Superintendent Emery D'Arcangelo: The exit interview
Emery D'Arcangelo's office is practically cleaned out. Walls that were once covered with photos are bare; boxes filled with files and personal mementos clutter the floor.
With less than one week remaining on the job, “Dr. D.” is preparing his goodbyes to the Franklin Regional School District community, where he has served as superintendent for eight years. Now 59, D'Arcangelo has packed up his life in Murrysville — for the past several weeks, he has commuted each day from his new home in Somerset after living in the community for the entirety of his tenure in the district. As he prepared to sign nearly 300 diplomas — his final act as superintendent — D'Arcangelo sat down with Murrysville Star reporter Daveen Rae Kurutz to reflect on his eight years with Franklin Regional, his 35 years in education and to offer advice to his successor. A shortened version of this interview was published in the April 18 print edition of the Murrysville Star.
Question: What are you going to miss the most about Franklin Regional?
Answer: The people. Particularly the people I work with each day in the central office and the administrative team. I have the most direct contact with those folks from the morning when I get here until the end of the day. That interaction with the members of the admin team.
Q: From the past eight years, what is your fondest memory and your proudest moment as superintendent?
A: Well, I think my fondest memory is the fact that when I came in 2005. The Franklin Regional School District was looking for someone to bring stability to the district. I was the fifth superintendent in a two-year period. I'm proud of the fact that I was able to sell my home in Somerset and move here, shop at the local grocery store, go to the local pharmacy, get my hair cut at the local barber shop and just engage in the community and create a level of stability and trust over that time period. There's been really a good partnership. I happen to be a right fit for the right time, and I think that's the most important thing to me, is that people accepted me.
Q: What was the biggest challenge?
A: There were a lot of challenges over the years. The biggest heartbreaks deal with the loss of life with students who were tragically lost, whether it's in a car accident or whatever. However they lose their lives, it's tragic. It was a very difficult time when we lost an esteemed colleague, Joe Leftwich, my very first year here. He was kind of my right-hand man; Shelley (Shaneyfelt) is kind of my right-hand person. Joe was that person. And then the loss of Bob Duffy and his wife, Rita. So that kind of puts everything into perspective. We do have a lot of difficult challenges here. But when someone loses their life, whether it's to cancer or to an accident, that trumps everything.
Q:Throughout your career, you've worked in three districts. That says something about longevity and dedication. Why did you want to finish your career at Franklin Regional?
ED: Well, I've always been a person that aspired to be a leader at different levels, so when I started in Windber school district as a teacher and a coach — and I spent 14 years there — I aspired to be a principal. And the first opportunity I had to be a principal was in Somerset. I was fortunate — they had kind of what we are going through here at Franklin. They had an older staff that was all retiring. So, during the 11 years at Somerset, I moved from elementary principal to assistant high school principal and athletic director, transportation director, and I was in my second term — my second 5-year term as assistant superintendent — and I just aspired to be a superintendent, and the timing just happened to turn out right. They were looking for someone, I was aspiring to come to a place, western Pa., and it ended up being just perfect timing for me.
Q: Any regrets? Anything you wish you could have done differently?
A: Well, no, No. No regrets. I mean, there are a lot of initiatives that we're in the middle of, that are ongoing, that you'd like to see out to the next level — whether it's embracing technology and seeing technology get to the next level or our learning community initiatives, where teachers sit down and really look at student data and make decisions. But I think we've put a good foundation together. So I'm excited for Dr. (Jamie) Piraino (the incoming superintendent). I believe he's going to step into a situation where: A, you have labor stability; B, you have financial stability; and C, you have academic stability. So it's a good place to be.
Q: I'd like to turn to a few issues in education. We're looking at possibly the 11th straight tax increase here at Franklin. School finances are tough across the state. What do you see happening in education because of finances in the future?
A: There are a lot of changes in finances. First of all, it's a balancing act of local taxation and state support and federal support. And I know the state has its own challenges. But the state currently funds us at about 38 percent across the state of Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania ranks 50th in funding levels. So therefore, places like Franklin, which are considered to have a higher market-value-aid ratio, are more dependent on local property tax. And while if you look at 11 years of taxation, you average (an increase of) a little over 1 mill a year. There's a couple ways to handle that. You could do a zero. If you look back at the previous 10 years, a zero is followed by a 4-mill increase. Or a zero is followed by a 3-mill increase. That's one approach. Another approach is you can raise ½ mill or mill each you in which you try to keep up, to maintain programs, and that's the approach we've taken.
