'Ivory tower': West York school board member sounds off on state audit

A West York Area school board member said he had been "stewing" for weeks over a news conference last month during which the state auditor general criticized the board's handling of a former high school principal's departure.

"I'm not angry, I'm disappointed," board member George H. Margetas added during the Tuesday, Nov. 20, school board meeting — the first since Auditor General Eugene DePasquale called an Oct. 31 news conference to discuss a district audit.

Margetas specifically singled out elected officials who he said "took a shot" at the district right before the election.

No-show job: DePasquale's office conducted an audit of the district following complaints that former high school principal Janet May received a hefty buyout and that  the final cost to the district was not shared with the public before it was approved.

According to a release agreement obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request, May — who spent 16 years as principal at the high school — was reassigned as assistant principal of West York Area Middle School as of Feb. 21 but was not allowed to report to work.

She was to continue receiving her salary as high school principal — last listed at $137,765 for the 2016-17 school year, according to the Department of Education — until her accrued leave was exhausted.

After May’s paid leave days were exhausted, she was placed on administrative leave while receiving the middle school assistant principal maximum salary of $125,169 until she officially retires on March 7, 2019, the agreement specifies.

State findings: At the Oct. 31 news conference, DePasquale said although the district did nothing illegal, officials violated the spirit of the law by omitting information.

He said the district failed to disclose the costs associated with the agreement to the school board and the public — not even knowing the full range of those costs before signing it.

Regarding the reason for May's release, DePasquale said he could not find one, adding May had "glowing performance reviews" for 10 years.

Though certain terms of the separation agreement were confidential, if she were doing something wrong, there is "no middle ground" — it should have been documented, he said.

He's dealt with separation agreements for school superintendents, but this is a first for a management employee with no contract — meaning there was no obligation for a buyout.

"It's real simple," DePasquale said. "Do your job. Manage your employees better."

George Margetas, attorney for James Saylor, talks to reporters about the Hellam Township homicide case after Saylor's hearing Thursday, Aug. 30. Christopher Dornblaser photo.

Margetas' ire was directed at officials who criticized the district at the news conference, which was attended by state Reps. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, and Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City.

More:West York district officials say they welcome auditor general's review

Hill-Evans did not speak out, but Grove took the board to task.

"This is an example of failure of financial governance," he said at one point, noting that the district could have paid for 2½ teachers with that money, among other things.

Margetas, the school board's treasurer, said he felt Grove mischaracterized the issue.

"I didn't hear the report come back saying that we did anything wrong," he said.

More:Auditor general: Poor management cost West York district almost $200K

More:EDITORIAL: DePasquale makes right call to audit West York Area School District

Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has decided to audit the West York Area School District. John A. Pavoncello photo

Did board members know the final cost to the penny? No, Margetas said, but the difference was thousands of dollars, not hundreds of thousands.

Margetas suggested Grove spoke without knowing the full scope of the issue, unnecessarily putting blame on the district for raising taxes over the years.

He said officials in Washington and Harrisburg should take responsibility for mandates that increase school budgets.

School officials are working day in and day out while those in Harrisburg "are sitting in this ivory tower ... throwing stones at us," he said.

However, Margetas did agree that the district could have been more transparent with the public. “Was it a mistake on our part? I can acknowledge that."

Grove did not return messages left with a spokesman seeking comment.

Some fellow board members agreed with Margetas.

Member Suzanne Smith said the audit returned minor issues that were somehow misrepresented, and Vice President Jeanne Herman said, "The board does its due diligence on everything that comes before us." 

Changes: Still, the board approved a Corrective Action Plan that must be submitted to the state Department of Education by Dec. 16. 

In the plan, the board and superintendent agree to provide the business manager all terms of release agreements in sufficient time to calculate total costs of the separation and present it back to them before a vote. 

The board also agrees to improve accountability with the public — which means no agreements on the voting agenda before costs are disclosed.

To address another finding of the audit — that the district reported unqualified earnings to PSERS for three former employees — the business manager reviewed the employers' reference manual and identified errors in payroll procedures. 

The internal payroll manual was updated, and ineligible earnings were immediately reported to PSERS and corrected as of Sept. 6.

A third and final audit finding showed the district had neither updated its harassment policy in nine years nor had standard procedures for implementation, training and accountability. 

Prior to the audit, the district had approved a comprehensive policy review in September and an agreement with SafeSchools Education to assist with training in June.

The board had its first reading of harassment-related policies at the Nov. 20 meeting.