Teachers gathered Friday morning for a very candid look at where the district has been, where it looks to be going and what their role in it all should be.
Administrators, representatives of the school board and employees' union and even a few parents and students spoke before teachers as part of a series of in-service days that mark the start of the 2013-14 school year for the Warren County School District (WCSD).
A face familiar to school employees opened the session. Director of Administrative Support Amy Stewart looked back at the events that led to her serving as acting superintendent from February through July.
"We have had a little adversity in our last school year," Stewart said referring to the abrupt departure of Superintendent Brandon Hufnagel following revelations about the usage of a district credit card for gambling and the consequent turmoil created in the district. "It was a tough year here... but I'd like to say we can take away that a lot of people pulled together and got us through it."
Stewart then introduced Superintendent Dr. William Clark, who was hired to fill the vacancy left by Hufnagel beginning in July. Clark led the remainder of the session ,first introducing incoming union president Louise Tharpe.
She began by welcoming teachers back and recounted that the union has had varying levels of discourse with previous superintendents. Tharpe pointed out Clark has expressed a desire for an "open door" policy.
Tharpe went on to note that the district has reversed the trend toward further staff cuts this year and has even hired some new teachers.
"It's a new day in the district," WCSD Board of School Directors President Arthur Stewart said before beginning his prepared remarks.
He began by recalling teachers who were an influence in his life, from those during his time as a student at Eisenhower High School to a college professor who shaped his eventual professional life.
"Great teaching matters," he stressed.
He outlined his experiences in the district and the progression to where things are today.
"When I began as the attorney for this district 25 years ago, we were blessed with a school board that fostered good teaching," he recalled. "I look back on those as, perhaps, halcyon days. It was a time before the severe effects of enrollment decline; it was before our two-decade controversy over our high school configuration."
He noted the district has remained the state's largest geographical district, while enrollment has declined from approximately 12,000 to 4,000 students, leading to associated controversy over how to move forward.
"Board meetings went from sleepy affairs with one or two guests, to shouting-fests attended by dozens - sometimes hundreds," Stewart noted. "From that anger it was hard - perhaps impossible - to gain unanimity of mind. Each faction - the logo shirts, the colored shirts - fought for its concern. The school boards adopted plans; board members were voted off; the plans were scrapped and the process started over."
He pointed out the conflicts took their toll at the administrative level, in turn affecting the direction of the district.
"Perhaps the bloodshed was greatest at the superintendent's office," Stewart recalled. "I count about a dozen chief education officers during my 25 year association with district."
Stewart then reassured teachers, saying he feels the trajectory is changing positively.
"My last message was filled with uncertainty," he said, in reference to his last meeting with the assembled personnel. "I join you today with a starkly different message... with a confidence that I dared not hope or when we last met... with knowledge that great teaching matters and that we are ripe with opportunities to support great teaching."
He noted construction is ongoing and presents some challenges, but highlighted the benefits once the work is finished.
"The operational plan supported by these buildings will yield us annual savings of $2 million," Stewart said. "We have already invested $1 million of these savings; we have another $1 million to look forward to."
He addressed the resignation of Hufnagel, saying, "To say that his resignation came as a blow is an understatement. But we survived that blow."
Stewart the addressed his hopes for Clark.
"I believe that the hiring of a high quality superintendent, and the maintenance of a high quality relationship with that superintendent, are among the school board's most important functions," he said. "The board quickly recognized in Dr. Clark a keen intelligence, an organized mind and a vision that supports great teaching."
Clark spoke about his connections to Warren County and his plans and hopes for his tenure.
He noted he is originally from Emporium and became familiar with the area growing up, as his siblings had dental appointments here. Later in life, he developed a professional relationship with the head of the career center through his college course work and later study the district for advanced degree work. He also noted his brother lived in Scandia at one time and he used to visit him.
He went on to express his thoughts on concerns over physical plant changes.
"That's a huge thing... but let's move on," he said, noting his focus moving forward is on curriculum.
Clark also expressed a desire to speak with as many teachers as possible.
"Come in and have a ten minute conversation with me," he urged.
He noted he views planning as a group effort taking into consideration input from administration, the community, the school board and school employees.
"It's all of us together," he noted.
Clark said he has a hands-on management style.
"A desk is a horrible place to manage a district (from)," he said. "I want to be out and around."
He then introduced a series of four sets of parents and students who spoke to the assembly, including two who had students in their senior year reflecting on their experiences with the district and two who had students in the first grade expressing what they hope will be their experiences.
"If you're having a bad day this school year, think back on this day," Clark said after they spoke.