Two incumbents and one challenger are seeking to fill two seats on the United School District Board of Directors representing Region II, which covers Armagh Borough and East Wheatfield Township in Indiana County.
Norma Carpenter and Gertrude “Trudy” DeRubis are both seeking a third term on the district’s “Team of Ten.” The challenger is Eric Matava, a recent United graduate.
The district welcomed a new high school principal, Michael Worthington, in November and a new superintendent, Barbara Parkins, in December. The district also recently underwent a multimillion-dollar elementary renovation project, and started its own cyber school for its students last year.
All candidates will be on both the Republican and Democratic ballots.
Norma Carpenter is running for re-election because she said she is excited about the new administration, namely Parkins.
“I think her leadership and knowledge and what she has brought to the district has just been tremendous,” Carpenter said. “She has so much experience and it just seems like that, to me, is going to move our district forward. I’m so excited about it.”
Carpenter said she feels there have been a lot of accomplishments at United.
“Collectively as a board, (we’ve been) working on improved curriculum in reading and math. I don’t think we came in there, any of us, with major issues,” she said. “I think we just took what was already in place and continued to move it forward, starting with the leadership we had with our former business manager (Phil Marcus), and it set the tone.”
She also said she feels the board has been “fiscally responsible, especially with all the cuts we’ve faced.”
“The school board is continuing to be cognizant of budget cuts and doing what we’ve had to do collectively for our students,” Carpenter said. “I think we’ve managed the budget constraints very well considering what we’ve been given and (what has) been out of our control.”
She said the board has worked to provide United’s students with the options they need to prepare for college, in terms of new electives that have been added and the honors program, as well as being involved in the ICTC program.
“We really have tried to raise the bar,” she said.
Also important being a board member is being able to work together as a team.
Ongoing fiscal responsibility, Carpenter said, is a big issue, but she’s trying to find ways to make it less of one.
“I’m trying to come up with new ways to be creative as far as running the district with having monies removed from the budget, but continuing to meet the needs of the children, with nine different opinions and guidance from the superintendent,” she said.
She also said the board and the district also must focus on safety within the district.
“We definitely need to make sure we have the safest environment in which our children can thrive and get the education they need, yet having the utmost safety they need as well,” she said.
Carpenter said she, along with the rest of the board, would like to see United be one of the top school districts in the state.
“I think we have the potential with our teachers and leadership and the type of students we have. We could be the best of the best,” she said.
Carpenter is a 1976 United graduate. She attended the Community College of Allegheny County for her RN degree, and took classes at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown. She has worked as a registered nurse for 33 years, and is employed as an RN nurse manager in the occupational health clinic at the Homer City power plant. She also is owner of Safety On Site, an occupational health and safety business. She lives in Armagh with her husband, George, and has two grown children.
Gertrude “Trudy” DeRubis is seeking to keep her seat on United’s school board because she feels there is “unfinished business.”
“I’m able to make a contribution to the school district, and to the community and the children of the community,” she said.
DeRubis is a retired United teacher, having taught in the district for 37 years, first as a Title I Reading teacher then as an instructional support teacher for the last nine. She has been the school district’s ARIN representative for 3ﾽ years.
She said the budget “is a concern of all our board members” and is “pretty much our main issue.”
“My basic thing is, I’m a retired teacher from the district. I’m always interested in looking at the educational system and what we can do to improve and how we can move forward even though the district is doing excellently,” she said.
“We’ve been trying to work on the budget based on the way our funds have been cut, and figuring out how we can keep taxes down without affecting our children’s education — how can we cut money yet still maintain the level of education we have for our children?” DeRubis said, adding that the board doesn’t want to raise taxes but “we don’t want our children to suffer because of the cuts (Gov. Tom Corbett) has made.”
“We’ve been able to maintain that balance, but it’s always a struggle,” she added, saying that over the last eight years the district has reduced its staff through attrition, and class sizes have “gone up a little, but not to the point where we feel like we’re cheating the kids.”
DeRubis also said everybody is “doing more with less help.”
