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Contract Controversy Still Roils MASD Board

Parents ask school directors, superintendent to resolve differences

By Adam Reinherz
The Tube City Almanac
February 24, 2022
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

The disagreement over the renewal of the superintendent’s contract by outgoing members of the McKeesport Area School Board continues to divide the district — and some parents say it’s a distraction from student education.

Wednesday’s meeting began 32 minutes after its scheduled 7:30 p.m. start time, and it wasn’t long before tempers flared.

Last month, school directors voted 5–4 to hire an outside counsel to review July’s decision by the outgoing board to allow Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr. to resign, and then be re-hired for another five years.

Attorney William C. Andrews of Andrews & Price reviewed the enforceability of the contract on behalf of the board. On Wednesday, School Board President Mindy Lundberg asked that Andrews’ memorandum be included in the minutes of the meeting.

Holtzman then asked to read a letter from attorney Mark E. Scott — whom Holtzman retained as his own representation — responding to Andrews’ memorandum.

“I didn't know we were going to get into specifics,” said Lundberg, who then proceeded to read more of Andrews’ memorandum because “there are two sides to every story.”

McKeesport City Council Vice President Lu Ethel Nesbit, who attended the meeting on behalf of the McKeesport branch of the NAACP, said she was “disappointed” by the behavior.

“When you saw adults showing up screaming like that, we don't want our children to do it,” she said. “We don’t allow our children to do it. How are we any different? What kind of example are we sending?”

At issue, Lundberg said, is the legality of a contract with Holtzman, and whether hiring lawyers to review that contract was a waste of tax dollars.

According to the Pennsylvania School Code of 1949, a superintendent’s contract can only be extended in the final year of an existing contract and cannot exceed a period of five years.

Holtzman was under contract with the school district through June 30, 2023.

At the July 6, 2021, board meeting, Holtzman resigned, then was re-hired effective July 7, 2021 through June 30, 2026. Five board members were present and four were absent.

Lundberg said the legal question was whether Holtzman’s resignation and re-hiring conferred a benefit on an employee in “contravention of the legislature’s intent.”

The resignation and rehiring spanned only several minutes during a meeting that lasted “less than one hour,” and therefore the validity of Holtzman’s resignation was questionable, Lundberg said.

Holtzman called the matter a “witch hunt.”

“If the board wants me to move on — and I’ve said it to them in private — I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight,” he said, adding he would want to be reimbursed for his attorney’s fees as well.

According to Holtzman, the school board didn’t wish to lose him to another district, but was not allowed to extend the previous contract.

Scott wrote in his memorandum that the board “determined that Dr. Holtzman could resign and then be signed to a new five-year contract.”

Even if the new contract wasn’t enforceable, Scott wrote, the original contract would still be in effect through June 2023.

“We believe that the (McKeesport Area school) district will be liable for all of Dr. Holtzman’s legal fees regardless of the outcome of the future litigation,” Scott wrote in the memorandum, which Holtzman read aloud. “It is our hope that the board will ultimately decide to abandon any attempt to rescind Dr. Holtzman’s current contract; however, if necessary, we are open to negotiating terms of an appropriate separation agreement and release.”

Holtzman added, “and that’s the real story.”

White Oak resident Jason Pavlecic said he hopes the contract dispute is quickly resolved before it continues overshadowing “student focus.”

Fellow White Oak resident Loree Scharritter agreed, saying, “I think we need to talk more about the kids at these meetings.”

For Scharritter, who like her husband graduated from McKeesport Area High School, the question is whether efforts are being made to “promote our students, or to help them to move on, to whatever their next chapter of life is.”

Scharritter said she learned through a friend at another district — and not through MASD — about a program offered by the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation that provides services to “help persons with disabilities prepare for, obtain, or maintain employment.”

She said she wishes she had known about such a program before her son graduated.

Nesbit serves as educational chair of the McKeesport’s NAACP chapter. She said she wishes that board members and school officials would put students’ needs first.

“With the way the country is going now we all have to work together and put aside all our personal issues, our selfish interests, and work for the common good,” she said. “It's not about us. It's about the children.”

Students have already lost too much ground due to the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing school bus problems, Nesbit said.

“Because of COVID everybody is reeling,” she said. “Kids are missing school, as our superintendent said, we have an attendance problem. They're naturally behind because of COVID. We got to play catch up. We can't lose any more time. We have to be thinking out of the box.

“I'll trust the lawyers to resolve the contractual issues,” Nesbit said. “I care about the kids' education.”

Adam Reinherz is a Pittsburgh-based journalist. He can be reached at adam.reinherz@gmail.com.

Originally published February 24, 2022.

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