By Tom Davidson
FARRELL — Meadville resident Lee V. McFerren shouldn’t have been fired from his job as principal of Farrell High School, Commonwealth Court ruled Thursday.
In a 31-page opinion, a three-judge panel reversed Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak’s decision to uphold Farrell Area School Board’s firing of McFerren in July 2008.
“The opinion of the Comonwealth Court is insightful and well reasoned,” Sharon attorney Barbara Seman Ochs, who has represented McFerren throughout his battle with the school district, said Friday. “Mr. McFerren is pleased to have been vindicated.”
McFerren has been seeking reinstatement with back pay and interest from the time of his Feb. 7, 2008, suspension. He first appealed the school board’s decision to the state Department of Education and when it affirmed the firing he appealed the matter to Commonwealth Court.
“The litigation with the Farrell Area School District is not yet concluded and therefore I will not comment further at this time,” Ochs said Friday.
Farrell School Board President Terry Harrison deferred comment until the district consulted with its solicitor, James Nevant II.
McFerren was fired for a “laundry list” of causes that the district’s evidence didn’t prove, the court ruled.
Although the relationship between the district and the principal was “unhappy,” the allegations didn’t warrant firing McFerren, the court ruled.
“Each party has a different version of the relevant facts,” Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt wrote. “McFerren claims that he did his job as expected, which did not make him popular.
“However, the Board had a contractual commitment to McFerren, which included an obligation to work with him to move his performance in the direction it desired.
“Had the board done so … McFerren may have become the high school principal that the board members envisioned. If he did not, then the board would have been able to make out a case for dismissal prior to the end of the contract.”
McFerren was hired July 1, 2005, and was given a five-year contract which was to expire June 30.
McFerren claims he was hired to clean up a school that was suffering academically, with students and staff members who were out of control.
On Feb. 7, 2008, he was suspended without pay and was fired later that year after public hearings that lasted about 20 hours over several days.
Represented by lawyers Michael Levin and Andria Saia of Huntingdon Valley, Pa., the district argued McFerren neglected his duties as principal, mismanaged teachers and students, and violated the state school code during his three years with the district.
Before going to Farrell, McFerren worked at Franklin Area School District in Venango County and Crawford Central School District in Meadville. He is a graduate of Meadville Area Senior High School.
Davidson writes for The (Sharon) Herald, which, like The Meadville Tribune, is owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Tribune reporter Mary Spicer contributed to this story.