Dawson to serve as JCSD superintendent

MIFFLINTOWN — Emotions ran high in the administrative building at Juniata County School District Wednesday night.

The Juniata County School District Board of Directors and members of the community spoke out against hiring a new superintendent — which was up for a vote on the agenda during a special meeting.

Some board members and community were in favor of retaining Interim Superintendent Christie Holderman in her position indefinitely, while others wanted her to hold the seat until after November, when at least three board members will be replaced.

Because of recent administrative changes, some even questioned whether both a superintendent and assistant superintendent position were necessary.

Holderman took the role of interim superintendent just a few months ago, following a term served by Tuscarora Intermediate Unit Executive Director Shawn Kovac.

Kovac took the position in February following the sudden resignation of former superintendent, Keith Yarger, which sparked an investigation by the Pennsylvania State Police.

Despite outcry from members of the board and the community Wednesday, the board voted 5-4 in favor of hiring a new superintendent, Gary Dawson, to fill the vacancy. Dawson’s contract will run Nov. 18, 2019, to June 30, 2023.

Once Dawson takes his position, Holderman will serve as the district’s assistant superintendent.

Dawson currently serves as superintendent of Tussey Mountain School District, where he has been for two years. He previously worked as an administrator for Bedford School District for 12 years.

Board members voting in favor of hiring Dawson were Danny Snyder, Angela Varner, Christine Shadel, Mark Wagner and Troy Woodward. Board members voting against the new hire were Amy Wagner, Heather Kelly, Christine McLaughlin and Joseph Shearer.

Dawson said he was “moved” by the confidence the community had in their administrative staff.

“It was intriguing as a sitting superintendent to see the support and the public outcry for (Holderman’s) job that she’s done, her commitment to the school district over many years. It is very admirable,” Dawson said. “My hope is that Christie and I can become a team and that we can continue to move the school district in a positive direction. I know it’s going to take awhile for me to earn trust from the community, the district, the administrative team and students and parents…I hope that we can become an even more powerful team than what you currently have and continue to move this district in a positive way and over time, I hope that I can garner the same support and commitment as she has to this point.”

Board member Heather Kelly spoke in favor of retaining Holderman in her current position.

Since Holderman took the position as interim superintendent, “the morale in this district is higher than it has been in a long time,” she said.

“We do not have to enter into a contract tonight that could disrupt the positive momentum. We do not have to enter into a contract tonight that will cost three-quarters of a million dollars over the next four years,” Kelly said. “We don’t need a fourth new superintendent in this district in this calendar year. We risk so much by acting tonight and we risk nothing by waiting,” Kelly said.

She urged other board members to “wait and see how students and faculty perform” this year before locking the district into a contract with a new superintendent.

Kelly said Holderman inspires faculty and staff “to feel affirmed and challenged for the first time in a long time.”

Kelly read letters she received from a number of faculty, staff and community members who supported retaining Holderman in her role, including one letter from a 25-year employee of the district who said she began applying for jobs outside of the district because morale was so low.

“Do the members who plan to vote yes on this plan to be more liberal in June with tax increases? And if not, what do you plan to cut? Educational programs? Extracurricular activities? Maintenance on our new buildings? Renovations on our old buildings? Safety?”

Kelly said the contract would commit the school district to paying the new superintendent $755,666 over the next four years.

East Juniata High School teacher Simon Cameron commended Holderman’s efforts and touted her selfless efforts.

“In my lifetime in this county, I have never seen work between the administrators, the teachers, secretaries, janitors ever better in my 17 years,” he said. “She has done an amazing job healing the district and it did need to heal because we were in a very bad spot.”

Shanna Varner, of the Juniata Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization, said Holderman is well respected within the community.

“She knows what we have been through. She has helped pick up the pieces and has been a crucial driving force for what has made this district thrive,” she said. “She hasn’t just been a leader when you appointed her to assistant superintendent. She has always been a top leader within your administration. She has been there to pick up the pieces without any hesitation and she has proved she can handle any task given.

Board member Amy Wagner recognized Holderman for her impact on the school district as interim superintendent.

“You carried our staff and kids with care, positivity, strength, courage, grace, fairness and firmness while undergoing stressful situations such as court hearings, rearrangement of administration, intense board meetings and starting up and settling into a new school year. You have not acted out of self interest,” she said. “Instead, you have acted out of a desire to lead by example, to show kindness, to right wrongs, to fix the broken and to inspire others.”

Prior to the vote, Joseph Shearer thanked Holderman for her service to the district. He voiced his intentions to vote against hiring Dawson as the new superintendent.

“I think we should have a hometown leader,” he said.

Angie Varner said she applauds the environment Holderman created within the district.

“In no means by my vote do I mean disrespect. As a team, I believe Mr. Dawson and Christie can take this district where it needs to be,” she said.