Cheltenham parts ways with embattled superintendent

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Superintendent Natalie Thomas. (Photo via Cheltenham School District website)

After weeks of controversy and rancor, the end of Natalie Thomas' 19 months as school superintendent in Cheltenham came Tuesday night in a matter of seconds.

With no discussion, the school board in the Montgomery County district voted, 9-0, to part ways with Thomas - a veteran Missouri educator who had clashed with principals, staff, and union leaders since her 2013 arrival - and to make William Kiefer, a former superintendent recently hired as a "monitor" of Thomas, the substitute chief.

None of the roughly 35 people who showed up at the special meeting questioned the move. The board said it had worked out a separation agreement with Thomas, 57, who was not present. Officially, she will stay on the payroll until Feb. 28 on a leave of absence.

"The community will be able to rally and move forward," Board President Napoleon Nelson said after the short session.

Some audience members voiced relief that the controversy over Thomas, which had prompted a series of meetings last fall and the hiring of Kiefer at $900 a day, was finally over.

"I thank the school board for doing some difficult homework and coming to a very difficult decision," said Betsy Conway, a teacher in the district for 36 years.

The district of seven schools and nearly 5,000 students had been roiled by controversy since Thomas arrived from a district just outside St. Louis, with the volume intensifying after last summer's abrupt departure of a Cheltenham High School principal who had butted heads with his new boss.

"I am very disappointed with what occurred and transpired over the past year and a half. It was not what the board had anticipated," Tina Viletto, a former board member who was president when Thomas was hired, said before the expected outcome. "It's just very sad that it has come to this. There's so much good in our district, and what has happened that I've watched is almost like a tearing down of all that we built up."

It was not clear how long Kiefer will stay. "I will do everything I can to serve the school district," he said after the vote. Asked about the many flare-ups over Thomas' tenure, he said only, "That's the past, I'm looking toward the future." There was no discussion Tuesday night about severance pay for Thomas or Kiefer's salary as substitute superintendent.

Kiefer's hiring as monitor was an acknowledgment of the growing chorus of parents, current and former administrators, and activists who went public with their complaints that bringing in Thomas - paid $180,000 a year - was a costly mistake. Critics cited an authoritarian management style as well as episodes ranging from the hiring of a close friend to a lawsuit filed against her by a neighbor whose kitten was mauled by a dog.

In the spring of 2013, the Cheltenham board hired Thomas, who had been superintendent in two suburban Missouri school districts. At the time, little was made of controversies that had marked her time there, including two lawsuits she filed against the Riverview Gardens district, where she had last worked.

Thomas was given the difficult task of turning around declining student achievement. The Pennsylvania school-performance profile for Cheltenham High dropped in 2014 to 74 on a 100-point scale (the state considers 70 adequate) - one of the lowest scores in Montgomery County. At first, residents gave Thomas high marks, especially for her handling of the closing of Cedarbrook Middle School because of persistent mold problems.

But the mood changed after the reassignment and swift exit of high school principal Andrew Kuhn, who took a $25,000 pay cut to leave for a district near Reading after he was reassigned by Thomas to a desk job at district headquarters.

Other departures have included the assistant superintendent, the business manager, two elementary school principals, an assistant high school principal, a transportation supervisor, and soccer and baseball coaches. Also tossed into the cauldron of controversy was a hazing scandal on the boys' varsity soccer team, and a raucous high school sit-in in which administrators quickly gave in to student demands, such as being allowed to wear headphones in the hallways.

Thomas went to war with teachers as well. The Cheltenham Education Association late last year filed an unfair-labor-practices complaint with the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board over the suspension, transfer, and unsatisfactory evaluation of its president, Jack Kelly. The union alleged that the move was retaliation for his labor activities, and that three other union teachers were punished for not supporting the district in its allegations against Kelly.

Thomas defended her tenure amid the rising uproar, asking the Cheltenham community for patience and for feedback. She said in an interview in the fall: "I've been an educator for going on 30 years, and one of the things I've always found to be helpful is listening to feedback - even feedback that's not easy to hear."

The superintendent also defended decisions to give district work to a couple of friends or associates, including a former Missouri associate whom she introduces as her "godmother." That friend, Christine Long, worked as a literacy instructor - a "temporary sub," Thomas said - in the CLASP before-and-after-school program for 21/2 months in 2013. Thomas also last year hired a former superintendent from Missouri, Linda Henke, as a personal coach at a cost of $5,000.

But critics expressed the greatest concern about what they called a climate of fear and mistrust, especially among teachers who said they feared clashing with Thomas. An October letter by 25 former school board members, teachers, and parents stated that Cheltenham was in "dire straits," prompting board members to reexamine her tenure.

 


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