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Board members, community want answers on severance for LASD superintendent

Lehighton Area School District will pay its superintendent nearly $115,000 to leave the position at the end of May after its board of directors voted 7-2 on Monday night to approve a separation agreement.

While the consensus was to part ways with Dr. Christina Fish, who was hired in June 2022 and had a contract running through Aug. 31, 2025, at least one director voiced disdain with a process that she felt initially kept certain board members out of the loop.

Barbara Bowes described “seething anger” when describing how the contract buyout was approached.

“Zac (Hunter), Kerry (Sittler) and I were not informed until after this was a done deal,” Bowes said. “On April 17, I received a phone call that Dr. Fish had been approached about buying out her contract. There was not transparency to everyone on the board. Six people decided this.”

Bowes said she wasn’t sure how to approach her vote Monday but “didn’t see how anyone could stay and work for the school district after this was done to them.”

“For that reason, I’m voting yes out of respect to Dr. Fish,” Bowes said.

Hunter and Sittler, meanwhile, cast the lone no votes.

The severance payment, the agreement states, is one-half of the total compensation and benefits owed to Fish for the remainder of her contract.

Fish would also be paid 24 days of unused vacation time totaling $12,549.36.

Lehighton would continue to pay for medical benefits for Fish, along with her spouse and any eligible dependents, until Aug. 31, 2025, unless she takes a job where the benefits have “at least an 80% actuarial value.”

The agreement also calls for Fish to drop “any right or claim for age discrimination which she may have arising under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

“Employee acknowledges that she is receiving consideration which is in addition to anything of value to which she otherwise would have been entitled,” the agreement states.

District resident Dache Zelrick asked the board for transparency surrounding the separation.

“I feel like something else is going on behind the scenes,” Zelrick said. “Dr. Fish has done a fabulous job. We have disagreed on several things but she’s always been receptive. She walked into a dumpster fire of a district and has turned it around quite a bit.”

Questioned several times throughout the meeting on more specifics, Board President Jeremy Glaush said the board would stand behind a statement they were required to make as part of the agreement with Fish.

The statement read, “After much consideration and discussion, the Lehighton Area School District Board of Directors and Dr. Christina Fish have mutually agreed to amicably end their contractual agreement. Dr. Fish expresses her sincere gratitude to the Lehighton students and families who made her feel welcome. She also thanks the teachers, support staff and the administrative team who have made her tenure successful. The Lehighton School Board thanks Dr. Fish for her service and wishes her continued success in her future endeavors.”

Before being hired in Lehighton, Fish had spent the prior 12 years as Central Columbia’s director of pupil services/special education, making $132,500 in her first year with Lehighton. She also received a $7,500 signing bonus. She was set to receive a 3% increase in each of the 2023-24 and 2024-25 school years.

Former board member David Bradley also called for the release of “factual records.”

“This reeks of a situation where there were offenses made, however those actions were not egregious enough for immediate termination,” Bradley said. “Instead, the $115,000 was dangled like a carrot on a stick that leads the superintendent out the door. Release the records so the taxpayers know why they are spending this money and helping to pass Dr. Fish on to an unsuspecting school district.”

Another past board member, Brian Shaner, questioned directors on whether any of them have met an administrator they actually liked.

“We need stability here and I think that is exactly what we are running from,” Shaner said. “I’m very disappointed.”

The board on Monday also hired John W. Corby as acting superintendent at a contracted rate of $680 per full day as of June 1.

Corby will be doing his second stint as Lehighton’s acting superintendent. The board of directors brought him after terminating the contract of Jonathan Cleaver, who had been superintendent for nine years, in December 2020. Directors at the time alleged previous boards approved illegal contract extensions. Two days later, Cleaver filed a lawsuit against the district alleging breach of contract. Lehighton settled with Cleaver last year and paid him $30,000.

Fish’s departure will leave Lehighton without several full-time administrators. Assistant to the Superintendent Mary Figura is retiring effective June 4. Former Business Manager Edward Rarick resigned in January. Rarick had been with the district since November 2020 and his contract was set to expire on June 30.

“I don’t know how six out of nine board members sit behind closed doors and don’t inform the rest of the board this is happening,” Walter Zlomsowitch, a past director who voted no when Fish was hired in 2022, said. “They knew they had the votes or they would not have had the contract with Jack (Corby) ready to go. I was against the hire of Dr. Fish at the time because I didn’t think she had the experience, but I think she should be able to finish her last 15 months here.”

Zlomsowitch said he would be starting an attempt to have several board members recalled through a judicial process.

“The way you operate and the devastation you’re bringing to the district is wasting a lot of money,” he told the board.

In the aftermath of the separation with Fish, Bowes said she plans to take some time before deciding her future on the board.

“I am doing my best not to make an emotional decision to resign,” Bowes said Monday. “This has seriously affected my health since I got that phone call on the 17th. I don’t mean to cry, but I cry when I get angry. I don’t know how I can trust this board, but I’m working on it and praying that I can get past this and make a decision in a logical way.”