“I have to say that every aspect of the school district, including the employees and staff, has stepped up to the plate,” she said. “Aides and staff have been doing more, custodians are doing more. We’ve had to have them enlarge what they do because we have been unable to replace them.”
DeRubis said she has some goals for United in the future, such as looking at safety issues, “maintaining what we have as far as education and even looking at schedule changes.
“How can we schedule their classes so they can get a quality education without minimizing the time they have in classes? … We want our kids to be well-rounded, and we want to keep up with technology and advances in education, and with aligning our work with the core curriculum,” she said.
“There’s always something going on to either change or to align with something else, and hopefully we’re improving,” DeRubis added, noting that United was the only district in the county to achieve the PSSA adequate yearly progress for 2011-12, and “that shows we’re doing something right.”
Being a member of the board, “we have most of our hands in the education,” while at the same time trying to keep the district’s constituents happy, DeRubis said.
“We maintain open lines of communication with them and answer their questions when they bring us concerns, and we channel those concerns where they need to go,” she said. “I enjoy the challenge.”
DeRubis also is interested in looking at the district’s public relations as far as letting parents and the community know about United’s achievements.
Another issue DeRubis and the other board members are looking at is trying to bring back more of United’s students to enroll in its cyber school as a means of saving money rather than having them attend other cyber-charter schools in the state.
DeRubis is a 1959 United graduate and attended IUP for elementary education. She taught in Baltimore County, Md., for two years before returning to the United district with her family. She has two children and four grandchildren.
Eric Matava, a 2009 United graduate, said he has always wanted to get involved in public service.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity to get involved in the community and give back and get into the mix after four years of being out of school,” he said, adding that he would bring “a good perspective to the board.”
Matava, a law student, said being a member of the board “will give me the opportunity to apply skills I’ve learned as a law student, and that would translate well onto the school board.”
Praising his alma mater, he said United consistently has ranked above most of the other schools in the county over the years.
He sees two major issues in this year’s race. The first is increased state funding for cyber-charter schools rather than the traditional school setting.
“With Gov. Corbett, he’s placed much more emphasis on school choice — less funding on public schools and more focus on giving individuals the choice of going to charter schools,” he said, adding that by “actively recruiting students for United’s cyber academy, (the district) could save thousands of dollars” instead of paying for their enrollment in another cyber-charter school elsewhere.
“It’s important for the public to know what that’s all about,” he said.
The other issue he sees has to do with the adoption of the common core standards and the phasing in of the Keystone exams.
“The standards that they want you to meet is up to the school districts themselves, so there’s a little legroom in there to work,” which Matava said is good, because “it makes schools more accountable and have more rigorous standards.”
Ultimately, Matava said he’s a proponent of local control rather than through the state. Curriculum should be left for the teachers and administrators to decide, not the state he said.
“Standards are good, and they have good standards in mind, as long as teachers are allowed to mold their curriculum to those standards,” he said. “We don’t know how it’s going to work out (since it’s still a new initiative), so it’s important to keep a close eye on it.”
Matava said the exams will pose a challenge to the school in the coming years.
“Anytime you have new standardized testing, there’s always a concern that teachers will be teaching to the test,” he said. “We have to be sure in framing our curriculum as a district that we’re not teaching to the test, that we’re developing curriculum based on students’ needs while meeting standards that are more rigorous than the ones we have currently.”
Matava said he’s running as a “fresh face, trying to get involved in the local community and do the best I can.”
“I have the experience of being a student a few years ago and sitting in those seats a few years ago,” he said. “I still maintain great relationships with the faculty.”
He said his personal experience of being an alumnus “will serve (him) well” even though it’s the first time he’s running for public office.
He said he thinks the district will be able to do that “without any tax hikes or additional burdens on the taxpayers.”
He said with the district looking at a $2.7 million deficit (as of March), “we should look at all other alternatives before implementing a tax increase.”
Matava, 22, of East Wheatfield Township, recently completed his first year of law school at the University of Pittsburgh. He graduated from the University of Pittsburgh before seeking a law degree, with dual degrees in economics and political science.