Gene Freeman may have gotten some bad press in Pennsylvania, but the Asheville City Board of Education remains committed to its choice for the school system’s new superintendent.
“The Asheville City Board of Education received 28 applicants and spent many hours reviewing [survey results indicating] the most desired skills, characteristics and qualifications made by more than 2,000 students, staff and community members,” district spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin told Xpress by email on Feb. 26. ”With their feedback at the heart of our decision-making process, we firmly believe Dr. Gene Freeman was and remains the best long-term fit for our district.
“We anticipate that upon Dr. Freeman’s arrival, his experience, his leadership skills and his genuine desire to foster success for all students will solidify our community’s support for our new superintendent.”
The local board’s statement followed Xpress’ coverage of news reports in Pennsylvania that revealed concerns about transparency, unusually generous contract terms and potential conflicts of interest connected to Freeman’s tenure in his current position as superintendent of the Fox Chapel Area School District. The most recent story from the nonprofit journalism project PublicSource highlighted Freeman’s extended, ongoing absence from his current post, which has included missing four meetings of its school board, since Dec. 3.
On the spot
On Dec. 18, Freeman visited Asheville to sign an employment contract with Asheville City Schools and meet the public as its new superintendent. Speaking to ACS staff and community members in the boardroom at the city schools’ central office, he stood at a podium and answered questions from the audience.
According to PublicSource, Freeman sent an email to the Fox Chapel school board in early January explaining that the reasons for his ongoing absence were related to HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, suggesting that he was experiencing a health issue. He did not provide any details about his condition.
“The school board at FC is aware of my absence, and I am following my contract and Pennsylvania code adherence,” Freeman told Xpress on Feb. 25. “The Dec. 18 Asheville visit was a vacation day from my position.”
Freeman did not answer questions seeking to clarify whether his current absence is of a medical nature or whether he had visited Asheville at other times since his selection. He said his meetings with the ACS board “were on weekends.”
In separate emails obtained through a public records request, Freeman, like the local school board, seemed eager for his start in Asheville. He wrote that he had found a house to buy within the city district’s boundaries and “in fact I love it and the area.” He also alluded to his efforts to hasten his departure from his current job. He is scheduled to retire from that position on Friday, June 12, and begin work in Asheville on Wednesday, July 1.
On Jan. 15, Freeman emailed to let ACS board members know about his house purchase. He added, “Working on an early release from my present district. Should know something, I hope, by second week in Feb. 2020.”
Martha Geitner, vice chair of the ACS board, followed up on Jan. 20, enthusing, “I am THRILLED that you have found a house and are excited about it. We are going to be ALMOST neighbors!!!! … I can’t wait to meet your wife. She sounds like a very special lady.”
The next day, Freeman replied to Geitner, “I am excited … Still working with this new board at FC trying to get an earlier release…ughhhh.”
That new board includes four newly elected members who were sworn in on Dec. 3, the date Freeman first missed an FCASD board meeting. Among the board’s nine directors was Lisa Rutkowski, who won her bid for re-election but recently resigned. Rutkowski, a real estate agent, had listed Freeman’s house for sale on Oct. 1, a business arrangement the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission said presented a possible conflict of interest because Rutkowski could vote on matters related to Freeman.
The email correspondence between Freeman and ACS, which covers the period Dec. 13 to Jan. 21, contains no reference to health issues.
Asked to comment on unanswered questions about the status of Freeman’s current employment, Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer said that, as a member of City Council — which appoints members of the Asheville City Board of Education — she is “certainly paying attention to what’s going on with the hiring of our new superintendent.”
Man of Manheim
While Xpress’ Feb. 19 story focused on news articles about Freeman’s tenure with the Fox Chapel Area School District, his previous stint as superintendent of the Manheim Township School District in Lancaster County, Pa., from 2008 to 2014 also attracted media attention.
On Dec. 20, 2012, LNP of Lancaster, Pa., reported that Freeman had signed a new five-year deal with Manheim Township. The contract was scheduled to run through June 2018 and included a 7.8% salary increase that made him the highest-paid superintendent in Lancaster County. School board president Hannah Bartges “praised Freeman for leading the district through recent difficult economic times and for keeping the focus on what’s important to children,” LNP said.
But by the time an Aug. 11, 2013, article in the Sunday News of Lancaster came out, some in the community were unsatisfied with Freeman’s leadership. “With new state mandates coming down the pike, the district last year shook up its elementary-school curriculum, making big cuts to art and music and physical education — and sparking an insurrection among parents who feel their kids’ education is being shortchanged,” wrote reporter Gil Smart.
The cuts came at a time when many Pennsylvania districts were facing financial challenges that included falling enrollments due to competition from charter schools, as well as “steep increases in pension contributions, health care and special education costs,” the story conceded.
On Dec. 4, 2013, LNP reported that Freeman had announced his resignation, which would become effective Feb. 28, 2014. “Freeman’s tenure was marked by districtwide improvements as well as criticism from residents about the district’s decisions to cut certain programs,” the media outlet said.
From Freeman’s perspective, the Manheim district made significant gains in achievement during his tenure there. “In fact, my last month at MTSD, the school district received the governor’s award for school improvement,” he told Xpress via email.
Similar trends marked his time in Fox Chapel. “FCASD moved from No. 8 in the region to No. 2. FCASD moved from No. 13 in the state to No. 4. I was charged with improving the academic success of FCASD by the school board, which I and the team did,” he said.
Freeman said the concerns posted on social media in response to Xpress’ Feb. 19 article boil down to sour grapes brought forward by a small group of disgruntled parents “who are doing their best to smear me professionally. However, I wish them nothing but the best.” He urged Xpress to investigate former PublicSource staffer Mary Niederberger, who reported all but two of the outlet’s stories on Fox Chapel. “PublicSource terminated the reporter,” he said. “You should find out why. I hope you print that.”
Meet the press
“There is no connection whatsoever to Mary’s no longer being with PublicSource with her coverage of the school district,” said Mila Sanina, executive director of the nonprofit journalism project. Although Sanina said she could not comment on specific staffing decisions, she pointed to the media organization’s continuing coverage of the Fox Chapel Area School District as evidence that PublicSource remains committed to the story.
Rumors and insinuations repeated on social media that PublicSource had been pressured by funders to stop covering the district, Sanina said, “are completely baseless and are false statements that are truly worrisome to me.”
Calling Niederberger’s investigation of concerns raised by Fox Chapel parents “excellent reporting,” Sanina said that PublicSource’s decision to dedicate significant resources to the Fox Chapel stories reflects the organization’s mission of holding taxpayer-funded officials accountable in response to community concerns. “Yes, surely there were views that were accusing PublicSource and Mary of coverage that was biased somehow. But it’s an old tactic of shooting the messenger rather than recognizing some of the lapses and correcting them.
“I think the changed composition of the board and other things are a testament to the fact that people read those stories and they voted [in a recent school board election] and they expressed that they wanted more deliberations, they wanted more transparency in how the board and the administration operate,” Sanina said.
In his email to Xpress, Freeman summed up his position with the following remarks: “My work will speak for itself. My work has already spoken for me. Each district I have led has improved financially and academically. Those are the facts.
“I know you want to sell papers, but this will be my last comments on the same topics,” he said in closing.