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Interim superintendent Harris quickly rose to prominence in Penn-Trafford

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Matthew Harris has enjoyed a rapid rise in the Penn-Trafford School District's leadership team since his hiring as an assistant elementary school principal six summers ago. On Monday, his climb will plateau when he starts a six-month assignment as interim superintendent.

It's a role that neither he nor the school board was expecting him to fill just 10 weeks ago. But the sudden decision by Thomas Butler to resign after two years as the district's head administrator catapulted Butler's right-hand man into the top spot through early February.

After one year with the formal title of assistant superintendent, Harris, 42, takes charge of a district focused on a high-school remodeling project, long-term ramifications of a declining student population and relations with teachers who are entering the final year of a five-year labor deal.

With those priorities at the forefront, Harris said his leadership will be similar to what Butler would have provided if he weren't leaving to become executive director of the Altoona-based Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8.

Harris said his aspiration is to strengthen what Penn-Trafford already has in place.

“It just seems that because I'm already in the district and I know the plan, I'm just going to continue with the plan and make sure the plan is met.”

Harris's career started with an eight-year stint as an elementary school teacher in Prince George's County in Maryland. The Hempfield native returned to Pennsylvania to become principal of St. Sebastian Catholic School in North Belle Vernon for seven years.

Harris has been on an upward trajectory at Penn-Trafford since arriving in 2007. He spent a year as assistant principal for Level Green and Harrison Park elementary schools before becoming director of student services and then the assistant to the superintendent for student proficiency and quality support.

When Butler's predecessor, Deborah Kolonay, and her former assistant superintendent, Harry Smith, retired in 2011, Harris moved up to take Smith's old job.

And when the school board eliminated the human-resources position last winter, he absorbed some of those tasks, too.

“Central office has changed drastically since I started, but it benefitted me because I picked up a lot more areas of experience and it saved the district money.”

The streamlining of various administrative jobs in recent years concerns Smith, who questions whether Harris will have enough help to lead the district.

School board members replaced Smith with Harris, but nobody replaced Harris in the central office, said Smith, who lost a primary campaign for the school board.

Smith said he is confident in Harris's skills and would have given the board a strong recommendation to hire him as Kolonay's replacement two years ago.

“I don't think you'll find anybody who would question his ability, his work ethic or his desire to help kids be successful,” Smith said. “It's all there.”

“With his central office experience working under Debbie, working under Dr. Butler, he's done most of the jobs,” Smith added. “The only thing he really hasn't done is the politicking with the board.”

Smith said he would have preferred the board to give Harris a three-year contract instead of an interim tag.

“Let me put it this way: If it wouldn't work at Penn-Trafford, he'd have no problem getting a job someplace else,” Smith said.

School board members have “unanimous and tremendous respect” for Harris but have disagreed about how to choose Butler's permanent successor, board President P. Jay Tray said.

He credited Harris as being knowledgeable and having “great powers of persuasion.”

“We just need a little time to see how he did in the power position, in the No. 1 position,” Tray said.

He said board members recognize Harris is stepping into a difficult scenario, which is why high school Principal Scott Inglese is handling aspects of the assistant superintendent job.

In the coming months, officials want Harris to come up with a long-range plan for the other school buildings, Tray said. Student enrollment is on track to drop for the ninth straight year this fall.

“Matt's been phasing in really quickly, which has been to his advantage,” Tray said.

Penn-Trafford Education Association President Shaun Rinier said Harris has the backing of the union's teachers.

Rinier said Harris is reasonable and gives straight answers, qualities that he thinks will lead to a “heightened level of cooperation” as the teachers' contract winds down.

“I trust him, and the staff trusts him, and that's been a very rare thing with upper administration in the last five to six years, and hopefully the board doesn't look at it negatively that the staff likes him,” Rinier said.

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