On Saturday morning during a special voting meeting of the Board of Directors of the William Penn School District, Jane Harbert was appointed superintendent by a 6-3 vote. Harbert, who was the interim superintendent, will serve a term through June 30, 2020 at a salary of $167,000.
The meeting was scheduled after last Monday night’s regular meeting yielded no motion or second to appoint Harbert, an action required to pass. Both meetings, however, drew the largest-in-recent-memory capacity crowds.
Parents of the school district, even those offering no support or dissent of Harbert, were impassioned about the need for “better for (our) children.” Multiple parents pleaded with the board to offer their children a better education, especially in areas of grammar, reading and a safe environment.
“I keep hearing, ‘Jane, Jane, Jane,’” one parent said referencing Harbert, “but what about our kids? My son has been failed the whole time he has been in this district. I hear you all speak about how good she is because you are her coworkers, but what about what our kids go through? The fights, bomb threats, gangs. Take up for your children you are teaching in this district!” said Janell Frame, a mother of two children in the district.
Most of the staff and administration who spoke about Harbert offered positive recommendations, however a letter was presented at the end of public comment at the Saturday meeting from teachers at the middle school.
“We are in the process to make every student successful in this school district. The plan has begun since Jane has become acting superintendent,” said Dr. H. Judy Lee, acting principal of Penn Wood High School.
“I really appreciate Jane. Know that we know at Bell Elementary that you have done your best,” said Debbie Fletcher, a teacher and parent.
Walter Rodriguez, a former principal at Bell Avenue, Park Lane and an ELL coordinator who was with the district for six years, offered another perspective.
“I’m here representing systemic change. We do not have a strategic plan that leads the way for anyone here,” said Rodriguez. “It hampers Ms. Harbert to do what she is supposed to do. You can put anyone you want in her seat, it’s not going to get done and everyone is going to suffer. The culture stinks here. There is a blame game going on at every level and we need to stop. They are not going to get us where we need to be, which is college and career readiness for all of our students.”
Before public comment was closed, Penn Wood Middle School teachers presented a five-page letter put together reportedly on behalf of 93 percent of teachers at the school who expressed dissent at the reappointment of Harbert.
It read in part: Jane Harbert is caring and a committed person. During her year as acting superintendent she has demonstrated that she cares about the students and is committed to the role as leader of the district. Despite her kindness and good intentions, her ineffectiveness as superintendent is evident. At the middle school, her actions and inaction have directly affected the quality of education.
The letter goes on to list observed deficiencies highlighted by the ineffectiveness of the Success For All (SFA) program and “deplorable conditions are disgusting and show a clear lack of leadership.”
The letter ends: We do not dispute the motivations of Harbert. We dispute her ability to execute the responsibilities as the leader of our district. Our staff and students deserve a superintendent that embodies every quality that the position requires. As leader of the school district, she has failed to do what is best for our kids.
“I think they saddled Jane with a lot of things. I understand she is at the top and everything is her purview. I was just in that building and I didn’t see any cockroaches or graffiti. We are all responsible,” said Board President Jennifer Hoff, in response to some people’s comments about condistions.
“A low budget also means we don’t have as many maintenance people as other districts. Some of those things I heard in the letter, I don’t agree with… To lay that all at Jane’s feet is not completely accurate.”
The William Penn School Board appointed Harbert to the interim position at an August 2015 meeting after Joe Bruni announced his retirement after 29 non-consecutive years with the district.
An emotional Harbert represented the third superintendent in 10 years for the district. She recalled her journey from West Virginia to Delaware County to apply for the position.
“I want folks to know I did hear what they are saying,” said Harbert. “There are many issues in this district and it’s not something we can solve overnight. I do believe in working collaboratively. We all need to work together.”