­sage on the web­site of Central Greene, where he had been su­per­in­ten­dent since 2013.

In the Pine Grove Area School District, where he was su­per­in­ten­dent for three years, Uplinger told the grad­u­ates in 2013: “Don’t let any­thing stand in your way of reach­ing for your high­est po­ten­tial.”

Last month dur­ing a pub­lic in­ter­view for his job in Ha­zle­ton Area, Uplinger, 45, said he looks at ev­ery stu­dent as he does his own chil­dren. He and his wife have four chil­dren. Three of them, in­clud­ing a son with autism, will en­roll in Ha­zle­ton Area schools. To Uplinger, a stu­dent in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion is as im­por­tant as a stu­dent in fine arts, sports or hon­ors classes.

The Uplingers’ school-age chil­dren are among the rea­sons why Ha­zlet on Area board mem­ber Vin­cent Zola sup­ported the new su­per­in­ten­dent.

“I looked at that like he un­der­stood — be­cause they’re liv­ing it,” Zola said.

The board re­ceived ap­pli­ca­tions from nine can­di­dates for su­per­in­ten­dent. After tak­ing a month to re­view the ap­pli­ca­tions and in­ter­view seven of the can­di­dates, the board voted 6-3 to hire Uplinger for five years at a start­ing salary of $135,000.

Days after the vote on Aug. 17, the board mem­bers didn’t wa­ver in their de­ci­sion when they lear ned that a Central Greene teacher claimed in a law­suit that she had been sex­u­ally ha­rassed by a prin­ci­pal.

Ha­zle­ton Area board Pres­i­dent Jared O’Don­nell said Uplinger had al­luded to the law­suit dur­ing an in­ter­view with the board be­fore he was hired.

“Brian was def­i­nitely the best choice for the Ha­zle­ton com­mu­nity. I don’t have any doubts about that,” O’Don­nell said after the rev­e­la­tions.

Board mem­ber An­thony Bonomo, who voted against hir­ing Upling er, said last week that he isn’t go­ing to get hung up on the law­suit.

“We are in such dire need of lead­er­ship. Let’s turn the page. I’m hop­ing this guy will work out. I’m sure he will. Who can sur­vive with­out a chance?” Bonomo said.

Uplinger said that while fin­ish­ing his work in Central Greene he has emailed and talked with Ha­zle­ton Area ad­min­is­tra­tors but will start his new job with­out pre­con­ceived no­tions about what to change.

“I’m one that likes to come in and get a feel for what’s al­ready hap­pen­ing … I want to find out for my­self,” he said last week.

He has a master’s de­gree in cur­ricu­lum ed­u­ca­tion and wants to study the cur­ricu­lum, as he did at Pine Grove and Central Greene, and fo­cus on ways to im­prove scores of Ha­zle­ton Area stu­dents on statewide tests.

Al­though Ha­zle­ton Area High School had 91 distin­guished grad­u­ates with grade av­er­ages of 97 or bet­ter (in a class of 709), the district’s over­all scores failed to meet state av­er­ages on any of 17 stan­dard­ized tests.

“We need to get them up, and we can do it,” Uplinger said. “There’s al­ways a dif­fer­ent way to do it than the nor­mal way you’ve done it.”

Pine Grove

Ge­orge Hal­co­v­age, chair­man of the Schuylkill County com­mis­sion­ers, heard Uplinger ex­press that at­ti­tude when they worked to­gether against drug abuse dur­ing Uplinger’s time at Pine Grove.

“I al­ways found Brian was a per­son that didn’t take no for an an­swer. We may not see a clear path on an endgame, but he’s go­ing to find a path to the endgame to get a re­sult that we need,” Hal­co­v­age said.

The anti-drug group, pro­posed by a Pine Grove stu­dent, even­tu­ally went coun­ty­wide.

“We thought it was im­por­tant to work with the su­per­in­ten­dents of all the school dis­tricts,” Hal­co­v­age said, adding of Uplinger: “Brian was al­ways at the fore­front.”

Re­call­ing the ef­fort against drugs, Uplinger said he wanted to draw in stu­dents, fac­ulty and com­mu­nity mem­bers who would help.

