His approach: Treat students like his kids
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”