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Personnel changes at youth center may shape alternative school future

Personnel changes continued last week on the Furthering Youth Inc. board, the body that oversees the operation of Gerdon Youth Center in Corydon, while members of the Harrison County Council and Commissioners voiced differing opinions over whether the Gerdon Alternative School should remain under FYI control.
The county government bodies advised Harrison County’s three public school superintendents Thursday night to seek a resolution that would allow the school to stay at GYC.
The volatile shake-up at GYC began Feb. 10 when executive director Debbie Heazlitt forced Brent Lewis, who had served as her right hand as program director, to resign. Three weeks later, FYI terminated Heazlitt’s employment for reasons board member Dr. Chris Stock said were unrelated to Lewis’ resignation.
Lola Ratterman, the board president who cast a vote in support of Heazlitt, resigned immediately after Heazlitt was fired. Cora Huffines, a GYC employee and formerly a Heazlitt colleague at the New Albany Housing Authority, followed.
The contentious meetings led the Gerdon Alternative School Steering Committee to vote ‘no confidence’ in the FYI board. The no confidence vote would’ve been unanimous if not for the vote of FYI’s new president, David Dillman, a member of the steering committee.
J.R. Eckart, the president of the Harrison County Commissioners, later described the treatment of Heazlitt at one controversial public FYI meeting as ‘a browbeating that nobody should have to endure.’
Stock resigned from FYI Thursday evening, a move that Melissa Jackson said was requested by Harrison County’s public school superintendents but Dillman said was Stock’s personal choice and not formally requested by anyone.
Jackson, Heazlitt’s predecessor as GYC’s first executive director, joined the board Thursday night along with Sheila Bezy, an FYI founding board member, and Sherri Rogers, the mother of several children who participate in programs at the center in the remodeled brick schoolhouse on East Chestnut Street.
Board member Jackie Shaw told FYI of her intention to resign due to scheduling conflicts.
The FYI board unanimously appointed alternative school teacher Mike Esarey as the alternative school administrator. ‘It’s the equivalent of being the program director for the alternative school,’ Dillman said.
Esarey was officially given the position after Dillman discussed the move Friday with the superintendents.
Supt. Monty Schneider previously endorsed Esarey in an interview.
‘Mike (Esarey) has done a tremendous job for us,’ he said two weeks ago. ‘North Harrison would want him included in whatever transpires. We’ve been very pleased with all the people employed through the alternative school,’ Schneider said.
All alternative school staff will report directly to Esarey, a former teacher, coach and athletic director in Crawford County, and he will be responsible for all interaction between the school, superintendents and FYI board.
‘All the employees ‘ they all seemed to very much welcome this change,’ Dillman said.
‘A search committee was appointed to establish the revised job description and steps necessary for hiring the executive director. Until then, the board will act together in making decisions that impact the center,’ Jackson said in an e-mail.
While FYI met Thursday night, the superintendents met with the Harrison County Council and Commissioners, to discuss the alternative school.
Because the meetings were conducted simultaneously, decisions made during the FYI meeting were not taken into account during the meeting between the superintendents and county government officials.
‘Anytime we disrupt a stable learning environment, it is natural that the parties responsible for that learning environment are concerned. Hopefully, we can begin to bring some resolution to the conflict,’ Supt. Neyland Clark said.
Supt. Phil Partenheimer said the alternative school ‘had been working beautifully’ prior to the recent chain of events.
Harrison County spent $232,000 on juvenile detention in 2003. That decreased to $94,000 in 2004, and only $2,300 was spent on juvenile detention to date in 2005, Partenheimer said.
He said the figures showed the school was working.
Recent actions, including derogatory statements made by FYI board members, had led him to be concerned that through mandatory attendance the superintendents may be forcing kids to enter a hostile environment, Partenheimer said.
Council chair Gary Davis said he was ‘somewhat chagrined’ at the scope of what he said appeared to be ‘essentially a personnel situation, not an alternative school situation.’
He said he didn’t see how splitting the programs would result in less cost.
‘I’m not comfortable with that as the only solution,’ he said.
