EMMAUS, Pa. - The East Penn School District has begun the task of finding a new superintendent to replace Dr. Thomas Seidenberger, who plans to retire in June at the end of the current school year.
On Monday night, the recently-reorganized school board unanimously voted to pay the Pennsylvania School Boards Association up to $6,000 to do a nationwide search for both a new superintendent and a board secretary/executive assistant to that superintendent.
Cecilia Birdsell, Seidenberger's executive assistant and board secretary to the school board, also is retiring. Seidenberger has said she has served East Penn for 40 years.
Seidenberger has been East Penn's superintendent since June 2007.
He first announced his intention to retire back in September, but did not say when he planned to leave the district.
Alan Earnshaw, the school board's new president, called PSBA's executive search proposal "a very reasonable expenditure for a quality service." He said placement and executive search services usually charge "at least an order of magnitude more than this."
Board member Francee Fuller noted PSBA is only charging East Penn $6,000 to fill two positions. It is charging $4,500 to find a superintendent and $1,500 to find an executive assistant.
District officials said PSBA already has advertised for candidates, acting on prior authorization from the school board.
The search will continue "until we get the right candidate," said Earnshaw. "If our first round of advertising does not produce the quality candidates we're looking for, then we'll go back for more."
Former board president Charles Ballard predicted East Penn won't get information about any initial candidates until sometime in January.
"But we won't necessarily have candidates until we've gone through the winnowing process between us and PSBA."
Demographic study authorized
The school board also voted to pay the Pennsylvania Economy League up to $16,000 to do "a comprehensive analysis of demographics and community growth patterns and generate projections of public school enrollment in the East Penn School District."
That study will develop projections for the next 10 years, data that will be used to help East Penn make decisions about the district's future school, program and staffing needs.
Seidenberger said the non-profit economy league will start that study in early January and complete its report by April or May. The economy league has done such studies for more than 150 individual school districts.
Explaining why the study is needed, Seidenberger said "now that the economy is heating up" the district expects to see more homes and apartments being built, which will mean more children in the schools.
He also said homes are being sold at a faster rate: "The average time a house is on the market has dropped pretty significantly over the last year." He explained that is relevant because senior citizens might be selling homes to younger families moving in.
Those doing the study will visit each municipality in the school district to find out what housing developments already have been approved and what parcels of land might be developed into future housing tracts.
"It's a good time for us to do this, because I'm transitioning out and it will be a great tool for a new superintendent," said Seidenberger.
Ballard praised the work of the economy league, saying its produces quality research reports. "We've had some demographic analyses in the past that were not up to what I consider professional standards. The Pa. Economy League will do a great job for us."
"This is a very low price for what they're proposing to do," said new board member Ziad Munson, who added he has run a research center that has done similar demographic studies.
Class sizes may spur district policy change
Seidenberger presented the board with a school-by-school administrative report that shows the average elementary school class in East Penn has 24 students, a number that has not changed for the last several years.
He said "a hot button area this year" is Macungie Elementary School, which has 31 children in a fourth grade class and 33 in a fifth grade class. Another is Wescosville Elementary, which has 30 children in a fourth grade class and 29 in a fifth grade class. The report shows a fifth grade class at Willow Lane also has 29 children.
But other than that, said the superintendent: "We seem to be okay, better than what most parents would suggest."
Seidenberger said ever since he has been superintendent, East Penn "has been very gracious" about what he called open enrollment -- allowing parents to take their children to other schools within the district if they provide their own transportation.
For example, he said the district gets many request from parents who want their children to attend Willow Lane Elementary, the district's newest school, and Eyer Middle School.
But he announced that policy may change: "We may not be able to do that in the future. We may not be able to grant every wish like we have in the past."
He indicated the district has to maintain a balance in class sizes and said that's especially becoming a problem at the two middle schools. He said he would not be comfortable allowing "artificial high class sizes" at either Eyer or Lower Macungie middle schools.
He said he gets 60-70 such requests to change schools from parents every year. "We may not be able to say yes to all those next year."
He questioned if one school has higher class sizes than another, "is it because the kids are in that sending area or because we're allowing kids to go there?"
He told the board Wescosville and Shoemaker elementary schools have no empty classrooms available and Macungie has only one, but Alburtis has "lots of space."
"Wescosville is the first place we're going to look at."
At Emmaus High School, some classes have 29-30 students, including an elective called personal financial management, an honors course in world studies and an advanced placement economics class. Seidenberger added a Latin 1 course has 32 students.
"We certainly don't like to have class sizes as high as those," he said, but added the district does not plan to expand the teaching staff at Emmaus High School in 2014.
New bus company?
The district has issued a request for proposals for a company to provide bus transportation to East Penn students.
Seidenberger said the administration met with representatives from nine interested companies. "We're optimistic we may create a very competitive environment."
He said a request for proposals is not the same as a public bid, so East Penn is not obligated to go with the lowest proposal it receives.
District officials indicated one of those interested companies is First Student, which now transports East Penn students.
The district has been with the same bus company for at least 25 years, according to Ballard, although its ownership and name have changed.
First Student formerly was called Laidlaw and before that it was Leibensperger Transportation.
East Penn is nearing the end of its five-year contract with First Student. Seidenberger said he hopes the new contract also will be for five years.
The superintendent expects the administration will make a recommendation to the school board sometime in February.
Special Ed costing $840,000 more than expected
Seidenberger told the board East Penn faces about $840,000 in unanticipated expenses for its special education program so far this school year.
Seidenberger said a major reason for the increase is more special education students are attending school in East Penn, although he could not say how many more.
"The students coming to our district this year seem to have a lot of profound needs. And we're here to serve those needs. We're doing our job."
He said providing a nurse's aide to ride with a student on a bus can cost close to $30,000.
He also said a couple of families have moved into the district with children "who will never come to school here but we have to provide services."
Earnshaw said all school districts are required by law to provide special education services, but some do a better job than others, so parents look for districts that provide the highest-quality education.
The superintendent said other factors contributing to the increasing cost for special education are "tuition, some out-of-district placement, staffing and some programming needs."
He said he will be lobbying the state legislature and the governor to say "we've had six years of no increase in state aid for special education. It's starting to take its toll. They've really got to look at this. That's got to be our number one lobbying effort."
Seidenberger said school districts have "a covenant" to provide educational services for special ed students, but the legislature has to pick up on its responsibility, as does the federal government.
He said the district also is about $100,000 short so far on charter school tuition. "We've had more students enroll in cyber charter schools than we anticipated."
Seidenberger said East Penn is not "in the red, but we're paying attention to everything."
Two new faces on board
Two new faces were among the nine board members Monday night.
In a special meeting on Nov. 11, the Rev. Waldemar Vinovskis was elected by the school board to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of board member Julian Stolz. Vinovskis will serve until December 2015. He is pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church in Lower Macungie Township.
On Dec. 3, Munson, a sociology professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, became the newest member of the school board, after winning in the November election. He was sworn in that night, along with re-elected board members Earnshaw, Fuller and Rebecca Heid. All will serve four-year terms.
Also at that Dec. 3 reorganization meeting, Earnshaw was elected the new board president, succeeding Ballard, and Ken Bacher was elected vice president.
Earnshaw has served 12 years on the board. He served two terms as president once before, from December 2008 till Dec. 2010. He also has served six years as board vice president.
The school board's next meeting will be Jan. 13, where plans for the 2014 district budget will be presented.
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