Quakertown schools at impasse on new chief

Pennsylvania Department of Education Secretary William Harner.

QUAKERTOWN William Harner, a longtime school administrator who has sparked controversies in Harrisburg and elsewhere, is involved in another one, this time in Bucks County.

A proposal to make Harner, 57, who has been serving as the interim superintendent in the 5,500-student Quakertown Community School District since January, the permanent chief has generated sharp criticism from some residents and board members who want to interview other candidates.

Harner's board backers say he has gained support from teachers, parents, and students since replacing Lisa Andrejko, who is on medical leave awaiting retirement this summer.

"Since he's been hired he has been doing everything he promised he would do and much more, so, yes, I'm impressed with him," said Paul Stepanoff, board president.

In August, after only three months on the job, Harner was removed as acting state secretary of education over alleged "inappropriate conduct." Sources say that as superintendent of the Cumberland Valley School District, his prior position, Harner sent an e-mail to a male administrator asking him how he looked in a Speedo bathing suit. The employee filed a complaint.

He was a finalist for the superintendent's post in the Coatesville Area School District, and in January, the Quakertown board voted, 5-4, to hire him on an interim basis. Dissenters argued that only three candidates had been interviewed, none more than once. The board hired a consultant to assess the value of conducting a search, but he advised against it, Stepanoff said.

Others protested, and at a school board meeting last month, director Robert Smith made a motion to begin a search, but it ended in a 4-4 deadlock. Smith said the board had agreed to a search when Harner was hired - although director Mitch Anderson acknowledged that was just a ploy to get the votes needed at the time.

"That's the sort of horse-trading one does when you try to accomplish something. That's what happens in Congress," said Anderson, a former Quakertown teacher.

Smith said Harner may indeed be the right person for the job, "but we'd like to be able to look at a few people and make that decision."

Parent June Hunt, who spoke up at the school board meeting, said, "If Dr. Harner is a great, wonderful candidate, why are we afraid to put him up against other candidates?"

The pro-search board members say they aren't displeased with Harner. "I like some of what I see," said director Anna Cattie. "He's very energetic and he has a lot of good ideas."

But Stepanoff said that the district could lose Harner during a six- to nine-month search if he landed a job elsewhere, and that the best candidates may not apply since they know that Harner would be the front-runner.

For now, the search issue remains unresolved.

Harner said he would like to stay but understands both sides. "I don't take any of that personally," he said.

Harner grew up in Cheltenham Township and was an administrator for the Philadelphia School District for a time, but he has worked all over the country.

In Greenville County, S.C., where he was superintendent for four years in the early 2000s, he was praised for raising test scores but clashed with school board members and parents over issues including selling timber from cleared district land to raise money for a lacrosse program and left before his contract expired.

In 2007, Harner was offered the job as school superintendent in Toledo, Ohio, but never took the post after controversy over his plans to live outside the district and send his daughter to a private school.

"Dr. Harner always says past performance is an indicator of future success," Hunt said. "Based on that I'm a little nervous. He sometimes doesn't stay in a job too long and manages to get himself in a bit of a tangle."