EXETER – Ray Bernardi, the superintendent at Wyoming Area School District, will retire at the end of the week
Bernardi, 64, 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 he 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 last Thursday afternoon at an open house and reception at the Secondary Center. He sat down with the Times Leader for a Q&A session.
What is your background and education?
I was born in the Cork Lane section of Pittston Township. I went to school at St. John the Evangelist and that’s where I graduated from, K through 12. Then when I got married, I moved to West Pittston in 1974. I went to King’s College for my baccalaureate in Spanish, I got certification in special education from Marywood, I got my master’s degree in special education from Marywood. I got my supervisory certificate in special education at Bloomsburg. Then I went to Penn State and got my elementary and principal certification and my letter of eligibility for superintendent.
What is your work history?
When I graduated from King’s in 1972, I was unable to get a job in Spanish, but I got a position as a teachers aid at White Haven Center in White Haven which was an institution for special needs students, students that were given up by their parents. These students were wards of the state. It was a self-contained campus with a medical model that ran the education. They had their own self-contained cafeteria and in each building they had different age groups. … 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. 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. After I got my certification, I became a special education teacher for the Intermediate Unit assigned at White Haven Center. I stayed there for five years. So, in 1979, I was transferred to the Wyoming Area Secondary Center, through 1987. In 1987, because I had gone back and got my education, I became supervisor of pupil personnel at the LIU. I supervised eight different disciplines: nurses, psychologists, occupational therapists, that sort of thing. I held that position from 1987 through 1993, when I came back to Wyoming Area as Director of Curriculum and Instruction. I became assistant superintendent in 1999 and superintendent in 2001, 13 years ago to the day on Friday.
Do you have an “elevator speech” that explains your role and your duties at superintendent?
The superintendent 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. That’s basically the role in a nutshell.
Discuss how cyber schools fit in a modern school structure.
Cyber and charter schools are eroding the funds of regular education. There are approximately 180 cyber and cyber charter schools throughout the Commonwealth and 1.7 million children that go to such schools throughout the state. Most of them are in Philadelphia and Allegheny County. And they are siphoning a lot of public education funds from the schools districts to support it. You often see in the TV commercials Agora, that’s a cyber school, and they’re telling the public that it’s free education. It’s not free. What it is is on the backs of the taxpayers. 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, you see that advertisement, you enroll, they sign you up and we get billed for the expense. The district. So it’s tapping into the resources of public education. The solution is districts need to get into that market. So we started our own cyber school, the Wyoming Area Cyber Academy, where we are trying to get the students back to the Wyoming Area School District and they can get a Wyoming Area diploma. That’s one of the initiatives that we have started. We’re slowly bringing some of them back, but the cyber schools charge anywhere between $8,000 for a regular student and $12,000 for a special education student, and we can educate them for about $5,000. That’s the solution. Districts needed to get on this earlier; now we’re being forced into it because they’re siphoning money out of our general budget. And there’s no reimbursement for cyber education. And I’d like to add, if you look at the overall performance of these schools, they’re not doing that well.
Talk about the trends in enrollment in the district since you’ve been superintendent.
Our enrollment is declining. Back in the mid-2000s, we had approximately 2,700 students. 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. We were devastated by the flood of 2011, we lost a lot of residents because of that. I see that both working parents are not having as many children as they have in the past. Since 2005, we’re down over 200-some students.
Because of budget cuts and rising costs, how were you able to do more with less?
These things I know because I’ve been involved for so many years. In 2006-2007 school year, we had a 170 teachers. And now we’re down to 156. So, because of budget cuts, because of the sensitivity of raising taxes, we have increased class sizes, and through attrition, not re-hired teachers. So that’s how we tried to balance the raising of taxes with programmatically offering the courses.
What about financing of education from the state as it stands today? How concerned are you about the future?
Under the current administration, it’s interesting I hear (Gov. Tom) Corbett on TV talking about, in his commercials, he’s made a commitment to the public that he’s not going to raise taxes. Well, that may be true, but by him not raising taxes on the state level, he’s passing the burden onto the local school board members, and they, in turn, need to raise taxes. Over the last several years, just like in everyone’s household, your bills go up, your electric goes up, your utilities go up. And it’s the same thing with a school district. We’re running a business here and we’re getting less money. 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: What do we do? Do we cut programs or do we raise taxes?
How are the district’s facilities? Are the buildings in good shape in terms of room and condition?
I’m very proud of this. All of the Wyoming Area School District’s facilities have been renovated and updated over the last several years. We just have one piece of the puzzle that needs to be completed, the Sarah J. Dymond Elementary School. It needs a new boiler and a new roof in one section. It’s probably a $150,000 to $200,000 expenditure, and that’s the only piece of the puzzle of the facilities that needs to be done. We’ve re-roofed the Secondary Center. 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. That building, from the top to the bottom, was completed. The buildings that we have should give us another 20 years of service, no problem.
What is your fondest memory of your time at Wyoming Area?
Working with the teachers. Working with the staff. The children. The parents. And the reason why I say that is because there is not many places I can go that I don’t know somebody. The fondest memory is when I’m out, if I’m in the grocery store or at a restaurant or at a pizza place, and a child will come up to me with their parents and say, ‘Hi, Mr. Bernardi’ and the older ones want to introduce me to their parents. Or parents will come up to me and say, ‘I was at the National Honors Society program last night, what a nice program,’ or ‘I was at another event that was run by Wyoming Area.’ They’re the fondest memories. And the teachers. We’re all in this business together for the kids. So the staff, working with the staff collaboratively with the community, the parents and the kids.
Is there anything that you were unable to do or accomplish?
I would have liked to have seen a teachers contract before I retired. That was one of my concerns when I knew I was retiring. I thought at the time that it would be done by now, but unfortunately it’s not. That’s something I would have liked to accomplish because everyone knows we’re all here because of teachers. Teachers touch the lives of kids. And they deserve a fair day’s pay.
What are you retirement plans?
Right now I haven’t planned for anything. I’m going to take a look back. I have a place in Naples, Fla., where I will spend some time during the winter months. I’m going to catch up on some things around the house, like first thing to clean out the garage. And spend time with my grandchildren.
Do you have any words of advice for Janet Serino, your replacement?
The best advice I can give her is always put the kids first in all the decisions you make. This job, people say it’s a difficult job and it is, but if you look at it this way: That all the children are your children, that it’s your money that you’re spending and your facilities that you need to take care of, the job is easy. That’s a simple way of looking at it.