Saltsburg high school 01

CONEMAUGH TOWNSHIP — With a new board majority willing to consider options for combining the district’s schools, the Blairsville-Saltsburg school board on Tuesday reopened discussion on consolidation.

The board reorganized, swearing in newcomer Connie Constantino; Mary Whitfield, a former board member who last served in 2017; and returning directors Beverly Caranese and Anthony “Tim” Canzano.

Newly reappointed board president Rick Harper opened up the discussion on consolidation at the end of the meeting, asking Constantino for her opinion as a new board member. She said she was in favor of closing Saltsburg schools and moving the students to Blairsville.

Harper said he will begin the process of gathering information and that all the information he solicits will be provided to board members.

“The majority of the board is now in favor of consolidation,” Harper said after the meeting. “We will move in a direction that satisfies the majority.”

Harper acknowledged there are a lot of questions, including what happens with employees, if the district can offer early retirement, and how the district would be configured.

“What’s busing look like? Is it K to 12? Is it six though 12? Is it seven through 12? Lots and lots of questions,” he said. “These things will all be answered here very shortly.”

The discussion drew criticism from the board’s representatives from the Saltsburg region.

Caranese, long an outspoken advocate against shutting down any Saltsburg school, said the school board was “dysfunctional” and criticized members Canzano and Harper.

In a continuation of comments from the last meeting, Caranese said she received many phone calls this week about Canzano regarding an alleged comment he made in May at the polls, overheard by Angel Ashbaugh, who said Canzano said “he didn’t care about the students at Saltsburg, he hoped the Saltsburg schools closed and that the kids all get (bused) to Blairsville. And he said that Saltsburg could fall off the face of the Earth for all he cares,” according to her letter to the board.

The board took a 6-3 symbolic vote in November calling for his resignation, with Linda Brown, Michael Bartolini, Holly Hall, Marlene Joyce, Holly Gibson and Caranese in favor, and Harper, Canzano and Molly Stiles against.

“If somebody says they don’t care about Saltsburg kids and they don’t care if they fall off the face of the earth, that’s a big problem,” Caranese said Tuesday. “That’s a big problem for the community of Saltsburg.”

Caranese asked Harper about his discussion with some Saltsburg parents after the last meeting, and alleged that in that conversation, Harper admitted to the parents that he “didn’t disagree” with their comments that Canzano was “unstable and not fit to be on this board.”

Harper denied agreeing with that comment. “Were you there?” he asked Caranese. “I don’t agree with your last statement.”

Caranese continued, calling the board “dysfunctional.”

“We have a board, a very dysfunctional board here, that doesn’t like Saltsburg kids,” she said. “And you’re going to make the decisions for Saltsburg kids?”

“We want our own town, our own school, and you know what? The decision you make about consolidation isn’t in favor of Saltsburg kids. It’s ruining their lives.”

After the meeting, Harper said the next step is to gather information and study what makes the most sense.

“Those discussions all need to be done in public and a plan put in place that will work for the district,” he said.

He said the real question regarding consolidation “isn’t if, but how,” and that he thinks consolidating the district’s schools will provide more for students in areas such as advanced placement classes and extracurricular activities.

“I do believe the students will get a better educational opportunity,” he said.

The issues of consolidation, reconfiguration, splitting the district into two separate entities and merging with other districts have all been considered in the last decade but have never been executed.

In other business Tuesday, the board:

• Appointed Harper as president and Stiles as vice president, both on votes of 5-3. Harper, Stiles, Canzano, Constantino and Whitfield voted in favor of both, and Hall, Caranese and Brown voted against both motions. Director Holly Gibson was absent. The board also appointed Whitfield at Pennsylvania School Board Association liaison with Harper as alternate, on the same 5-3 vote. Stiles was appointed to the ARIN IU 28 board.

• Set the meeting schedule for 2020. The board will meet at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month at alternating locations. The first meeting is set for Jan. 28 at Saltsburg Middle/High School.

• Passed a resolution to not raise taxes by more than the index of 3.6 percent, dictated by the Department of Education.

• Tabled a motion to appoint Richard Constantino as adviser to the Class of 2021, a position held by his wife and new board member Connie Constantino, who resigned from the position at Tuesday’s meeting due to her responsibility as a board member.

Hall questioned why the “union position” wasn’t advertised and pondered how a replacement could already be considered and on the agenda before Connie Constantino had even formally resigned.

The board tabled the motion, which Connie Constantino voted in favor of, which prompted Hall to complain that she should have abstained.

Solicitor Gary Matta disagreed with Hall, saying Connie Constantino did not have to abstain from the vote because she had nothing to gain by it.

Margaret Weaver has served as a Gazette staff writer since 2006. She covers Clymer Borough, the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District and Blairsville court, and also works in the areas of layout, design and editing.