Q: Small steps or big jumps, right?
A: Yeah, small steps or big jumps. So when you look at our situation where you have a $47 million budget, and between all your fund balances, you have about $12 million in reserve, you'd be looking at a pretty good budget year, and we have a budget meeting for Monday night (April 15).
With bond refinancing, we're in pretty good shape. The board has the prerogative — they could continue to put a little millage on or they could go zero and then see where it takes them a year or two down the road.
Q: What about Act 1? It seems that it has tied some folks' hands.
A: It has. And I can remember when Act 1 came about. It was funny — in my first year here, we decided to have a big meeting in the auditorium with the public, and we advertised it. And about six or eight people showed up. And I don't know if people just weren't interested, but the bottom line is when you have an index, it takes away your ability to do the zero (tax hike), knowing that some year you may have to do a larger amount.
So you have two choices, you either do a zero and then go to the index, apply for an exception or make cuts, or do a little bit each year. And my philosophy has always been to try to keep up and maintain our programs. I mean, people move to Franklin Regional because they want to be a part of our school district. And to be a part of a school district, you have to fund it.
Q: Looking back at the past 35 years, do you think overall, has the state of education changed for the better or worse?
A: I think it changed for the better. I mean, things progress. Parents are way, way more involved in education. I mean, they can go online and see — you know, check on their son's and daughter's grades on a daily basis and check on assignments that aren't turned in, and they can send that email to that teacher immediately. So that communication link is constant. And I think that's been a good change. So, overall, I think the change is good. It still comes down to you want the students to be able to be good readers, analyze what they read; you want them to be able to write properly and effectively, and they have to analyze. You want them to have good verbal communication. Now, the other piece is they better be able to use and integrate technology in everything they do.
Q: There's been a lot of statewide initiatives that have changed throughout your career. Which ones have been successful, and which ones do you think need to have a little more work done in them?
A: You got a double-edged sword. Let's take the Classrooms of the Future initiative (as an example). So, you infuse a whole lot of money to get your public schools in Pennsylvania up to speed with technology by putting interactive white boards in — projectors, laptops, etc. So that's the positive. The negative is then you need to sustain the funding because the technology gets outdated in three to five years, so there it's kind of a hamster and a wheel. Because while the state funds the initial investment, you'd better have plans ahead of time on how you're going to maintain that investment.
The other issue — take the Accountability Block Grant. Certainly there's a good incentive behind it: Let's help all students be ready for school, make sure preschool children get the right education, make sure we fund full day kindergarten. But after the money dries up, are you going to continue to fund it? And it goes back to your previous question, so I think there are good initiatives. Technology is an important part of what we do, and early-childhood education is critical. The studies show if a child starts behind, they never catch up. So those are two off the top of my head.
Q: The Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests have caused problems, even for a district as high-achieving as Franklin. As things have changed, do you think that, as a state and as a country, we are overtesting these kids?
A: I think the testing has gone overboard. They gauge the effectiveness of a school. Too many folks have a narrow focus and believe that a school is effective or ineffective on a week of testing. And there's a lot more to that, (such as) having a well-rounded student who's involved in a lot of activities, whether it's musical events or sporting events or a school newspaper. Having that person to be able to communicate, be a good citizen and contribute to the community is a little more important than whether or not they scored a 92 on the PSSA or 85 or (tested as) “advanced” or “proficient.” Now, I'm not saying accountability's not important. There has to be a balance. But so much emphasis on the test alone has taken so much time away from instruction. We take weeks away from the school year just for testing. So I think it's overboard, and it's too much. It really is.
Q: What would you like to see happen in education in the next 10 years?
