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East Mills Principal Hiring Process Criticized

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By Joe Foreman, Editor

After appearing to have its middle-high school principal position filled, the East Mills Community School District is once again interviewing candidates to fill the post vacated by Andy Irwin.

The district appeared to have hired Joanne Morenz to fill the principal position when she was offered and accepted the job May 21. But, two days later, Morenz declined the position and withdrew from consideration, according to East Mills Superintendent Paul Croghan.

Croghan said Morenz did not give a reason for declining the position, and he and the school board are in the process of interviewing five candidates for the job.
Morenz was one of four interviews for the principal position conducted by the board in closed session. Following the interviews, the board deliberated and made a recommendation to the superintendent. But until the offered contract is signed, the board takes no action on making a motion to hire a principal. Morenz was offered the position and verbally agreed to the position, but had yet to sign the contract.

The potential hiring of Morenz had drawn criticism from district residents after it was revealed the principal resigned during the school year at her previous two postings.

Jay Burdic, a Malvern community leader, said he supports the decision not to continue on with the hiring of Morenz as principal. However, he’s still concerned about the judgment of the superintendent and the board approving of the hire in the first place.

“I think there are a lot of people on both sides of the district who are really embarrassed by what happened with the hiring and ultimately the unhiring, if you will, of our recent principal candidate,” Burdic said.  “From an outsider looking in, it really raises the question of who is responsible for the vetting process and who has the final say in who gets hired.”
For Burdic, that responsibility falls on the board.

“It’s the board’s responsibility to ensure that things like this don’t happen,” Burdic said. “But if the board is going strictly by what the superintendent is telling them and the superintendent isn’t doing his due diligence, then the ultimate responsibility is on him.”

A review of Morenz’s work history reveals two mid-year resignations at her last two stops as principal. Morenz most recently served as the principal at Pekin High School and before that she was the principal at Laurens-Marathon High School. She has also previously served as an administrator in the Villisca Community School District and as a teacher in the Atlantic School District.

Last January, following a closed door meeting with the Pekin Community School Board, Morenz resigned her principal position after agreeing to a “Separation and Settlement Agreement” with the district. A copy of that agreement obtained by The Opinion-Tribune shows the two sides agreed to a mutual parting of the ways Jan. 21, 2015 and that the district considers the separation a “forced quit.”

Two years earlier, Morenz resigned in a similar fashion at Laurens-Marathon. Following a five-hour closed door special meeting between the principal and the school board in February of 2013, the board voted 3-2 to accept Morenz’s resignation. Morenz then asked for and was granted a request to speak publicly to the board. The principal went on to make what district documents call “derogatory and inflammatory” remarks about the school board and the superintendent.

Croghan declined to say if Morenz’s two most recent resignations were discussed during the interview process or if they factored in her decision to turn down the position in East Mills.

“The interviews are confidential,” Croghan said. “They are all closed sessions. The process is, it’s in closed session and I’m limited in what I can say.”

A message seeking comment from Jeff Poort, East Mills School Board President was not immediately returned.
East Mills School Board Member Susan Stogdill said she was surprised by Morenz’s reversal but declined to go into the specifics of what was discussed in her interview.

“She was offered a contract and she declined to sign and withdrew,” Stogdill said. “I think it’s best we leave it at that.”
Malvern Mayor Mike Blackburn, who often attends school board meetings, said the issue of Morenz’s hiring raises questions about the diligence of the principal interview and screening process.

“I have to wonder how this candidate was interviewed and then presented to the board,” he said. “There was no information about this candidate given to the public and it took two seconds to find out. It took two seconds to find this (information about Morenz) and they hired her anyway. It was easy to find out and people were pretty outraged when they found out.”

Stogdill said she personally heard from one community resident expressing concern about the hiring but declined to elaborate. At least one other board member, Stogdill said, also heard from a district resident questioning the hiring.

“I don’t know all the details, but there were some community members who did voice some concerns,” Stogdill said. “I think it’s very difficult sometimes, whether someone is in the wrong or not, there’s a perception that does cloud issues and make success very difficult sometimes for people. I’m not saying that’s what happened with her, but going forward you want someone for your kids that will be successful in this position.”

Blackburn and Burdic both feel the attempted hiring of Morenz is just one questionable decision in a series they feel the board has made in recent months.

Burdic said the board sold voters on the idea of a Physical Plant and Equipment Levy (PPEL), passed in February after an initial failed attempt, to generate funds to be spent equally in the district to improve the infrastructure at both Nishna Valley Elementary School and the junior-senior high school in Malvern. But, Burdic said, the district is pouring twice what it estimated into a geo-thermal project originally expected to cost $570,000 at the Nishna Valley campus while leaving just over $300,000 for a new roof at the junior-senior high school.

Blackburn has his own questions on how the district is using the PPEL fund, namely how a $570,000 bid can balloon to over $1.2 million with little explanation from the board or the superintendent, and why the district is leasing school buses with that money instead of following through on purchasing the vehicles.

“The superintendent said that (original geo-thermal bid) was the difference between a contractor bid and an engineer’s bid,” Blackburn said. “There’s no way they should be that different. Either they were wrong when they put that figure on the ballot or they are misleading the public. If they (the voters) knew what they (the district) were going to use the money for, they would have never voted for the PPEL.”

Both Blackburn and Burdic also wonder why the district didn’t do more to retain Irwin, a popular principal and football coach at the school whose wife teaches and whose four children also attended school in the district.
“It makes you question the leadership of the district,” Burdic said.  “And then the latest debacle surrounding the new principal hire really makes a person question the leadership of the district and the board’s ability to make informed decisions.”

Croghan confirmed the $1.2 million price tag on the geo-thermal project, which began this spring for a scheduled August completion, was double the initial estimates on the project. He blames much of the rising costs for the project on a low initial estimate that was six months old when the final construction bidding process began this summer.

“The estimated cost when we did the PPEL was $570,000 but the difference is, when an architect and engineer came on board, the costs were higher than that,” Croghan said. “That ($570,000 estimate) was the information we were given at the time.”

Work on the junior-senior high school roof is scheduled to begin this summer for a fall completion.

The district recently finalized a deal with Thomas Built Buses for the lease of 10 65-passenger school buses at a cost of $115,000. The agreement calls for the district to limit mileage on each bus to 45,000 miles during the three-year lease agreement. Croghan said the district has averaged approximately 15,000 miles per year on each of its current buses.

Croghan said it was hard to see Irwin leave the district but that he “wished him the best.”

“He did what he thought was best for him and his family,” he said.

Croghan declined to discuss whether the district attempted to persuade Irwin to stay on in East Mills.