Farrell Area School Board faces a serious question: What do we do now? A good start would be for the board to apologize to Farrell and Wheatland taxpayers who may have to foot a bill of a few hundred-thousand dollars because of the board’s apparently misguided moves.
We say this after a decision by Pennsylvania State Supreme Court not to hear an appeal by the district concerning the firing of Lee McFerren. Under normal circumstances, that ends the board’s hopes to prevail in its dispute with the former principal.
A front-page story in Thursday’s Herald detailed the court decision that lets stand a previous Commonwealth Court ruling that the school board should not have fired him.
This situation shaped up to be a problem from the start when in the spring of 2008, the board suspended McFerren and started to hold hearings about his job performance. After about 20 hours of hearings, he was fired even though he had a five-year contract that didn’t expire until the end of June 2010.
While there was a long list of McFerren violations claimed by the board, we wondered at the time if any were actually enough to support his dismissal.
However, the board felt that all together, they provided enough cause for his firing.
The state Secretary of Education supported the board’s decision, so everything appeared to be OK. However, McFerren appealed to Commonwealth Court.
That three-judge panel reversed both decisions, pointing out that the board should have worked with McFerren to improve his performance.
We don’t claim to be legal geniuses, but when the state Supreme Court refused to hear the case, that seems to mean that the only move left for the school board is to go to the bank and get bundles of money to give McFerren.
The board’s decisions have been questionable from the start. Since McFerren had a contract, some people felt the wise thing would be to meet with him and try to reach a buyout deal rather than initiate firing hearings.
After all, when your legal fees alone go far beyond the principal’s one-year salary of about $82,000, there’s something very, very wrong.
Now on top of massive legal fees, the district may have to provide back pay and interest to McFerren. It’s unclear right now if he’ll have to be reinstated to the post which has already been filled.
For a district that actually should be merged with others since it has so few students, this is a severe financial blow.
The board already raised taxes this year. Now the citizens of Farrell — already considered a “distressed” community under the state’s Act 47 — and Wheatland face a large bill.
Unless board members decide to pay that bill out of their own pockets, you can figure that there may be some very unhappy taxpayers showing up at future meetings.