A: I'd like to see a balance (so that) when they judge schools, they judge on the effectiveness of all programs, and not just on test scores. So they look at what type of programs you offer. I'd like to see funding levels get up closer to 50-percent rates at the state level to take some burden off the local property tax owners. I hope that the state would allow more local control. I believe there is too much being driven at both the federal and the state level. The school districts have elected school boards — people come out and vote for those school board members. The school board members put a lot of time and effort in, and they are knowledgeable, and I'd like to see a little more local control and less legislated control at the state level, particularly, and at federal level, but we get very little federal dollars so, and No Child Left Behind is a federal initiative, so…
Q: There have been a lot of initiatives put in place during your eight years at Franklin. Which ones are you most excited about?
A: Well, many, many of them. First of all, I mentioned earlier our professional learning-community model where we actually had a goal in 2005. I sat with Joe Leftwich and talked about building a problem-solving model for continuous quality improvement, by looking at data, and that's what our goal was. But when I look back, we really didn't look at a whole lot of data through the learning community model. We had teams of teachers weekly look at formative testing data, and you change the instructional practice based on how the students performed — are they learning or aren't they learning — so that's number one. And I think that's the most important thing. We've created a collaborative, co-laboring atmosphere between our staff, and I think that's so critical. I think that's top of the line.
I can tell you there was a major controversy when I got here, one of many, in '05 there was a restructuring of buildings at that time. For a year, Newlonsburg was a K-1 building, Heritage was a grade two to five building, and the rooms were full of people not happy about their children in the elementary changing buildings every year, depending on the population shifts. We came in in ‘05, we restructured our boundaries and made all three buildings K-5. And that way a parent can be assured that when you move into a neighborhood and your son or daughter starts kindergarten or first grade in a neighborhood school, they weren't going to be moved every other year. They would finish their days at Sloan or their days at Newlonsburg or Heritage. And I think the parents were happy that we made that change.
And during that change time, I'll give you a little history: We had to revamp all our bus routes. We went from 2,100 bus stops to around 1,200 bus stops. And it created some controversy because we, at that time, were cutting nine buses because we made our routes more efficient. And that savings was about a quarter of a million dollars, $250,000, that stayed with us every year there on out. But it didn't come without at least one auditorium meeting where parents weren't happy that their children had to walk instead of just waiting outside their house for the bus; they had to walk two-tenths of a mile or four-tenths of a mile to a bus stop. But we got through that, and it was the right thing to do. Part of that was the busses going into cul-de-sacs, that used to have to back up. And we now try to avoid going into those developments and say, “You can walk out to the bus.” Speeding up the bus times, allowing us to eliminate nine busses. So I'm proud that we did that.
And the fact that we've had labor stability. My first board meeting, you had the teachers and this was in April, the teachers who worked without a contract to that point that came into that meeting with black arm bands on to show solidarity, preparing for a strike. You had the secretary, support union, aides (go) a year out without a contract. You had the Act 93 that had no contract. And you had the Teamsters without a contract. I walked into a mess. And I'm proud that one by one we got all those labor contracts in place. I was fortunate in my previous district to watch a union go through five years without a contract and three straight years of strikes, so I was the assistant watching the dynamics, and all I knew was nothing good comes out of a school district when there is unrest with labor, and you're trying to teach students and the focus is on labor, so we sat down and built relationships with our union, and through those relationships we created stability of contracts, and today I'm going to be here till late working with FRESPA support union to try to see if we can get that contract — it expires June 30 — to do the best I can to get at a place so Dr. Piraino can focus on the educational programs. Because the labor will just suck the life out of you till 11 o'clock every night trying to get contracts. So, yeah, those are a few things that in memory I'm certainly very proud of. I'm proud of our full-day kindergarten program. Not all people support full-day kindergarten, but when the state gives you accountability block grant for early-childhood education and says you must spend it. We weren't about to start preschools; there's enough preschools around here. We weren't going to give the money back. And we allowed our parents a choice: If you like full-day, come to full-day. If you don't, we'll have them come half-day. It's worked out fine.
Q: What advice do you have for the community to help carry that tradition of excellence through the changes?
A: The community and the school district are partners. There's the old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Members of community need to continue to be partners with our educators and help to educate the children. They need to stay active. I would advise anyone — any parent — to stay active with their children, get them involved. Know what they're doing, particularly with technology. Know who they're talking to on the Internet. Don't be afraid to snoop into what's going on with their text messages because there's a lot of evils in society, a lot of problems with drugs and alcohol and temptations. You need the school and the parents in the community to work together to keep this school district at a high level. Also, you have parents who come to meetings who challenge the district — that's a good thing. We have to have a level of accountability, and if the parents aren't involved, things will creep to a lesser level. I can tell you, in the districts I've been in, we provide so much level of detail to our board and to our community in our (meeting) packets and everything we write because that's expected. And we say that in striving for excellence, part of that is you'd better make sure that you cross all your t's and dot all your i's, and we do provide a ton of detail.