‘David Dillman called me, and I basically told him that they (the FYI board) caused all this. They let the meeting get out of control, and they didn’t take the 30-day, cooling-off period,’ Davis said, referring to a 30-day freeze in personnel changes that the superintendents had urged prior to Heazlitt’s termination.
Clark said the steering committee had informed him of a ‘serious polarization’ of GYC staff. He referenced the vote of no confidence and said, ‘We need to have a plan.’
Davis said his understanding was that the board members who presided over the controversial meetings were ‘external to the day-to-day function of the program.’
‘Whether those comments were poisoning the atmosphere … I can’t say it isn’t so,’ he said, but, he reiterated, where splitting the alternative school and GYC was concerned, ‘I personally don’t think that’s what we ought to do.’
‘I think the best place for that school is where it is,’ Clark said, agreeing. He said the staff needs to be brought together.
‘Thank you for the problem we’ve got,’ Schneider said, referring to the funding allocated by county government that made the alternative school possible.
‘It’s some of the best money you’ve spent,’ he said.
‘If I could rub a crystal ball and go back to where it was, attitude-wise, I would, regardless of who is in charge of the alternative school’s money,’ Schneider said.
Davis said funding for both GYC and Gerdon Alternative School is in place for 2005. He said the county council would only come into the picture if more money was needed.
‘Mr. Davis is exactly right,’ Eckart said.
‘I’m not sure that any one of us wants to take control of the dollars. Hypothetically, though, the respective school corporations contract services through GYC. You guys fund the program to that end. If we moved the school, we don’t have the authority to move the funds. The question becomes, ‘What of remaining funds if the program would be moved?’ ‘ Clark said.
‘That’s the question I was looking for. Who was to control the money?’ Eckart said.
‘I think the council’s intent was to fund programs, and the face of the entity requesting the money was Debbie Heazlitt,’ Davis said.
Council member Alvin Brown attributed the problem to a collision between the FYI board and the Gerdon Alternative School Steering Committee.
‘Board members set the tone for the organization. I certainly can’t support keeping the alternative school if that board remains in place,’ steering committee member Leslie Robertson said, referring to the FYI board.
Paul Ingle, who was promoted to program director by Heazlitt after Lewis’ resignation, said there was a rift in personnel within the Gerdon Alternative School.
‘The alternative school is for the kids, but there is a broader purpose. With an education, young adults have a chance to stay off the welfare roles, stay out of the justice system, and, hopefully, become better parents,’ said Harrison Circuit Court Judge H. Lloyd (Tad) Whitis.
‘It’s a lot better to have them in an educational environment than out on the streets. I’ve never seen this come out like this over personnel issues. It’s regrettable,’ Whitis said.
Courtney Wade, a teacher at the alternative school, said she thought it should be moved. She said she was asked by Ingle if she felt Heazlitt should’ve been fired.
‘Because I didn’t say, ‘Yes, Debbie should’ve been fired,’ I was ostracized,’ Wade said.
Dillman said during an interview yesterday that Wade expressed contentment with the new arrangement that places Esarey as her immediate superior in the school.
‘My only plea is that before we make a decision to move the alternative school, we give serious consideration to the turmoil and if we can fix it. Somebody’s funding is going to be jeopardized if it has to move and it costs us more money,’ Davis said.
Councilwoman Rhonda Rhoads, who entered the meeting late, came to the FYI board’s defense, saying, ‘It bothers me that some have used this as a way of getting attention. You have people on this board who are not politicians. And you have people on this board who are not superintendents.
‘If Debbie (Heazlitt) died tomorrow, they would’ve had to find a replacement. I see no sense in sitting here saying the board is a terrible board. We are supposed to be showing these children that being an adult is a good thing to be,’ Rhoads said, adding that it was now time to hire a new director and continue with programs.
Councilmen Carl (Buck) Mathes and Brown said they would support the superintendents with their votes in whatever they decided to do regarding the alternative school.
‘I wouldn’t tell you folks how to educate kids, and I wouldn’t let you tell me how to farm,’ Mathes said.
The council and commissioners ended discussion without setting another date to meet regarding the school. Eckart advised the superintendents to request a meeting when they felt necessary. In the meantime, both bodies and the superintendents agreed to search for a solution that included the alternative school staying at GYC.