“Drugs are a huge is­sue with our stu­dents … If we’re sav­ing one life, that’s a pos­i­tive,” he said.

While at Pine Grove, Uplinger said he kept pro­mot­ing im­prove­ments for stu­dents .“I live it and breathe it. I’m in the trenches ev­ery day,” he said.

The Pine Grove Area School Board then, in his opin­ion, wasn’t al­ways re­cep­tive or as fo­cused.

In an email that he sent to the Re publi­can Her­ald, a Times-Sham­rock news­pa­per, when leav­ing Pine Grove in 2013, Uplinger said he had ex­pected to re­tire from the district but chang ed his mind when “ob­sta­cles moved the chil­dren from be­ing in the cen­ter of ev­ery de­ci­sion.”

Asked to re­call that ca­reer move last week, Uplinger said, “When I left, there was such a split on what was right, what should be.”

Pine Grove’s board pres­i­dent, David Lukasewicz, dis­agreed and told the Repub­li­can Her­ald then that the board put chil­dren first in ev­ery de­ci­sion.

Asked this month about Uplinger, Lukasewicz, who is still on the board, said: “What­ever is­sues there were, he han­dled well ... and he de­cided to move on … He left of his own free will. We were not looking for a new su­per­in­ten­dent.”

Central Greene

At Central Greene School District, how­ever, the school board re­fused to re­new Uplinger’s con­tract.

Uplinger said he re­ceived a pro­fi­cient eval­u­a­tion in 201617 but wasn’t told why the board didn’t of­fer him a new con­tract.

Central Greene School District is in Greene County, where coal com­pa­nies have de­clined and low prices sup­pressed gas drilling. While wait­ing for pay­ments from a coal com­pany that owes $3 mil­lion in taxes and deal­ing with ris­ing pen­sion costs and a state bud­get im­passe that strained fi­nances of schools across Penn­syl­va­nia, Central Greene of­fered more ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers in­cen­tives to re­tire. That al­lowed the district to hire teach­ers at lower start­ing salaries.

“In my ten­ure, we did not have to fur­lough any­one,” Uplinger said.

“We also looked very hard at the bud­get in the way of sup­plies,” he said, adding that cutting back on pur­chases one year saved $1.4 mil­lion in a bud­get of $34 mil­lion.

The busi­ness man­ager of Central Greene called Uplinger the best of the 11 su­per­in­ten­dents with whom he has worked and said he hated to see Uplinger leave, Ha­zle­ton Area solic­i­tor Chris Slusser wrote to his district’s board in a me­moran­dum about the fi­nal­ists for a Ha­zle­ton Area su­per­in­ten­dent, where the bud­get is nearly $147 mil­lion and the board also has tried an ar­ray of cost-sav­ing ideas.

Central Green School Board Pres­i­dent An­drew Cor­font de­clined to dis­cuss Uplinger, and said the district’s solic­i­tor ad­vised him not to com­ment for this ar­ti­cle

Tami Her­rod, whose three chil­dren have grad­u­ated from Central Greene’ s schools, had no re­luc­tance about dis­cussing Uplinger, to whom she gave low marks.

“Teach­ers and par­ents will be glad to see him go. We ral­lied to our school board to not give him an ex­ten­sion or of­fer an­other con­tract,” Her­rod said when tele­phoned at her home.

She elab­o­rated on is­sues that dis­pleased her, in­clud­ing the sex­ual ha­rass­ment law­suit, a land pur­chase and mold in the high school li­brary.

Ha­rass­ment suit

In the law­suit, a first-year teacher said the ha­rass­ment be­gan in 2013 when the prin­ci­pal pulled her out of class for sex talk, which pro­gressed to sex­ual en­coun­ters, to which she ac­qui­esced dur­ing the next two years be­cause the prin­ci­pal was her boss and she lacked ten­ure granted to longer-serv­ing teach­ers who can­not be eas­ily fired.

