The Abington school board announced this week that assistant superintendent Jeffrey Fecher is its pick to replace retiring schools chief Amy Sichel – surprising some people still smarting over the board's handling of a controversial $25 million gift from a Wall Street billionaire.
The announcement of Fecher to replace Sichel, who said in July that she was stepping down Nov. 9 after 18 years in the top slot, was made at a sparsely attended meeting, and caught some school activists off-guard.
But educators said Fecher – who has been Sichel's top assistant since 2014 – was a strong internal candidate, and experts agreed that it's not uncommon for area districts to groom a successor for a long-time superintendent rather than conduct a lengthy and expensive search.
In a letter to residents on July 9, school board president Raymond McGarry noted that the board would consider internal candidates and that "Dr. Sichel has always made succession planning for key leadership jobs a priority."
"It seems to me they never had any intention of considering anybody else," said Abington resident Andrea Judge, who believes she was the only community member in the room when the selection of Fecher as the only finalist was announced by the board on Tuesday night. Other residents complained on a community website about the lack of additional candidates. The board has yet to announce when it will vote on Fecher's appointment.
The board's decision-making had come under fire this spring from residents, alumni, and parents during the uproar over a $25 million gift to the district from billionaire alumni Stephen Schwarzman for high school renovation and a new science and technology wing.
Months after the gift was announced, board members voted to rename the high school after Schwarzman and make other concessions with virtually no public notice. In the ensuing uproar, Sichel apologized for how the matter was handled, and the board negotiated a new deal with Schwarzman that retained the name of Abington Senior High School.
Sichel gave no indication that her decision to retire after a 42-year career with the district was linked to the flap. Her annual salary as head of the Montgomery County district is $319,714, the highest in the state for the position.
In notes summarizing the Sept. 4 school board meeting, McGarry said that using an outside search firm could be risky since no matter how good a candidate appears on paper and in interviews, "you really don't know who you are getting until they are on the job."
He said Fecher was interviewed on Aug. 21 for 2½ hours and "knocked it out of the park," and that the board believed "he would excel at the job."
In an email exchange this week with Judge, McGarry wrote that Fecher was the only in-house candidate to step forward.
On Friday, Judge said that McGarry "can't say he blew it out of the park if you didn't hear anybody else's ideas." In only considering Fecher, the board failed to take diversity into account during its hiring process, she said.
Brad Landis, assistant executive director of the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, who has conducted numerous searches and whose organization does them free for county school systems, said it's not unusual for a district like Abington to groom an internal candidate to replace an existing superintendent, rather than conducting an extensive outside search.
"I happen to know it has long been thought he would be the successor there, so it's not surprising to me," Landis said of Fecher. "I was very pleased to see that he was going to be considered. I think it's the right move for Abington."