Belle Vernon Area superintendent ready to make tough decisions to move district forward
Smiling through a thin goatee and speaking in self-deprecating humor, Dr. John Wilkinson appears the quintessential Mr. Nice Guy.
But Belle Vernon Area's superintendent has displayed an edge at times – and a willingness to play the villain when he deems it necessary.
“Being nice and putting the hammer down, it's a balancing act,” Wilkinson said. “I've always tried to be open and honest. … If something needs to be said I'm going to say it and if something needs to be done, it's going to get done.”
Officially hired in March 2012 to replace longtime Superintendent Stephen Russell, Wilkinson, 47, of Peters Township continues putting his stamp on an ambitious set of changes after officially beginning his tenure last July.
His most significant alteration to date: a controversial realignment plan for a district that spans five municipalities and two counties, Westmoreland and Fayette.
In January, Wilkinson assembled parents and school board members in the high school auditorium, where he recommended the district shut down Rostraver Middle School and ship its approximately 200 students to Bellmar Middle School in Washington Township – thereby creating the first-ever Belle Vernon Area Middle School.
Sixth-graders, normally entering middle school, would stay in their respective elementary centers an additional year.
During public comments, one female parent tried riling up the audience against the plan. Wilkinson let the woman have her say, applauded sarcastically along with a smattering of other claps, then declared in no uncertain terms that this was his meeting and he would be moving the conversation — and the district — forward.
Mr. Nice Guy was visibly perturbed.
“If someone is mad at me they can be mad, but I'm willing to talk to them if they want to speak like adults,” Wilkinson said. “I get backlash on everything … but I was hired to be superintendent, and it's my ethical duty to recommend things from a certified professional opinion that may not be popular, but is the best thing for the kids.”
The state on Monday formally approved Wilkinson's realignment plan.
“If this becomes my signature thing, I've failed as a superintendent,” Wilkinson said of the realignment. “This is just the start of positive changes for the future of BVA.”
Wilkinson boasts an eclectic resume. Graduating form Bethel Park as the son of two teachers, he attended Geneva College with a double major in information systems and business administration. He was also a four-year starter at center for the football team until his knees gave way.
He went on to earn his masters degree in elementary education from California University of Pennsylvania and taught at Steel Valley Middle School before becoming Dean of Students and earning his principal's certification at Cal U.
“I loved it,” he said about teaching young children in kindergarten through first grade. “I knew it was my calling.”
In 1997, Wilkinson was named assistant principal at Northgate Middle/High School, and was appointed principal a year later. He kept that role until 2005, and his tenure included a stint as athletic director.
During this time, he earned his doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh.
“I've been an administrator since I was 31 – and at the time was the youngest principal in Allegheny County,” Wilkinson said. “I've had a lot of great mentors and it's a cliché, but I stand on a lot of people's shoulders. I was fortunate enough to have learned under some older administrators and was always willing to listen.”
Wilkinson joined the Baldwin-Whitehall School District in 2005, where he worked as assistant superintendent until 2012 — when Belle Vernon Area came calling.
“I'm not a brain surgeon,” he said, “but I know how to talk to people and lead people.”
When asked if he felt like an official Leopard – the BVA sports teams' moniker – he said: “From Day One.”
He credits a diverse and cooperative school board for providing an easy transition into foreign territory.
“I did have a couple other (job) opportunities, but I hit it off with the board right away and we have a fantastic relationship,” Wilkinson said. “I've always sought people who know more than I do and I try to hire people who know more than I do. Then I tell them the vision I have and see what we can do to make it a reality.”
Wilkinson's actions have ranged from cutting spending in nearly every department while pushing advanced courses towards earlier grade levels, starting with mathematics. Wilkinson's goal is to eventually see 95 percent of BVA seniors enrolled in Calculus.
Part of his “Continuous Improvement Plan” issued to the school board, Wilkinson also stresses personalized academic support, consistent communication between the administration and teachers and parents alike, and improved and updated buildings and facilities.
“I have a copy of every administrator's plan under a (protective) glass on my office desk, and I look at them every day,” he said. “From our transportation director Dave Bashada to our most tenured administrator Dr. (John) Folmar, I read them all.”
One of Wilkinson's more abstract missions is breaking down the socio-economic barrier between two ends of the school district, something that has become known as the “Interstate 70 Divide”.
The four-lane highway divides most of northern and middle Rostraver Township from southern Rostraver sections like Webster and Pricedale, along with less-privileged boroughs like Belle Vernon, North Belle Vernon and Fayette City.
Wilkinson concedes he's bucking decades of convention – and that's fine with him.
“I think in the last five months people have come together,” adding the integration of seventh- and eighth-graders from both ends of the district into one building is a symbol of changing times.
“Within a year from now, the new normal will be we're all a united group. If there's some anger and some people hang on that divide, they're going to be told, ‘Get on board or we're going to leave you behind.' ”
He said reluctance to change — or even new ideas — is a problem that spans Western Pennsylvania.
“The biggest challenge I've always had is I consider myself open-minded … and one of the things I struggle with is when people are not willing to look at a different perspective,” he said. “I can't fathom why people can't stop and evaluate something for 45 minutes as opposed to being ingrained because it's not the way they've done it since 1953.”
For his efforts, Wilkinson is compensated handsomely — receiving a $130,000 annual salary, with a potential 2 percent increase for the 2013-14 school year, and a 3 percent pay increase for the 2014-15 year, depending on board evaluations.
The money, he said, is earned through long hours and persistent research and communication.
“I am not embarrassed about what I make. I work hard every day — 10 ½ to 11 hours per day, and Friday nights I'm here from 9 a.m. until 10:30 or 11 at night,” he said. “I feel very comfortable here. I think most people appreciate what I'm trying to do. And I still work for the kids.”
And the welfare of students is one subject Wilkinson always comes back to when asked about his decisions and hammering them through — whether he appears as Mr. Nice Guy or not.
“There are tough decisions to make every year, every budget. … I did not furlough teachers for pleasure, believe me, but every action I take has to positively influence the students,” Wilkinson said. “I hope people know I care. I had a calling to be an educator and leader, and it was a strong one.
“Even if I don't personally know your kid just entering kindergarten or your kid who's about to start their senior year, I do care about them,” he added. “I know it sounds corny, but it's true.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a Trib Total Media staff writer. He can be reached at 724-684-2635 or firstname.lastname@example.org.