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Blairsville-Saltsburg school superintendent receives nearly $225,000 settlement

Jamie Martines
| Friday, Dec. 1, 2017, 4:51 p.m.

Blairsville-Saltsburg School District Superintendent Tammy Whitfield, who was suspended following proposals to consolidate schools, reached a settlement with the district and will resign and retire on March 31.

Whitfield has been on leave without pay since Dec. 7, 2016.

The district will pay Whitfield $190,732.59, representing all wages and benefits owed through March, according to the settlement. The district also will pay Whitfield $1,449 in lieu of contributing to life insurance premiums on her behalf in addition to $25,000 in non-wage damages, according to the settlement.

Those figures do not include the money the district will spend contributing to Whitfield's retirement fund and health care benefits, which some board members estimate could bring the total closer to $375,000.

"I just consider it an unfortunate waste of taxpayers' money," said school board member Rick Harper, who represents constituents in the Blairsville attendance area of the district.

Though Blairsville-Saltsburg is technically one district, there is two of everything — two elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools — representing the Blairsville and Saltsburg sides of the district.

"Ever since she tried to attempt consolidation, there's been what we've been referring to as a witch hunt against her," Harper said of Whitfield's efforts to research consolidation options in the light of declining enrollment throughout the district.

Other board members agreed.

"Honestly, it all started over consolidation, which has always been an issue, for years and years, before she ever came," said Mary Whitfield, who has served on the board since 1991 but lost a bid for re-election in the May primary. She also represented constituents on the Blairsville side of the district and is not related to the superintendent.

The Tribune-Review made an effort to contact all members of the school board Friday, though not all were immediately available to comment.

The school board renewed Whitfield's contract with the district through April 2020 on June 24, 2014, according to school board documents.

Whitfield said in a statement that the events leading up to her resignation date back to the months following her contract renewal, when she presented research on options to consolidate.

"Yet, a few months following the renewal, consolidation was presented, and they viciously went after me," Whitfield said in a statement following the release of settlement details. "I have no doubt that they retaliated against me for over two years due to consolidation."

In a 5-4 vote, the board suspended Whitfield without pay since Dec. 7, 2016, school board documents show. No reason was given for her suspension.

Whitfield filed a federal lawsuit alleging her suspension violated the state whistle-blower law and is in retaliation for suggesting consolidation.

The lawsuit named as defendants the school district and five board members: Beverly Caranese, Holly Hall and Linda Brown, all of Saltsburg; Marlene Joyce of Blairsville, and Michael Bartolini of Clarksburg.

The settlement ended the lawsuit, according to court documents.

"Additionally, it took them over a year, without pay, to schedule a 1080 hearing, which they were trying to use to dismiss me," Whitfield said in a statement, referring to the Pennsylvania School Code, which addresses the process for removing a superintendent.

According to the code, superintendents and assistant superintendents may be removed after a hearing by a majority vote of the school board. Reasons for termination include "neglect of duty, incompetency, intemperance or immorality," the school code said.

"Interestingly, they didn't proceed, for I had done nothing that was fireable," Whitfield said in the statement. "They instead requested a settlement, most of which will be paid by your tax money."

The district had voted 5-4 in favor of putting Whitfield on an improvement plan in June 2016, school board documents show. The five board members named in the lawsuit — Hall, Joyce, Bartolini, Brown and Caranese — had voted yes.

The four members who voted against the improvement plan — Harper, Mary Whitfield, Molly Stiles and Anthony Canzano — defended the superintendent at an August 2016 meeting, stating on the record that they rated Whitfield highly on all areas of her evaluation, school board documents show.

"This board honestly acts like a board of five," said Stiles, who was elected to the board in 2015. "They do not act like there are nine members sitting on the board."

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or on Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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