For several months last year Belle Vernon Area School District was without a superintendent and a business manager. Shortly before the start of the 2000-01 school year the district made the decision to hire Dr. Charles Chandler Jr. as its head.
Despite a rocky year that included an ongoing renovation project still not completed, Chandler said he would do it again.
‘In a heartbeat, I seriously would,’ he said. ‘Although there are those who tried to describe the situation and what it would be like for me, I had to see for myself. You can’t tell a person what they are getting into, whether it is a career, a marriage or moving into a new community. You have to experience it. I will have to say that there certainly have been a lot of bumps and obstacles in the road, but it has been a growing experience.’
Chandler’s adjustment to a new school district was compounded by the fact that his previous experience was in another state, West Virginia. Leaving behind the community to which he and wife Judy had grown accustomed, Chandler moved bag and baggage to a new home in the Belle Vernon area.
Chandler discussed the adjustments he encountered in his career.
‘The biggest difference is I came from a thought process that was largely central ruled,’ he said. ‘Pennsylvania is more locally ruled, more locally covered. That was one of the things that attracted me to this position. When you look at specific state regulations, I have superintendent papers in four states, so besides Pennsylvania and West Virginia, I am familiar on a general level with two other states, North Carolina and Virginia. I have found schools are more similar than they are different, and especially with the big influx with federal involvement over the past few years. I find we are more similar.’
Chandler talked about the goals he set upon his arrival at Belle Vernon. He feels he’s accomplished what he set out to do.
‘The only thing I can’t prove because the test results haven’t come out yet are the PSSA test scores,’ he said. ‘Last year they were about 15th or 16th overall. We’re real anxious to see the results for this year.’
Goals completed, according to the superintendent, includes classes to deal with low achievers.
‘We have accomplished that,’ he said, ‘through some creative funding, some grant money. We are going to offer that through contracted tutors to come into the high school so it will not cost the district anything out of our general fund.’
Chandler talked about some of the ups and downs he experienced.
‘I began with a staff that was already in place,’ he explained. ‘The good thing is that it was filled with some competent people. The bad thing is that I had to prove myself. That is something I did not have to do with the two vacant positions that came with me. Filling those gave me an opportunity to bring in my own flavor, so to speak.’
Prior to being named superintendent in his last position, Chandler said he followed a superintendent who had been in the position four years.
‘I lasted longer than he did,’ he said. ‘Here I followed someone who sat in this chair for 23 years. That is very difficult for a new person to come from out of the community, out of the state and with different ideas. It has been rough. In some cases people are more open to change and open to a different way of thinking, but I followed a very successful superintendent.’
At the time Chandler stepped into Belle Vernon, the ongoing renovation project had not begun.
‘It was one of my goals to implement that, and looking back I would probably rethink my answers at the time,’ he explained. ‘I was very anxious to get it going and completed. I was asked if I thought it would be a problem to have the multiple projects going at the same time. I had done multiple projects in the past, but not to this level, so I didn’t think it would be a problem. Looking back, doing all the multiple projects concurrently has been a real challenge to keep up with.’
Despite the challenges, Chandler looks favorably to the future and feels that is due in part to the team building he helped to bring about. Two key members he had a hand in hiring were technology coordinator Tim Winner and business manager Eileen Navish. Both have contributed greatly to the renovation project, admitted Chandler.
‘I would not have been able, for instance, to keep up with the paper trail on the amount of change orders that have been part of the renovation project without Eileen,’ he explained. ‘Tim has stepped in for me at construction meetings, although he didn’t have previous experience in that field. It has been a learning experience for him, and one that he has welcomed.
‘I’ve always tried to look at things in the long term and short term,’ Chandler continued. ‘We keep the team going with daily meetings. It’s a whole lot like the way a child learns. There is a period known as scaffolding, where you build up a little bit. Once they establish that, you build a little farther. We try to do that, as well.’
The same philosophy carries into the administration, said Chandler.
‘You can’t turn a ship 90 degrees all at once,’ he stated. ‘You have to turn it a little at a time and always keep in mind where you are going. Having that staff meeting every day helps us do that without getting off course.’
Another goal area Chandler says has been accomplished is the financial picture of the district. This, Chandler said, is the result of the business manager.
‘Any position, teacher or administrator, that I look to hire someone, I look for what I call the three P’s – potential, performance and preparation. One of my philosophies with employees is to require them to do their job but to also allow them to do their job.’
The potential Chandler saw in hiring Navish were her credentials as a certified public accountant and her experience in government accounting.
While Belle Vernon is her first school district, Navish said her experience in government accounting, which included the borough of Wilkinsburg, helped prepare her for the district.
‘It has been a learning experience,’ she said. ‘Working with Dr. Chandler and the cooperative staff has been great. I feel the board was given as much information concerning the budget as they needed in order to make an informed decision.
‘While I wasn’t here to know what was given in the past, the board knows our policy is to be as open and forthright with them as possible,’ she emphasized.
Navish said the biggest obstacle in her adjustment to BVA was the expanded chart of accounts required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
‘I was learning the old chart of account when I learned through my peers that I had to expand it and I had to do it rapidly,’ she said. ‘These business managers had a year to prepare for the changes and I essentially had a few months.’
Spreadsheets to cover just about every situation are something else Navish has implemented, making it easier to track employees and equipment, she said.
‘This job was quite a challenge,’ said Navish, ‘but I always felt I had the support of the superintendent. It is because of the unity of the teamwork that I feel we can accomplish just about anything.’
Looking back over the last school year, Navish pondered whether there was anything she would have done differently.
‘Not really,’ she said. ‘I want to learn much more about what my staff does so that I can become more valuable. It is important that I have a good understanding of the entire operation.’
Navish concluded, ‘The taxpayers are paying for the school district to hire a competent business manager who will be totally honest with the entire population, superintendent, board members, everyone. That is what they are paying for, and that is what I am going to give them.’
Looking to the future of the district, Navish, who commutes from the Wilkinsburg area where she resides with her husband, Frank, describes herself as an optimist.
‘I’m looking forward to good things for the district,’ she said, ‘and I’m glad I’ll be a part of it.’