A lack of transparency, unusually generous contract terms, potential conflicts of interest and an extended recent absence are among the concerns raised about Gene Freeman, Asheville City Schools’ incoming superintendent, by a Pennsylvania journalism nonprofit in 2019 and in February. The stories highlight issues related to Freeman’s six-year tenure as superintendent of the Fox Chapel Area School District, located in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Freeman was selected as the new superintendent of Asheville City Schools and introduced to the community on Dec. 18. He’s scheduled to take up his post on Wednesday, July 1, following his Friday, June 12, retirement from Fox Chapel.
The articles were written by veteran education reporter Mary Niederberger and Oliver Morrison for PublicSource, a public service journalism project that covers the Pittsburgh region.
Speaking to Xpress on Feb. 17, Niederberger said she initially contacted the Fox Chapel Area School District for a March 19, 2019, article that explored racial achievement gaps in Pittsburgh-area school systems.
“The story showed significant gaps in reading and math at Dorseyville Middle School, which is the sole middle school for the Fox Chapel district,” said Niederberger, who no longer works for PublicSource. “It was the first I had heard from FC parents, and they had a long list of concerns, largely around transparency issues. It was after meeting with a group of parents that I started my reporting on the district.”
Niederberger’s reporting explored allegations of improper document shredding that took place on June 18, a day after she submitted “Right-to-Know [Pennsylvania’s public information law] requests seeking administrative salary information, the superintendent’s schedule and copies of emails sent from residents to the board.” An investigation into the shredding commissioned by the district and conducted by attorney Thomas Breth concluded, “The investigation was unable to identify a single witness or any evidence to support the allegation that school district records were improperly shredded to avoid disclosure under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Act.” Breth publicly defended those conclusions at a Sept. 10 school board meeting, reported local television station KDKA.
Missing in action
PublicSource’s most recent article on the system, “As Fox Chapel searches for a new superintendent, a new question has emerged: Where is the current one?” was published on Feb. 11 and details Freeman’s absence from school board meetings held Dec. 3, Jan. 13, Feb. 3 and Feb. 10. Meeting minutes and YouTube videos of the meetings confirm that Freeman was absent from each of those meetings.
Written by Morrison, the article reported, “PublicSource obtained an email that was written from Freeman’s district email address, and sent to the entire school board, stating that, ‘My absence is a personnel issue covered by HIPAA,’ a reference to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. Freeman’s email indicated that his absence was due to a health issue.”
On Feb. 13, the district posted a statement on its website regarding Freeman’s absence: “The superintendent of the Fox Chapel Area School District, Gene Freeman, Ed.D., is currently using leave, in accordance with his contract and the state’s Public School Code, and remains the district’s superintendent. The district has policies and practices in place to ensure the day-to-day operations of the district. In the Fox Chapel Area School District, the deputy superintendent serves in the absence of the superintendent.”
Freeman’s first absence from a school board meeting coincided with the swearing-in of four new school board members on Dec. 3. The superintendent had posted campaign signs for two school board members, Eric Schmidt and Lisa Rutkowski, in his yard during the runup to the election. Schmidt was defeated; Rutkowski retained her seat, but the board announced on Feb. 20 she had resigned. A replacement will be selected by the board on March 9.
Rutkowski, a real estate agent, 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, since Rutkowski was in a position to vote on matters related to Freeman.
All politics is local
During the campaign, three of the newly elected board members — Marybeth Dadd, Vanessa Lynch and Eric Hamilton — ran on a joint platform that emphasized accountability, collaboration, transparency and innovation. In an advertisement, the three wrote, “We heard many stories from parents who struggled to get issues addressed. If elected, we will set the expectation and example of openness and responsiveness.”
Regarding financial accountability, the ad continues, “We will scrutinize high administrative expenses and rising debt to ensure that our dollars are being wisely spent for the maximum benefit of our kids.”
Contacted for this article, Dadd, Lynch and Hamilton each declined to comment on the PublicSource reporting or current board dynamics.
Returning Fox Chapel school board member Edie Cook — who frequently tussled with Freeman and other board members over her desire to hold more open discussions on board decisions and parent concerns, according to news reports — told Xpress she couldn’t comment on Freeman’s recent absences or any other board business but stated that, to her knowledge, he had not previously been absent from the district for extended periods.
