He treated each child in the Wyoming Area School District as if it was his own child.
He spent the district’s money as if it was his own money.
And minded the district buildings as if they were his buildings.
Ray Bernardi, the outgoing superintendent after 13 years, said that’s what made his job so easy.
“People say it’s a difficult job, and it is,” he said. “But if you treat everything as if it’s yours, you’ll get the best value.”
He will retire officially on April 4.
Bernardi is clearly a man who enjoys being seen. His appearance is impeccable, tanned and coiffed to perfection. He takes great pride is his clothes, particularly his designer necktie collection, which he said has over 50 pieces.
“I’m very careful when I eat,” he said. “Sometimes I’ll put a napkin on it. I’m very meticulous like that.”
Even his car license plate says “WA Super,” an item he said his wife was responsible for, but has since embraced.
“My wife said now that I’m retiring, I should consider getting rid of that license plate,” he said. “I said, gee, I don’t know. I kinda like that. It’s my identity now.”
About 70 faculty and staff members said farewell to Bernardi on Thursday afternoon at an open house and reception at the Secondary Center.
“It’s been a great ride,” Bernardi told the group. “We did some wonderful things, and if I could have done it all over again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The people in the office, the people here, standing behind me, are the ones that make me look good. The teachers, the support staff. It was all my pleasure to serve.”
State Rep. Phyllis Mundy presented Bernardi with a state House citation.
“It gives me great personal pleasure to be here to congratulate Ray on his retirement and to thank him for his many years of dedicated service to the students, to the families and to the entire education and support staff of this district,” she said.
Mundy, D-Kingston, who is also retiring, said Bernardi has been presented with many challenges from the state.
“We, in Harrisburg, are constantly telling you what to do, and not giving you enough money to do it,” Mundy said. “Ray has done the best he could and, by Jove, he did a great job. The students in this district get a very, very good education.”
Bernardi, 64, was born in the Cork Lane section of Pittston Township. He attended St. John the Evangelist School from kindergarten until he graduated high school in 1968.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in Spanish from King’s College and a certification in special education and then a master’s degree in special education from Marywood University. He received his supervisory certificate in special education at Bloomsburg University and his elementary and secondary principal certification and letter of eligibility for superintendent from Penn State University.
He moved to West Pittston in 1974 after he married his wife, the former His wife, the former Karen Baldoni of Plains Township. They have three boys, all graduates of Wyoming Area: Raymond, Darren and Brett Bernardi, and two grandchildren, Jack, 3, Dominic, 8, who is a student at Pittston Area School District, a fact not lost on Bernardi.
Bernardi calls the Wyoming Area/Pittston Area rivalry “healthy,” but said at the end of the day the boundaries are blurred by family ties.
“It’s going to be very difficult for me if my grandchildren are playing sports for Pittston Area,” Bernardi laughed. “I’ll root for my grandsons first, and I’ll probably root for Wyoming Area too.”
He said Greater Pittston is a community where families don’t stick to one side of the Susquehanna River, the way it was 70 years ago.
“We’re bitter arch rivals on the field, but we’re all family,” he said. “We’re all aunts and uncles, both sides have relatives on the other side. There’s a lot of family that came from Pittston that lives on this side of the river. And we have people here in West Pittston and Exeter that have grandchildren across the river in Pittston Area.”
Bernardi’s career in education spanned 41 years, the last 13 years as superintendent.
He began teaching special education as a teacher associate at the White Haven Center in 1973 and became a teacher one year later.
“When I saw the kids there at the time, it was really an eye opener for me because some of these kids were severely involved,” Bernardi said. “I worked with a teacher as a aide and that’s what led me to get my certification in special education because I felt that could be my career, it was something I had an interest in.”
In 1979, he joined the Wyoming Area Secondary Center as a special-education teacher until 1987, when he took a job as work-experience coordinator with the Luzerne Intermediate Unit. He later became head of pupil personnel of the LIU and returned to Wyoming Area in 1993 when he was hired as director of curriculum and instruction. He was hired as assistant superintendent in 1999 and superintendent in 2001.
As superintendent Bernardi is in charge of a $30 million organization.
“You set the goals and vision for the district with regards to curriculum, strategies instruction, and you also help craft and live within a budget,” he said. “That’s basically my role in a nutshell.”
One issue that disturbs Bernardi is the rise of cyber schools.
“Cyber and charter schools are eroding the funds of regular education,” he said. “They are siphoning a lot of public education funds from the schools districts to support it.”
He said there are approximately 180 cyber and cyber charter schools throughout the Commonwealth and 1.7 million children that go to such schools.
“So, the example is, if you’re a student, a parent that lives in the Wyoming Area School District, and you want to enroll in Agora Cyber School, you see that advertisement, you enroll, they sign you up, but it’s not free,” he said. “We get billed for the expense.”
He said a solution the district has started is the Wyoming Area Cyber Academy.
“That’s one of the initiatives that we have started,” he said. “We’re slowly bringing some of them back into the district so we can use the money here.”
He said enrollment is already down and has been down for several years.
“Back in the mid-2000s, we had approximately 2,700 students,” he said. “Now we’re down around 2,450. If you look around in the Wyoming Area District, it’s not something peculiar just to our district, you can see a lot of homes are for rent and for sale.”
He said the flooding of 2011 also cause families to leave the district.
He said Gov. Tom Corbett promising not to raise taxes has put that burden on the local school districts.
“We’re running a business here and we’re getting less money,” he said. “What happens now is the school board members are being pressured because they’re on the front line with the public and they have the difficult decision: Do we cut programs or do we raise taxes?”
He said, with the exception of the Sarah J. Dymond Elementary, which needs a new roof and boiler, he is leaving the Wyoming Area facilities in tip-top shape.
“We’ve re-roofed the Secondary Center,” he said. “Tenth Street is a brand new building. At JFK Elementary, there was an explosion nearby in 2009 and the building was done over after the explosion. And we just completed $2 million in renovations at Montgomery Avenue Elementary School, along with, because of the flooding of 2011, we had close to $800,000 in PEMA money.”
The superintendent’s longtime secretary, Ann Agolino, is also retiring after 24 years in the front office and served three district leaders.
“Ray’s vision has been remarkable,” she said. “He had an uncanny knack of looking into the future and coming up with a lot of very good ideas for the district. He has a very human side, too. Very warm, very funny.”
His office staff presented him with an engraved gold watch.
A group of veterans came to show support for Bernardi at the final school board meeting earlier this week and at the program on Thursday. Bernardi said one of his proudest accomplishments is the annual veterans program the Secondary Center conducts around Veteran’s Day.
“One veteran told me I respected and honored the veterans,” Bernardi said. “That was very gratifying. I hope my one main legacy is that veterans program and what it means to all of our veterans.”
Janet Serino, a longtime Wyoming Area administrator, was named the district’s first female superintendent on Sept. 24. She already took the oath of office and is ready to take over.
“The best advice I can give her is always put the kids first in all the decisions you make,” he said. “If you put the kids first, you’ll do fine.”