Ohio Valley Top 10 of 2016: ‘New Direction’ For Schools In Ohio County

WHEELING — The year 2016 for Ohio County Schools started off with a resounding clash, followed by lightning-fast controversy that saw officials hiring a new superintendent by the end of February.

The storm started a move toward a “new direction” in the school system, with changes occurring both in the central office and at the board of education table.

Two days prior to the start of the new year, Ohio County Board of Education members called for a special meeting to discuss the contract of then-Superintendent Dianna Vargo, which was set to expire six months later on June 30. Vargo was in her fourth year as superintendent, and a 32-year employee of the district.

Following a lengthy executive session that night, then-board member Gary Kestner made the motion to not renew Vargo’s contract when it expired. In the moments that followed, Kestner, Tim Birch and then board president Shane Mallett all voted not to renew Vargo’s contract, while Sarah Koegler and Christine Carder both voted to keep her in place.

Mallett next called for the superintendent’s job to be posted immediately, and he set forth a timeline to have the next superintendent selected within two months. He said Vargo “wasn’t being fired,” but that the school district just needed to go “in a new direction.”

In the coming days, the public sought more answers regarding Vargo’s pending departure, as well as the board’s thoughts on “a new direction” for Ohio County Schools. Board meetings suddenly became a hot ticket, as members of the public packed the board chambers during board meetings in January.

Emotions came to a head on Jan. 29 when board members hosted a town hall meeting at Wheeling Park High School to learn just what qualities the public wanted in their next superintendent. Members of the community turning out for the discussion became irate after learning board members would not take questions, but were there only to listen to comments from the community.

When the last of 10 speakers at the podium went beyond the five-minute time limit set, Mallett, Birch and Kestner rose and left the room to a chorus of boos. Member Christine Carder remained at the table, while Koegler, who had recently given birth, did not attend.

On Feb. 22, board members unanimously voted 4-1 to hire Woodsdale Elementary School Principal Kim Miller to be the next superintendent beginning July 1. Carder cast the only dissenting vote.

Just as board members had been seeking a new superintendent, two incumbents — Kestner and Koegler — filed to run for re-election to the board on May 10. Even the board race didn’t go off without some controversy.

In addition to Kestner and Koegler, four other candidates filed in the race with two to be elected — Zachary Abraham, Jenny Jebbia, Marlene Midget and Roger Smith.

When the lottery for ballot position took place in Ohio County, Koegler drew the sixth position. When the names were placed on the ballot, there was only room for five names on one page, and Koegler’s was bumped to the following page.

Some early voters alerted elections workers that they could not find Koegler’s name on the ballot. Koegler raised issue with the ballot, and some reformatting by elections officials later placed all the candidates’ names on the same page.

In the end, her position didn’t matter because Koegler won re-election — finishing second behind Abraham, who took Kestner’s seat on the board.

When the new board convened in early July, members selected Abraham to be the new board president.

Following Vargo’s departure, two other central office employees left their jobs at the start of July. Sue McGuier, assessment and federal programs coordinator, retired from her position.

And MaryLu Hutchins, student services, left to take a job at Carnegie Mellon University.

The new board set out to quickly fill the position, as well as the long vacant position of assistant superintendent. On July 11, John Marshall High School Principal Rick Jones was tapped to be the new assistant superintendent; Madison Elementary School Principal Walt Saunders as the new federal programs director; and Bridge Street Middle School Principal Raquel Welch McLeod as student services director.

The new central employees found their computers had been wiped clear of much information — a fact not made public until October. The matter is still under investigation and being discussed  by board members.

COMMENTS