An ar­ti­cle in the Wash­ing­ton Ob­server-Re­porter, which cov­ers the Central Greene schools, quoted from the law­suit and said in 2015 that after the teacher doc­u­mented oc­ca­sions when the prin­ci­pal re­moved her from class, Uplinger wanted to fire her. A union rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­ter­ceded to pre­vent the fir­ing of the teacher, who was given a per­for­mance plan, but the prin­ci­pal wasn’t given any­thing, the ar­ti­cle said.

Later that year, how­ever, the board fired the prin­ci­pal, and this year set­tled the law­suit with the teacher, the ar­ti­cle said.

Uplinger said the ar­ti­cle left out de­tails that he can’t dis­cuss “be­cause it’s a per­son­nel is­sue.”

O’Don­nell heard about the law­suit after voting to hire Uplinger. Then O’Don­nell re­al­ized that Uplinger had re­ferred to the suit ear­lier, while ex­plain­ing dur­ing an in­ter­view how he would han­dle a dis­ci­plinary is­sue.

Ha­zle­ton Area board mem­ber Robert Me­hal­ick said Uplinger spoke about push­back that he en­coun­tered be­cause of the sit­u­a­tion.

There was “some re­sis- tan ce to his cause, some waves, so again you talk about char­ac­ter. He wasn’t (go­ing) to back down,” said Meha lick, who cred­ited Uplinger with in­form­ing the Ha­zle­ton Area board about the mat­ter.

In Pine Grove in 2012 when a teacher was ac­cused of hav­ing an im­proper re­la­tion­ship with a 17-year-old stu­dent, Uplinger told the Repub­li­can Her­ald that the district co­op­er­ated fully with po­lice and acted within the state school code to sus­pend the teacher, who later pleaded guilty to cor­rup­tion of a mi­nor.

Asked about the two cases dur­ing an in­ter­view last week, Up lingers aid the in­volve­ment of a stu­dent al­lowed for faster ac­tion in Pine Grove than in Central Greene.

“A lot of par­tic­u­lars, I can’t speak about,” he added.

In gen­eral when a dis­ci­plinary case arises, Uplinger said, he would con­sult the solic­i­tor and, depend­ing on the specifics, in­volve po­lice. He would tell the board to sched­ule a hear­ing. To be fair to the par­ties in­volved, he would let in­for­ma­tion come out in the hear­ing where board mem­bers act as judges.

Li­brar y and land

Asked about mold in Way­nes­burg Central High School’s li­brary, where Her­rod said all the books were thrown away and a book cart has been pushed into ser­vice, Uplinger said the mold started grow­ing be­fore he ar­rived but reached a crit­i­cal point amid the hu­mid­ity of last sum­mer.

While 11,000 books were dis­carded, Uplinger said Central Greene prob­a­bly won’t have to re­place more than 2,000 of them. Some books were out of fash­ion and oth­ers, such as en­cy­clo­pe­dias, can be sup­plied through elec­tronic re­sources that will be part of the new li­brary.

“The pos­i­tive in find­ing the mold is mov­ing that li­brary to the 21st cen­tury,” he said.

Cur­rently, the li­brary has been san­i­tized and awaits ren­o­va­tion as part of a plan that Uplinger said in­cludes the land pur­chase to which Her­rod ob­jected. She ar­gued that the district spent money for land that it isn’t us­ing and then raised taxes.

Uplinger pointed out that the school board pur­chased the land; he didn’t.

An Ob­server-Re­porter ar­ti­cle said the board voted unan­i­mously to buy the land in 2015 for $550,000, which was $400,000 less than the ask­ing price.

Uplinger said the land could help in a plan to con­sol­i­date schools.

Central Greene has three schools and might close the mid­dle school be­cause the district’s en­roll­ment of 1,750 stu­dents is de­clin­ing by about 30 stu­dents per year.

Uplinger said the board hired an ar­chi­tect to re­model the li­brary and mod­ify Way­nes­burg Central High School so stu­dents from grades seven and eight could move in if the mid­dle school closes. Stu­dents from sixth grade would shift from the mid­dle school to Way­nes­burg Central El­e­men­tary School.

Uplinger de­clined to spec­u­late why the board wanted him to move out of Central Greene.

“I re­ally have never been given an an­swer,” he said. “It’s OK with me. I’ve cer­tainly found a home in Ha­zle­ton.”


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