Q: What do you hope will be your legacy?
A: I just hope people look back and say, “Listen, this man from Somerset County brought stability to our school district, and he was honest and fair with people.” I think if you're honest and fair, then you create a level of respect, and I can say that over the years, by modeling that, I believe I've earned the respect of the people I work with and certainly within my school board. And when you have a level of respect between your superintendent and the school board, the school board then will trust you and allow you to run the district, and they won't micromanage things. The schools get into difficulties as a result of the disconnect between their leader and the board, and the people not understanding their roles. So, I think that's how I look at things.
Q: There had been a lot of dissent on the board when you started, but now, it seems the board is a lot more united.
A: Yeah, I think — I believe — there's a mutual respect for one another on the board. Bottom line is you can have a difference of opinion, and you need to be able to voice your difference of opinion, vote and move on. Where relationships fall apart is when votes occur and people take things personal. You have to be able to move on. It's funny, in my files, actually I'm discarding many of them. I did surveys my first couple of months, between the January and April day when I came in. I met with every administrator and board member individually like this and went through questions and documented everything to try to find common themes. I should have kept some of those, you'd find it interesting to read. Each board member, each administrator, said we need to have trust, we need to have labor stability, we need to have somebody who's going to be committed, we want somebody who's going to live in the community, that's going to shop and be local, at the musical, be at the basketball games, be at the football games, and the community and the board is craving somebody who would become part of the school. You know, as I write my final profile information in the InMurrysville magazine, I've been tossing around different ideas, and the one thing, kind of a legacy I've had is, each year when we open the school year, we have a kind of a state of the union address in the auditorium at the middle school, and everyone attends, every employee. We shut all the offices down, and I give a welcome back speech. We have a continental breakfast together. But I always start out by talking about family. And I talk about children, my own children, because I think that parents want to know you as a person. The faculty wants to know you as a person. They see this person in a suit and think that you have no emotion and no feelings, but the bottom line is I talk about all these family things and it's emotional. Good stuff, though.
Q: How are you going to spend your retirement?
A: That's a good question. I have a granddaughter that's turning 6, so I'm going to go down to her birthday party in Florida for a few days. I have a lot of things to do at my property in Somerset County. So I have some things there. Then, I think I'll dabble a bit at finding some type of employment, whether it's part time or full time. Whether it's at a college or university in educational leadership, or some type of training program, I believe I have a good skill set in that area. But I think between now and summer time I'm going to not worry about getting up at 4:30 to see if we have to call a two-hour delay and not have to worry about what problems to deal with each day. And then, particularly on a Sunday night, knowing that the next day I have a board meeting and I'm going to get up early and get home 11 o'clock at night. Those are long days, and you need to have a lot of energy, so I need to get some energy back.
Q: I know you enjoy visiting Italy. Any travel plans?
A: I do. I've been doing a lot of reading. I've been to Italy quite a few times. There are some areas of Italy I'd like to explore. So I'm thinking of maybe in the fall, to do an excursion there for a couple of weeks. You know, with five children, and they're all over the place — I need to spend some time with them.
Q: What advice do you have for your successor?
A: First of all, he needs to be himself. Just whoever he is; he can't pretend to be someone else. He has to be himself. And I think as long as you maintain a high level of integrity and honesty, you lead by example, then you'll earn the respect of the parents and the students, and your administrative team. I also would advise he surrounds himself with good people. I've been fortunate over the years to be surrounded by wonderful people. It just so happens we're all up in the years of experience and we're all retiring, so he has a whole new team. But he has good people. That team is really … I mean, you see people like Jon Perry in the board meetings and Richard Regelski, and they're quality, quality people. So we're passing the torch. He's going to be in a school district that parents care, the community cares, and I wouldn't have it any other way. If I had to pick over again, I'd pick right where I ended up. It's super.
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627.