GROVE CITY – Dr. Jeffrey Finch will be serving as superintendent of the Grove City Area School District for at least five more years.
Board members on Monday voted 6 to 3 to reappoint him to the position from July 1, 2020, through June 30, 2025. Finch was first hired in November 2015.
A lengthy discussion raised issues being about contract negotiations and his salary, which would start at just over $175,000 in 2020 and increase by at least 2.5 percent during each remaining year of the contract.
That would amount to an annual salary of roughly $193,000 during the fifth year of the contract, said board member Carolyn Oppenheimer.
“I can’t fathom that... It’s ludicrous,” board member Ray Abplanalp said later in the meeting.
Oppenheimer, Abplanalp and J. Scott Somora voted against the contract renewal. Board President Dr. Constance Nichols, Vice President Patty Wilson, Dr. Michael O’Donovan, Dr. Armando Sciullo, Roberta Hensel and Heather Baker voted in favor of the contract.
At the beginning of the meeting, Somora’s motion to remove the contract from the agenda was voted down. Somora, Abplanalp and Oppenheimer voted in favor of deleting the item. O’Donovan abstained, and the rest of the board members voted “no.”
Somora said he believed that the full board didn’t have enough details to hold an informed vote on Monday.
He alleged potential unlawful deliberations during executive sessions held Sept. 30 and Oct. 7, and potentially inadequate legal advice given during the Oct. 7 work session.
Solicitor Russell Lucas on Oct. 7 told Oppenheimer “no” when she asked if a board member would be liable if the full board votes on an expense without sufficient information.
His current contract runs through June 31, 2020. The board has until 90 days before a contract expires to approve a new one, Somora said Monday, adding that there will be new board members come Jan. 1 who should be tasked with approving a new contract.
Oppenheimer agreed, and questioned the length of the contract.
“That is really unusual,” she said.
Resident Esther Falcetta asked for public comment in regards to Somora’s motion; Nichols and solicitor Andrew Evankovich both said there would be no public comment for that item.
The board should have opened up the floor to public comment since Somora’s motion was a last minute addition to the agenda, Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel with the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, said Tuesday.
Only a judge can determine if the Sunshine Act was violated, she said.
Somora went on to say that the board never authorized the creation of the negotiating team that reviewed Finch’s contract.
Falcetta raised an objection under the state’s Sunshine Act, but the board didn’t address it.
Next was public comment, when Grove City resident Michael Andrejczyk praised the school district for its pride in education and athletics, and for creating a sense of community.
A lot of that is because of Finch, who is doing his part, said Andrejczyk, who has three children in the district.
Falcetta spoke next, telling the board that her review of meeting minutes shows that the board never voted on creating a negotiations team for Finch’s contract, nor they did vote on approving access to his personnel records.
Such actions need to be made in public, she said, adding that there seems to be a rush to push the contract through before the November election.
A copy of the contract should be made available to the public and the press, Falcetta said.
“What is there to hide?” she asked.
Later in the meeting, Oppenheimer said that the public should be able to have a copy while it’s up for discussion.
It wasn’t released because it had yet to be approved, Evankovich said.
The board could have released redacted copies of the contract before the vote was held in accordance with the Right-to-Know law; that would help enable meaningful public comment on the issue, the NewsMedia Association’s Melewsky said.
Oppenheimer said that she doesn’t think the district can afford the proposed salary.
Based on figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Education from the 2017-18 school year, Finch was the highest-paid superintendent in the Mercer County area, Abplanalp said.
He believes that Finch wrote the contract proposal and presented it to the board.
Most of the board members don’t understand what kind of impact his salary will have on the district; Finch’s wages should be frozen, Abplanalp said.
Finch helped save the district $500,000 on the most recent transportation contract, Hensel said.
“He’s supposed to do that,” Abplanalp said.
Nichols said she’s appreciative of Finch’s work to recoup more than $1 million from fees the district was owed from other school districts that send students to George Junior Republic.
She also said that she believes other superintendents in the area are getting annual salary increases of 3 to 4 percent; Finch agreed to 2.5 percent.
This not about Finch; it’s about the district and what it can afford to get the job done, Abplanalp said.
“You can’t make this a personal thing,” he said, adding that he doesn’t want to see Finch leave.
It’s not helpful to read into everyone’s motives, Nichols said.
“Educational leadership is what I’m looking at,” Wilson said.
It’s not fair to the taxpayers and the new board to vote on the contract now, Somora said.
Contract negotiations were discussed during some executive sessions, Nichols said.
Before the vote was held, Falcetta said the Sunshine Act was violated in relation to the Right to Know law.
After the meeting, Finch said he was hired right before a new board took over, and that five-year contracts are not unusual.
He clarified Abplanalp’s concern about how the contract was prepared. Finch did not write it up himself; it is almost identical to Assistant Superintendent Dr. Joshua Weaver’s contract, Finch and Nichols said.
The district recently settled five-year contracts with its teachers, administrators, and custodians, leaving Finch for last.
He said he’s excited to be able to work on long-range plans with those teams.
All of those other contracts total more than $27 million, Finch said of how his salary was depicted as a “budget breaker.”
After the meeting, Allied News received written statements from Nichols and O’Donovan explaining their votes on the contract; both are up for re-election.
Finch has led the district on an upward path of achievement, expanding the advanced placement courses at the high school and engaging more with the early childhood community, Nichols wrote.
He has helped create more transparency in the budgeting process, and has worked well with all of the district’s employment groups.
Finch has recognized the need for improved school safety measures, leading to the district’s own police force, she wrote.
Finch continues to provide a level of dignity and respect that the community deserves, and he has demonstrated repeated success as a professional educator, O’Donovan wrote.
The district’s academic ranking in the state has improved, and Finch looks for new ways to ensure the growth and success of the schools and community.
He helped the district save about $500,000 per year in healthcare costs by moving to the Allegheny Healthcare Consortium, and he has worked with contractors on the Hillview Elementary School building project, which is six months ahead of schedule, O’Donovan wrote, noting that more details are available on the Facebook profile he uses as a board member.
WHAT’S IN THE NEW CONTRACT
Allied News obtained a copy of Dr. Jeffrey Finch’s contract after the meeting. Some of its key provisions:
• SALARY – $175,000 a year in the first year followed by annual increases of at least 2.5%.
• PAID TIME OFF – Can accrue up to 25 vacation days per year and earn 13 sick days and four personal/emergency days per year.
• INSURANCE – Can receive medical insurance for himself and his family – the same plan as the district’s other administrators.
• DUES – If Finch joins any organizations that relate to the advancement of the district’s vision, the district will pay membership fees. This could include Rotary, Chamber of Commerce and United Way.
• OTHER HIGHLIGHTS – A $75 monthly allowance for cell phone and data use for district purposes; and a yearly performance evaluation that could have an impact on possible salary increases.