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Education

Woodland Hills School Board fires its superintendent, cites need for 'different direction'

James Harris Woodland Hills
Sarah Schneider
/
90.5 WESA
James Harris in 2018 after he was hired as Woodland Hills' Superintendent.

In a seemingly abrupt move Wednesday night, the Woodland Hills School Board voted to terminate its superintendent.

Board President Jamie Glaser read the motion to terminate James Harris without cause effective Dec. 17.

After an 8-1 vote, Harris stood up from his seat at the table and left the meeting. Andre Patterson cast the lone vote against the move. He joined the call on zoom.

A statement from the board said that it would begin a search for a new leader immediately. It was the last meeting for three board members. School board member elects Darnika Reed and Carlton Scott both said during public comment that they thought the board should table the vote until they were sworn in. The board reorganization meeting is Dec. 6.

The board did not comment on the matter during the meeting, but in a statement issued after the vote, said:

“After much discussion, the board has opted to go in a different direction with district leadership. This is not a decision that was taken lightly, but it is one that the board believes is necessary for the district to move forward. We thank Mr. Harris for his service as the district superintendent and will work with him to ensure a smooth transition.”

Woodland Hills Superintendent
Woodland Hills school board President Jamie Glasser, left, and the vacated seat of Superintendent James Harris.

Several community members and parents spoke in favor of Harris during public comment before the vote. A few others said that they supported a move to fire him.

Many speakers during the meeting noted that they were frustrated by the district’s lack of transparency in the matter.

Harris was hired in 2018 as the district was under the spotlight after its school police were accused of using excessive force. Former school resource officer Stephen Shaulis was accused of excessive force for knocking out the tooth of a 14-year-old, among other incidents. Five students sued the district in federal court, alleging the district fostered a culture of abuse. The dispute was settled in 2018.

In recent weeks, several fights have broken out at the district's high school. As many as 30 students were identified in a cafeteria fight. As a result, the district moved to virtual learning for two days in October.

In a letter to families, Harris apologized for giving incomplete information in the wake of that fight in what he called his attempt to be transparent.

"That action often gave the impression that we were downplaying the severity of the incident," the letter states. "That was never the intent. So, for that I do apologize."

He said that the students' behavior would not be tolerated, "and we will be doing a better job in becoming proactive moving forward."

Harris told KDKA that the school board president, vice president and school solicitor asked him to resign on Tuesday.

The district serves 12 municipalities east of Pittsburgh and enrolls about 3,300 students.