By Justin Wier
If Vince Colaluca stays in the Austintown Local School District, he will continue helming a district that faces challenges.
His bid for the superintendent’s job in Mentor was scratched Thursday night when the school board there voted 3-2 not to offer him the job. This happened on the heels of a Mentor Public Schools news release just the night before saying that Colaluca would be appointed superintendent.
“Mentor went a different direction and that’s OK. That happens,” Colaluca said. “I’m in a great place here. We’ve got a great board, a great community.”
Still, he had seemed confident before the vote that he’d be leaving Austintown schools in a good place.
“A great leader is someone that can walk away and the organization still runs,” Colaluca said earlier. “If the organization falls apart, they didn’t do a very good job. ... Our district will continue to flourish.”
He has been superintendent at Austintown schools since 2009.
Colaluca said he plans to pursue ongoing projects such as the Chromebook and the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics initiatives aimed at growing students’ technical competencies.
Many opportunities have come his way over the years, he said, and he’s turned them down because he loves Austintown.
But Mentor seemed like a good fit.
“Mentor is very similar,” Colaluca said. “It’s very innovative and very student-oriented.”
A move to a bigger district would have meant a bigger paycheck.
Mentor Superintendent Matthew Miller earns $155,000. Colaluca’s salary is $111,189. Miller is leaving this month to take a position with the Lakota Local School District near Cincinnati.
Mentor has about 7,800 students, compared with 4,800 at Austintown.
FLIPPING THE BOARD
There is some upheaval in the Austintown community over the school district’s direction. Some people at the Mentor meeting raised questions about issues in the Austintown district.
A Facebook page titled “Flip the Austintown Board of Education” has garnered more than 400 likes. The page is supporting David Daichendt, Robin Krempasky and Omar Jadue for the three seats on the board that are up for election this fall. They are occupied by School board President Alex Benyo, Kathy Mock and Ken Jakubec.
Mandy Richmond, who runs the page, said the group doesn’t feel like the school board is listening to the views of the community.
In particular, she said the board renewed Colaluca’s contract in December despite a petition with more than 2,000 signatures demanding the contract not be renewed.
Colaluca’s departure would move the district in the right direction, she contended.
Daichendt has cited mismanagement of open enrollment and a hostile work environment as issues that have not been addressed.
In response to his detractors, Colaluca on Thursday night said he and the Austintown school board have included the public in the decision-making process in the district at every turn, and that he intends to continue that trend. He also suggested those expressing criticism online may not be telling the truth.
“Watch what you read on Facebook about Austintown schools, because most of it probably isn’t true,” he said.
Open enrollment continues to be a source of some discontent in the Austintown district – despite studies that show the program doesn’t adversely affect the district.
The Flip the Austintown Board of Education group targeted Colaluca and his board-member supporters for removal.
State report cards show the district falling a bit in academic performance since its height from a few years ago.
Two principals – one on administrative leave – have been lightning rods for discussion on social media in recent weeks.
But despite the battles at home, Colaluca’s star is rising,
Benyo said Austintown has benefited greatly from Colaluca’s vision and the schools are in a great position to move forward.
“Vince has done a great job to make sure our administrative staff is well prepared and responsible for the tasks at hand,” Benyo said.
Youngstown State University’s Beeghly College of Education presented Colaluca with the Dean’s Appreciation Award at a May 11 Alumni Awards dinner. A news release said he compiled a long record of leadership, service to communities in Eastern Ohio and advocacy for children.
He also was named an outstanding superintendent in Northeast Ohio by the Buckeye Association of School Administrators in 2015.
Austintown rose from being on academic watch when Colaluca took over in 2009 to being considered excellent with distinction by the Ohio Department of Education in 2012.
While the state’s measuring tools change nearly every year, the district’s most recent report card showed two Bs, two Ds, and two Fs.
The expansion of open enrollment under Colaluca’s watch garnered criticism from the community, despite evidence that out-of-district students perform no worse than in-district students.
According to a Vindicator investigation, 776, or 15 percent, of Austintown’s students attend through open enrollment.
In a sign perhaps hinting at some discontent among the staff, cafeteria workers at Austintown Intermediate School took unusual steps to catch a suspected food thief.
They set up a hunting camera in the school’s pantry hoping to catch someone in the act.
AIS Principal Jeff Swavel was captured on camera taking food, but the administration said an internal investigation found that he was only getting a snack while working on the weekend and intended to pay for it.
A note in Swavel’s personnel file states that he admitted this at a May 2 meeting. It also states that he paid the food-service director for the items that were taken. There are no other infractions in his record.
A notice was sent out to all Austintown staff to make sure they pay for food they take from the cafeteria.
Colaluca said no major amount of food was missing after an inventory by the food-service director.
The cafeteria workers obtained the trail camera from an Austintown Police Department officer contracted to work as a security guard with the school.
Instead of catching a thief, the workers may have caught some trouble for themselves.
Colaluca said the district would handle disciplining the employee who led the effort to install the camera.
“You just can’t put cameras in our district without being authorized,” Colaluca said.
He added that if there really was significant food theft, evidence gained through an unauthorized camera could be found inadmissible.
The administration presented the matter to the board, which agreed that no further action was warranted.
School officials have said for more than two months they are investigating Austintown Middle School Principal James Penk. He was placed on administrative leave March 16.
The administration has declined to reveal anything about the investigation other than the fact that students were not involved.
Penk assumed the role of AMS principal in 2013; before that, he was the school’s assistant principal.
He has been with the district in various roles since 1998, when he was hired as a teacher.
There are no disciplinary matters in his personnel file prior to being placed on administrative leave.
Colaluca told The Vindicator he expected the Penk investigation to close early this summer.
The investigations into both Penk and Swavel created substantial speculation on social media.
Despite the turmoil, Colaluca said these factors played no role in his decision in looking to leave Austintown for Mentor schools.
“If I felt I didn’t have support in Austintown, I would have left a long time ago,” he said. “The support’s been wonderful from the board to the community to the staff.”