JOHNSTOWN -- The Greater Johnstown School District School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night to hire Karen Geelan as interim superintendent.
Geelan, however, says she is still employed and under contract until 2022 to serve as the superintendent of Valhalla Union Free School in Westchester County.
"I have not resigned at this point. Not everything that you always read is necessarily accurate, but I am currently employed there," she said. "We've come to an agreement and our agreement is talking about a separation of my leadership at the district, and letting them transition into their next superintendent."
Geelan replaces Patricia Kilburn, who has been named district superintendent at Oneida-Herkimer-Madison BOCES.
Johnstown school board President Chris Tallon said the plan is for Johnstown to pay Geelan $600 per day for all of the days of the school year, not including school holidays, to not pay her health benefits, and to keep her with the district through at least June 30, 2020.
"We expect her to be here every day that school is in session," Tallon said.
Geelan was suspended amid controversy at the Valhalla Union Free School in December 2018, a little more than a year after she was hired. According to a May 29 article in the Rockland/Westchester Journal News, which also reported Geelan had resigned, Geelan was suspended during a "hastily scheduled" school board meeting Dec. 29, 2018 after an executive session during which the district's school board voted to "find probable cause regarding charges #I to #XXIII as set forth in a letter to employee #1594 dated December 29, 2018 as presented to the Board in Executive Session at this meeting."
Geelan was suspended with full pay at a salary of $260,000. She said she could not comment on the circumstances of her suspension, but added, "there were no charges."
"I'm not at liberty to talk about it, to discuss too much about what has happened or hasn't happened to the extent of what may be written that is true or is not true, or to say anything other than that. I do wish them well," she said.
Geelan would not say whether Valhalla is still paying for her health insurance benefits.
"You'd have to ask them," she said.
Geelan defended her record at Valhalla.
"I am proud of what I was able to accomplish in the time that I was there. We increased community and family engagement. We started an employee recognition program. We increased our infrastructure technologically within the district. We enhanced our security measures on campus," she said.
Geelan said she served as the active superintendent for Valhalla from November 2017 until December 2018. She said her initial contract with Valhalla was supposed to run until 2020, but in June of 2018 she was given a "contract extension and other enhancements to my contract" that keeps her a paid employee of that district until 2022.
Geelan said she would not say whether she will resign from Valhalla.
"I'm not at liberty to talk about what my intentions are. I can tell you this right now, my full intention, heart, experience and work is being put into everyone here in Johnstown," she said.
"Their loss is our gain for sure," Tallon said. "We have retained a very qualified individual who's going to a great job for us here in Johnstown."
Prior to Geelan being sworn in, Tallon gave a brief speech introducing her to the district, saying she had come highly recommended from her past school districts, although he did not name them.
When asked after the meeting, Tallon would not say whether any recommendations had come from Valhalla.
"So the process went through our district superintendents, both the Capital Region BOCES and the HFM BOCES," Tallon said. "They did extensive vetting and they came back to us with several high recommendations from people who have worked with Dr. Geelan in the past, and ultimately, as we've said, she is going to be a great fit for Johnstown."
School board members Evamarie Mraz, Beverly Alves and Tallon said Geelan discussed the situation with Valhalla with them during her interview process and explained what had occurred there to their satisfaction.
"We have done extensive vetting on this whole situation; we had a great conversation with Dr. Geelan at the time of her interview and there is nothing that we see that would disqualify her from being our superintendent. We are fully confident in our decision as a board. We are fully confident in her ability to lead this district going forward."
Tallon said the board conducted one other formal interview with a candidate for a position, and reviewed a few other possible candidates. Prior to the search for an interim superintendent, Tallon stated at a school board meeting that one of his priorities in the search was to find an outsider without any ties to the school district.
A news release from the school district released after the meeting said Geelan had served for six years as superintendent at Allegany-Limestone Central School District in Cattaraugus County. The release said she has served at leadership positions at elementary, middle and high schools in both rural and suburban school districts. Before becoming a school administrator she taught math in Western New York for 12 years. Geelan earned her doctorate in education from the University at Buffalo, where she focused her studies on how schools and districts become adept at change so they can "resiliently bounce back from adversity."
The Greater Johnstown School District has been facing dire fiscal adversity for the last several years. The school district had an annual budget deficit of $4.3 million until district voters on June 18 approved a $37.87 million, 2019-20 budget with a 14.6 percent tax levy increase. That budget may have cut the deficit by as much as $1 million, but Johnstown has still been forced to cut more than 19 staff positions, and nearly all funding for its athletic programs, which continue thanks to nearly $300,000 worth of private fundraising. The district is contemplating the closure of an elementary school as it deals with declining enrollment.
The school district projects it will need 14.6 percent tax levy increases for each of the next three budget cycles in order to restore fiscal stability and ultimately save its core programming, including its high school and kindergarten. However, because of the state tax cap, the budgets will need 60 percent voter approval.
Geelan said she's ready for the challenge.
"I'm also a bit of a problem solver. When there are some challenges and issues that everyone here at the district is looking to have solved, being seasoned, I have a little bit of experience. I'm looking to help in anyway I can," Geelan said.
Geelan said she plans to relocate to Johnstown from her current home in the village of Springville in Erie County.