New Fox Chapel superintendent helped guide Franklin Regional district through trauma

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Fox Chapel Area High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Fox Chapel Area High School. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Following the early departure of its previous superintendent and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fox Chapel Area School District board selected a nearby administrator to lead the district as superintendent.

The board voted unanimously at its April 28 meeting to hire Mary Catherine Reljac, most recently an assistant superintendent in the Franklin Regional School District, as Fox Chapel’s new superintendent. Her contract took effect immediately after the vote.

Reljac served in her previous position since 2013, and received a “distinguished evaluation” each year from the Franklin Regional board of school directors.

A resident of Aspinwall, Reljac said she was eager to start serving the children in her local district. “It’s not often that an educational leader has the opportunity to serve one’s home community,” Reljac said. “But as a 19-year resident, I am very excited to serve the families, students and staff.”

Mary Catherine Reljack was chosen as Fox Chapel's new superintendent on April 28. (Screenshot from April 28 meeting)

Mary Catherine Reljac was chosen as Fox Chapel's new superintendent on April 28, 2020. (Screenshot from April 28 meeting)

Ron Frank, the board member who led the search committee, listed off a few comments submitted by community members about Reljac before she was hired. 

  • Admits she doesn’t need to be correct all the time”
  • “Focus on diversity challenges and neighborhood differences”
  • “Dislikes meetings but likes conversations”
  • “Notes need for transparency and communication”

Board chair Somer Obernauer noted that Reljac’s starting salary would be $200,000 and that her fringe benefits would be in line with other employees in the district. She earned $143,438 in 2018 in her current position. 

The meeting was held over Zoom as the district voted to suspend its rules requiring in-person voting indefinitely.

The previous Fox Chapel superintendent, Gene Freeman, who had served since 2014, was scheduled to be paid $232,553 this year but reached an agreement with the board to end his contract in March after a lengthy absence. He has since started work as superintendent of Asheville City School in North Carolina. Freeman also received more than $100,000 for unused vacation days over the past five years. 

The Fox Chapel school board met over Zoom on April 28. (Screenshot)

The Fox Chapel school board met over Zoom on April 28, 2020. (Screenshot)

Board members Marybeth Dadd and Edith Cook said Reljac’s previous experience would be helpful when students go back to school after the COVID-19 crisis and have additional challenges and trauma. In 2014, Reljac helped lead the Franklin Regional School District through a crisis when 22 people were injured in a mass stabbing. She helped plan how the district would take care of students when they returned to school

Before working in Franklin Regional, Reljac served as principal for two years in the Pine-Richland School District and for almost 10 years as a principal in the Gateway School District, according to her LinkedIn page. She received her doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in 2016. 

In 2019, Reljac was awarded the Dr. Jean E. Winsand Distinguished Woman in Education Award, given by the University of Pittsburgh to a woman who has made a significant impact and positive difference in her career through exemplary leadership and service to others.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents the new superintendent with unique challenges. During public comment, Lynn Gackenbach, the parent of a senior at Fox Chapel high school, complained that the district was not communicating clearly with parents about what it was doing to celebrate its seniors and that she’d paid $9 for a sign that she later learned the district would provide for free. 

“Good god, does it really take four weeks to do something for these kids? I don’t understand the delay and why these kids aren’t being celebrated,” she said.

Earlier in the meeting, Michael Hower, the principal at the high school, said the district was still planning to confer degrees to graduating seniors on June 7 and hold an online celebration that day. He said he hopes that graduates will be able to come to the campus quickly to get their pictures taken with their families. As long as state health restrictions allow, Hower said the plan is for students to come to the school May 13 to pick up their caps and gowns. 

Hower also said the district is tentatively planning for a full graduation celebration at the end of July or in early August, depending on what the health restrictions at the time will allow. “We are not just looking to do it online. There has been concern that it’s all we’ll be able to do,” Hower said. “And you know what, if that is all we’re able to do, we understand the landscape right now, that safety is No. 1.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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