While numerous academic changes handed down from the state had a significant impact on the Whitehall City School District this year, it was the personnel changes that grabbed the most ink.

While numerous academic changes handed down from the state had a significant impact on the Whitehall City School District this year, it was the personnel changes that grabbed the most ink.

A major change at the helm and new faces on the school board and administration set the stage for a year of transformation.

Here's a look back at 2013's top stories in Whitehall schools.

Dobbert-Meloy retires

After 43 years in education and more than 13 years leading the Whitehall City School District out of some academic doldrums, Superintendent Judyth Dobbert-Meloy hung up her hat for good in July.

Her Whitehall career was marked by academic improvement, a successful 6.87-mill bond issue, five new school buildings, financial prowess and an improved relationship between staff and administrators.

The name of former Whitehall principal and personnel director Brian Hamler surfaced in the second round of the search for Dobbert-Meloy's replacement. The Whitehall native, who took the reins in July, said he was happy to be home again and has high hopes for the district.

Board President Walter Armes said he and other board members were pleased with the number of applicants for the position, and the high quality as well. He said Hamler, though, was a clear standout.

A number of personnel changes also were in order this year. Ty Debevoise was hired as the district's first director of communication and marketing. Andy Riggle, director of administrative services, retired, while Dave Hausmann was promoted to the position. Personnel responsibilities were shifted to Hamler.

Board shuffle

Not all of this year's departures featured cake and balloons. Longtime board member Ronda Howard, along with her son, Brandon Howard, abruptly resigned from the school board in February.

Armes said he was surprised at the time to hear of the Howards' joint departure.

"I was not expecting it," he said after learning of the news.

In his resignation letter, Brandon Howard mentioned no specific reason for stepping down, but alluded to a controversy in which he was charged with carrying a concealed weapon, a misdemeanor, during Whitehall's National Night Out event in August 2012.

"I feel that it is in the best interest for me to resign for the well-being of my family," he said in the letter.

A YouTube video purportedly posted by the online activist group Anonymous called for Brandon Howard's resignation. The group also used both Facebook and Twitter to spread its message.

Ronda Howard had been a school board member since 2004. While her letter of resignation contained messages of gratitude, it gave no reason for her departure. She did not respond to requests from ThisWeek Whitehall News for an interview.

Joy Bivens and Darrell Hammock were appointed to replace the Howards. Hammock, however, lost his seat in November. Voters chose Armes, board Vice President Blythe Wood and former City Council member Leo Knoblauch to fill three four-year terms.

Bivens ran unopposed for a two-year term on the board.

New WYHS opens

It was a dream five years in the making. After passing a 6.87-mill bond issue in 2008, Whitehall had the green light for construction of five new school buildings, virtually replacing the entire school district in half a decade.

Fall 2013 marked the opening of the district's final new building: Whitehall-Yearling High School.

But the celebration was short-lived as the school board was forced to address overcrowding. The board voted to add four classrooms each to Beechwood, Etna Road and Kae Avenue elementary schools, all new structures.

Hamler said late this year that he hopes to break ground in January 2014 and finish construction by mid-July on the new classroom space, with the hopes of launching the 2014-15 school year with plenty of room at the elementary level.

Work on the old portion of Whitehall-Yearling High School currently mothballed is not as apparent, he said.

State testing

The Third Grade Reading Guarantee, part of Senate Bill 316 approved in 2011 by state leaders, mandates districts retain students in third grade who do not meet literacy benchmarks.

Those benchmarks were released this year by the state board of education, which has decided to use the Ohio Achievement Assessment as the universal test for the new law.

Whitehall received its spring testing numbers in late December, giving district leaders a clue as to how many students may have to be retained. More than a third of Whitehall's third-graders failed the state reading test, which means they could be held back if they don't improve their scores.

Hamler said he opposed retaining children across the board for failing to meet the benchmark, although he applauded the overall thought-process behind the state-mandated reading guarantee. He said Whitehall may use multiage classrooms in response to any retentions as a result of the new standards.

Whitehall also did not fare well, at least on paper, following the Ohio Department of Education's release of its new state report cards Aug. 22, a report card that brought with it many changes in both look and content.

The Whitehall City School district received two A's, three C's, two D's and two F's on the new report card, which uses letter grades instead of designations such as "effective" and "continuous improvement."

The state released letter grades in nine areas beginning this year, but will work up to a more comprehensive report card with an overall letter grade assigned to each school and district by 2015.

Financial stability

The district's financial outlook got a bit brighter in October.

District Treasurer Steve McAfee presented school board members with his biannual five-year forecast indicating the district will extend its positive financial balance at least one more year than previously thought -- and likely longer -- thanks to a hefty shot in the arm from the state.

The last time the Whitehall City School District came to voters for operating dollars was in 1995 with a 13-mill request. The district promised taxpayers it would not return for another levy increase for at least 10 years.

That was 18 years ago.

But the district also made a more-recent pledge to voters in Whitehall not to ask for additional dollars before the district's five new school buildings were complete, which took place last fall.

New track; free lunch

The high school track, stands and press box received a long-awaited facelift this school year to the tune of $415,000. Because the track had been in such bad shape for such a long time, meets hadn't been held at Whitehall-Yearling in seven years.

The district also launched a free lunch program this school year, offering the free noon meal to anyone regardless of income. The program was a success and the number of lunches served increased.