An updated photo of the nine-member board posted on the district’s website includes the caption, “Not pictured: Gene Freeman, Ed.D., Superintendent.”
Time is money
Niederberger’s reporting reveals that Freeman received $108,426 as reimbursement for 126 unused vacation days during his tenure with the system.
According to PublicSource, Freeman received 30 annual vacation days in school years 2014-15 through 2017-18 and 35 annual days starting July 1, 2018. He reported using 29 vacation days in total over the five-year period. All 41 of Allegheny County’s other superintendents received fewer days and had limited or no ability to sell unused days back to their districts.
On June 27, 2019, — one year into a new five-year contract — the Fox Chapel board announced that Freeman would retire the following year. His contract specifies, “In the event that Dr. Freeman provides the Board written notice at least one year prior to the effective date of his retirement, Dr. Freeman shall receive retirement compensation equal to 80% of his then-current salary.”
“Based on his 2018-19 salary of $236,253, Freeman’s retirement payment would be $189,002,” reported PublicSource. In a review of contracts for Allegheny County superintendents, the nonprofit found Freeman’s to be especially generous, with other retirement bonuses for outgoing executives ranging from $9,000 to $40,000.
Freeman’s wife, Dr. Allison Freeman, recently began a new job at Allergy Asthma and Immunology Relief of Charlotte. The AAIR practice website includes a link to its business Facebook page, where a Feb. 2 post announced, “Dr. Maeve O’Connor is proud to welcome Dr. Allison Freeman to our exceptional AAIR team.” An appointment scheduler for the practice confirmed that Freeman is now seeing patients in Charlotte.
The Freemans appear to own a residence in the town of St. James at the North Carolina coast. A public Facebook page for Allison Freeman created in March 2009 includes photos documenting the construction of a beach house there. Xpress confirmed through public property records and building permits that Allison L. Freeman of Pittsburgh, Pa., received a certificate of occupancy for a 4,283-square-foot house on July 18, 2019.
Gene Freeman began his career in Lumberton, approximately 80 miles to the northwest of St. James. The St. James beach house lies about 335 miles to the southeast of Asheville.
In a survey of community members conducted by the Asheville City Schools to determine the qualities and skills most important in a new superintendent, respondents indicated a strong desire for a leader who “is now, or is willing to become … rooted, knowledgeable and invested in our community.” Other comments noted, “We need someone who is invested in this area and not just using Asheville as an opportunity for a better job,” and “It would be great if he/she is from the Western part of North Carolina,” among several similar sentiments.
Asheville City Schools’ spokesperson Ashley-Michelle Thublin wrote in an email that Freeman “fully understands our students, staff and parents’ desire for our next superintendent to have a long-term commitment to our district and city.”
Though North Carolina statute requires that a superintendent live within the county where his or her district is located, Thublin wrote, “Dr. Freeman thought it was incredibly important to purchase a home within the boundaries of Asheville City Schools. According to Dr. Freeman, he’s ‘already bought a home that [he] absolutely loves, and it’s in the district.’” Thublin later clarified that she believes the closing on the property will take place next week.
In the background
Asheville law firm Campbell Shatley serves as legal counsel to the Asheville City Board of Education and assisted the district in its search for a new superintendent. Attorney Dean Shatley told Xpress, “We did assist the Asheville City Board of Education with its superintendent search and as part of that assistance, we conducted the background and reference check.”
In the course of that process, Shatley said, the firm reviewed the 2019 PublicSource articles and shared them with the Asheville board. “Unfortunately, due to confidentiality laws, I am unable to reference specific details about the background check or discuss the board’s deliberation about the finalists, but I can ensure you that the board had a thorough process and spent an enormous amount of energy and time into making its final selection,” Shatley said.
Freeman’s contract with Asheville City Schools does not include a bonus structure of any kind, according to Shatley. A copy of the contract is available at the bottom of this article.
Fox Chapel Area School District did not respond to Xpress’ request for comment. Freeman also did not respond beyond his comment regarding his planned residence provided by Thublin.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:55 a.m. on Feb. 21 to reflect Lisa Rutkowski’s resignation from the Fox Chapel Area School District board. It was subsequently updated at 1:13 p.m on Feb. 21 to include Freeman’s contract with the Asheville City Board of Education.