Seeking answers

Public criticizes school board during contentious meeting

Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
Georgia Wynn gestures toward the crowd while speaking during the public comment period of Thursday’s Juniata County School District Board of Directors meeting in Mifflintown.

MIFFLINTOWN — The administration building of Juniata County School District overflowed with concerned parents and residents, demanding answers in a heated meeting where a perceived lack of transparency from the school district and circumstances surrounding the sudden resignation of its former superintendent Keith Yarger was discussed.

Some county residents sat on the floor of the district’s administrative meeting room, while others lined up outside the crowded building and listened intently through opened windows during Juniata County School District’s regular board of directors meeting Thursday night.

Prior to the public comment period, board president Danny Snyder read a statement regarding questions,

comments and rumors surrounding Yarger’s resignation.

“The public has expressed concerns about the perception of secrecy, rumors of alleged criminal activity and the effective date of Dr. Yarger’s resignation,” Snyder said. “These are matters of legitimate public concern and we want to address them to the extent we are able to without breaking the law, violating individual rights or exposing the district to liability.

Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
Dave Clayton points to a document as he addresses the school board during the public comment period Thursday.

“The goal of each individual board member and the board of the whole is to protect the best interest of the students and the taxpayers.”

Snyder said the board met in executive sessions numerous times between Jan. 28 and Feb. 21 to discuss various issues, including personnel matters — an issue that he said is not subject to public disclosure, citing the Right to Know Law.

“The board makes every effort to be transparent and forthcoming with the residents of Juniata County,” he said.

Snyder continued, “The board is aware of many rumors that (members of the board) have engaged in some kind of cover up to report criminal activity to law enforcement. … The Pennsylvania State Police are investigating the events surrounding Dr. Yarger’s resignation,” adding the district’s solicitor, Scott Etter, spoke with state police at length on Monday and that the board would cooperate under the receipt of a subpoena.

Yarger submitted his letter of resignation on Friday. Snyder addressed concerns about Yarger’s effective resignation date, April 15.

“Decisions must be made utilizing a cost-benefit analysis. Meaning, the cost of a possibly unknown expenditure over an indefinite period of time may exceed the amount of paying a known amount within a set period of time.”

Snyder cited an incident that occurred 10 years ago in which the district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and over a year in litigation to dismiss a principal.

“In the current situation, the board acted in extreme caution to avoid the potential for costly and time consuming litigation arising out of privacy acts for circumstances surrounding Dr. Yarger’s resignation,” he said.

“Potential for district litigation costs or liability is and must always be paramount consideration to the board. With the counsel of our district solicitor, members of the board have declined to comment on personnel matters discussed privately in executive session provided for in the Sunshine Act.”

Citizens responded with concerns about a lack of transparency and unprofessional behavior.

Resident Georgia Wynn said she was concerned with a perceived lack of integrity from the district’s former superintendent and present board members.

“In light of what has been going on in this school district for several years and recent events, it is safe to say the integrity of this school district has been lacking. This is inexcusable to the people in this school district who fund this position.”

Wynn called out specific board members for instances where she felt their actions showed a lack of integrity and cited their interactions with the former superintendent that she said displayed unprofessional behavior. She also expressed concerns that Yarger influenced some of their voting decisions regarding the district’s recently-completed elementary school consolidation.

Another resident, Suzie Bell, described what she views as unprofessional behavior by the former superintendent related to the dismissal of her son from his position after 21 years of service with the district.

“I know that Yarger and one other man in this room had something to do with that,” she said.

Resident Paula Lauver expressed a distrust for most of the board members.

“I am angry, but not at all surprised,” she said. “I believe there has been serious financial fraud. I believe there has been attempt to commit fraud. I believe there is conspiracy and I believe there has been misdeeds on this board related to that.”

Lauver said she understands why the board is choosing to keep silent on issues surrounding Yarger’s resignation, adding “rumors and innuendo are running wild.”

“This is the culture you have created with your cliques, your superiority, your disrespect,” she said. “Your job is to listen to us. Your job is to protect the taxpayers. If you don’t want your job, get out.”

Lauver then demanded transparency.

“There is more to this story that I hope will come out. After this resignation is done and I hope the investigation provides all kinds of answers. … Clean up your act. Help us trust you. We need to trust you. Learn from this.”

In related matters, the board approved Shawn Kovac as an interim superintendent.

Kovac serves as the executive director of Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11, a position he has filled for nearly two years. Prior to that, he served as assistant executive director for Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8. He has also served as a superintendent in Somerset County for five years and has experience as a teacher and a principal.

Kovac will continue to fill his position at Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11 while he serves as interim superintendent of Juniata County School District.

The board also approved a contract with Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11 to conduct superintendent search.

Thursday’s meeting closed with two board members, Joseph Shearer and Mark Wagner, calling for the resignation of an unnamed fellow board member.

“Years ago when I was in school … we studied World War II. The slogan was ‘loose lips sink ships. One of our board members had loose lips and our ship took a pretty good hit,” said Shearer. “I wish that person would resign her position because I no longer trust her and I think it would be good for the community.”