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Family, not finances, helped Gersen make decision

May 01, 1997

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

Although his new job comes with a hefty raise, Washington County Schools Superintendent Wayne F. Gersen said Wednesday that the chance to work more closely with schools and to be nearer to family members carried more weight in his decision to change jobs.

Gersen, 50, announced Wednesday morning that he has accepted the superintendent of schools post with Wappingers Central School District in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., effective July 1.

Gersen - who has headed the Washington County school system since 1987 - told the Washington County Board of Education on Tuesday that he was taking the job, Board Vice President Robert L. Kline said.

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He will leave his job here by June 30, Kline said.

The new job pays $114,000 a year - $23,800 more than his salary here - with a five-year contract, Gersen said Wednesday afternoon in a telephone interview from Wappingers Falls.

That's a competitive superintendent's salary for that area, which has a higher cost of living than Washington County, he said.

It doesn't include use of a board car, a perk with his job here, which pays $90,200, Gersen said.

Gersen said it wasn't the pay hike that prompted him to leave Washington County.

"Money doesn't motivate educators," he said. "It can only serve as a disincentive."

Gersen had told the school board he was looking for a 20 percent salary increase, which the board couldn't afford, Board President B. Marie Byers said in a telephone interview from Anaheim, Calif., where she was attending a National School Board Association convention.

"I think he's making a career decision that's his personal and professional decision, and I wish him well," said Byers.

It just seemed time for a change, said Gersen, who said he and his wife, Carol, started talking about a move last year when their younger daughter, Hannah, graduated from Boonsboro High School.

Gersen said he was attracted to a smaller school system because it would allow him closer day-to-day contact with principals and instructional personnel.

Gersen headed small school systems in Bethel, Maine, and Exeter, N.H., before becoming Washington County schools chief in June 1987.

Wappingers Central School District, located about 75 miles north of New York City, has a little over 11,000 students at 14 schools.

By comparison, Washington County has more than 19,000 students at 44 schools.

Gersen said he'll be able to use his experiences in Washington County to help his new school system in its plans for redistricting and changing from junior highs to middle schools.

Like Washington County, the school district is experiencing a lot of "budget challenges," said Gersen.

At the new job, he will be about two hours from his daughter's college and from his brother and sister, he said.

Gersen said he's not unhappy in his job but said he has been frustrated by "funding challenges," especially in the past five years.

"As a consequence, we have not been able to progress as fast as I would have liked to," said Gersen, who unveiled an ambitious plan for widespread improvement in July 1987.

Still, Gersen said he feels the school system has progressed in the past 10 years.

There's a higher level of accountability thanks to an improved evaluation process, and the school system has made steady strides in meeting state performance goals, he said.

News of Gersen's departure brought mixed reactions Wednesday.

Board member Doris J. Nipps said that while she is sorry to see Gersen go, she can understand why he might want to leave given the lack of backing he's received from the school board.

"I think it's been very difficult for him," said Nipps. She said she doesn't think Gersen has received sufficient credit for his many accomplishments.

Gersen probably has been one of the best instructional superintendents the county has ever had, she said.

It had gotten to the point where there's too much tension between Gersen and the both the school board and Washington County Commissioners, said Bill Greenwald, president of the Washington County Teachers Association.

"He's definitely made a lasting impression on the system," Greenwald said. "But from this point on, the amount of progress would be limited because of the political climate."

Gersen's contributions include creating a direct, informal way for teachers to communicate with him and increasing teacher involvement in school board committees, Greenwald said.

Teri Williamson, president of the Washington County Council of PTAs, said she wasn't surprised Gersen was leaving but was "somewhat disappointed" to lose his quality leadership.

Gersen has been supportive of the PTA and parent involvement, Williamson said.

Long-time Gersen critic Washington County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers said he thinks another superintendent can do a better job of improving student performance with the same money.

The county's improvements have paled in comparison to other Maryland counties with similar per-pupil spending, said Bowers, who was critical of Gersen's management style.

"Gersen's major problem was he equated everything with how much money he could spend," Bowers said.

Working with him on the Washington County Chamber of Commerce's business-education partnership committee for about six years, Mike Callas said he's been impressed with Gersen's support of cooperative business-education programs.

His involvement with the business community has kept him aware of its needs regarding education, said Callas, president of Callas Contractors Inc.

Staff writer Julie E. Greene contributed to this story.

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