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North Allegheny school board approves appointments despite criticism over lack of transparency

Pennsylvania public school students change classes.
Jessica Kourkounis
Pennsylvania public school students change classes.

At a special voting meeting Wednesday that some community members called a lame duck session, North Allegheny School District board members pushed through several leadership appointments.

That includes approval of an educational consultant agreement for retired North Allegheny Senior High School principal Lawrence Butterini. The veteran educator will mentor new district leadership in their transition.

Butterini’s position was unanimously approved, save for abstentions from three board members: board president Libby Blackburn, vice president Marcie Crowe and director Mike Weniger.

Butterini publicly supported the three Republicans in their bid for reelection earlier this month. In a mailer to voters in the school district — the second-largest district in Allegheny County — Butterini lauded the trio for their “exemplary leadership, knowledge, commitment and experience in improving our district.”

Blackburn and Weniger maintained their seats, while Crowe lost hers. Voters also elected one returning and two new Democrats to the board, upending the previously held conservative supermajority.

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Blackburn assured the public that “the board members did not do anything that could be considered improper,” but added she and the others would abstain because of a board policy advising members to “avoid even the mere perception of any conflict.”

The last-minute meeting to approve new leadership roles, she added, was in the best interest of the school district given the nearing winter break. That way, new administrators will have additional time to transition, Blackburn said.

North Allegheny Senior High assistant principal Matthew Buchak will assume the role current principal Natasha Dirda will vacate on Dec. 20.

Her resignation was approved by the board during the meeting. Dirda will start as the high school principal at South Fayette Township School District on Dec. 21.

Other appointments passed Wednesday include Ingomar Middle School principal Dave Deramo to assistant superintendent of secondary education. Nancy Bowman, currently the coordinator of curriculum and secondary instruction, will assume Deramo’s role.

But parents and community members present on Wednesday questioned the board’s decision to hold a special voting meeting to approve the appointments rather than wait until the new board is seated next week.

None of the appointed leadership will begin their new roles until Jan. 1, 2024, and all but the agenda item regarding Butterini’s position included salary information.

Half a dozen speakers during public comment raised concerns about the lack of transparency, particularly around the educational consultant position.

“What is the length of this contract, if there is one, and is there an established need?” asked Rita Martin of Wexford.

None of the positions approved Wednesday was posted publicly online. Nor were the positions mentioned during previous board work sessions.

“Whether intended or not, it looks like nothing other than a political hack job,” said Marcia Caliendo of Wexford, referring to Butterini's appointment.

Butterini was previously tapped to serve as acting superintendent in the time between now-Mt. Lebanon School District superintendent Melissa Friez’s exit in May and current superintendent Brendan Hyland’s hiring in June.

According to North Allegheny’s May 10 board agenda, Butterini was paid $760 a day in the role.

Butterini also stayed on throughout the summer to aid the transition, according to the district. Officials say the consultant position is an extension of that work.

School board director Elizabeth Warner was among several school board members who expressed skepticism about the urgency of the vote. Warner said that while she would vote in favor of Butterini’s appointment given the superintendent’s request, she was hesitant to call it a necessary expense.

“If the candidate is qualified for the position, I struggle to see why we would need to bring in an outside consultant, especially since we have an internal leadership team that should be more than capable of assisting with the transition,” Warner said.

Warner added that she understood the community’s concern about the meeting, though she didn’t think any employment promises had been made.

According to director Richard McClure, who has sat on the school board since 2015, a similar short-term consulting agreement was made to aid Friez’s transition when she became NASH principal.

Details of the consulting agreement remain unknown.

Updated: November 30, 2023 at 11:38 AM EST
This story has been updated to reflect Natasha Dirda's planned start date as principal of South Fayette High School.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.