BLAIRSVILLE-SALTSBURG: Group disputes education department report on separation
BURRELL TOWNSHIP — A member of the Petrarca Committee — a group supporting and researching possible separation of the Blairsville-Saltsburg school district — lashed out at a recent Pennsylvania Department of Education report that says separation would cause a variety of problems, calling PDE’s report “fake news” and saying it “reeked of vested interest, politics and hidden agendas.”
F. Daniel McGregor, an educational consultant and former board member and educator, spoke at Wednesday’s school board meeting and provided a written copy of his remarks.
He said the report was full of holes and left him “with a bad taste and deep suspicions” of “intended collusion or mutually beneficial coincidence between two powerful forces based in Harrisburg,” referring to PDE and the Pennsylvania State Education Association.
The PDE report, made public in a Gazette story on April 11, concluded the separate school districts would face issues such as declining enrollment, overhead cost, long-term debt and declining surplus and fund balance, most notably in Saltsburg.
“What the Gazette was provided, is in our opinion, PDE’s version of fake news,” McGregor said.
The school board voted unanimously in September 2015 to move forward with separating into two school districts, with members Beverly Caranese, Linda Brown, Holly Gibson, Rick Harper, George Rowley, Mary Whitfield, Richard Serafin and Anthony “Tim” Canzano in favor. Member Holly Hall was absent.
Ultimately the fate rests with state legislators, and the PDE study was considered to be a step toward lawmakers introducing legislation to separate the district.
McGregor said the committee was led to believe PDE would use the financial study by the Petrarca Committee’s CPAs, Nick and Melanie Pantalone, and the district’s business manager at the time, Eric Kocsis, as a basis for its research. He said they were also led to believe Nick Pantalone’s input would be essential to the study.
“That never happened,” McGregor said. “He/we were never consulted or asked to assist in the research, much to our dismay.”
He said they were “ignored and shut out in favor of a team of experts from Florida.”
McGregor claims Deputy Executive Director David Volkmann took the study in a different direction than intended, and that when asked to visit the district to explain the study, said he would only attend if questions were supplied in writing in advance of his arrival.
“He hasn’t got a clue,” McGregor said. “What he does have, we believe, is a bias toward separations. Neither he nor his boss, Pedro Rivera, want to unleash the floodgate of requests similar to ours.”
The report, he said, contained no comparisons, contrasts, rebuttals or denials to the research by the Petrarca Committee, signaling to the group that their own study is not incorrect.
“What was provided to the Gazette and to us is an erroneous document full of false assumptions that serves one purpose only, to prevent the Blairsville-Saltsburg School District from becoming its first district in state history to separate, not consolidate, on the basis of incompatibility and philosophic difference. Not for money reasons, but on the basis of the inability to function as one. We can tell you with absolute certainty the prevailing philosophy at PDE favors consolidation, not deconsolidation.”
McGregor also discussed what he described as “most upsetting to the members of the Petrarca Committee.”
“Included quite inappropriately at the end of PDE’s alleged study is a resolution unanimously signed by our own faculty and support staff,” he said.
Members of the Blairsville-Saltsburg Education Association and Blairsville-Saltsburg Education Support Professionals sent the resolution to PDE in February, seeking to have concerns addressed before pledging support for the plan.
At that time, Annie Slezickey, Pennsylvania State Education Association organizer, said in a news release for the unions that one of the union’s major concerns is what will happen to services shared between Blairsville and Saltsburg schools, such as life skills and autism support.
McGregor said that “at no time, not once, did any of those 145 signatures approach us to ask questions or contribute to our deliberations, despite a public invitation to do so.”
He questioned how the unions could oppose a plan that “put forth proposals that called for absolutely no cuts for teachers and support staff,” and said the unions decided “to rely on the wisdom of their parent organization in Harrisburg to assist them in drafting a resolution that prevents our community from freeing itself forever from a majority that from time to time wants to close our schools and bus our students to Blairsville to get their education and bolster their economy.”
McGregor said the committee recognizes the unions’ “legitimate concern for the future of your current contract, salary and benefits” but that would be “for future boards to contend with.
“But I do want to say this,” he continued. “Thank you for your demonstrated willingness to free us from the obligation to save each and every job and position in the district. We can now concentrate on our true mission … Save our Saltsburg schools.”
Nick Pantalone, another Petrarca Committee member and a candidate in the May primary election seeking a seat on the school board, spoke after McGregor and countered financial claims made by PDE in the study.
The committee’s plan, he said, shows “a balanced budget with no additional deficit.”
PDE, Pantalone said, used biased assumptions, did not account correctly for local revenue, keeps the debt payment as is and assumes the hiring of more administrative personnel than planned.
He said PDE used different ratios to make Saltsburg’s numbers look bad and “belittles Saltsburg’s revenue streams.”
The Petrarca plan shows $5 million in local revenue, compared with $4.5 million in the PDE study, he said.
He also said PDE assumes a “top-heavy budget,” with $1.5 million paid to administrators annually at Saltsburg. Their plan calls for $700,000 per year for that cost, he said.
He said PDE “in its bias concludes further restructuring” of the district’s debt would be “undesirable” and keeps the district’s debt on a 10-year repayment plan. But the committee plan, he said, would restructure the debt to 20 years, saving $500,000 per year.
The PDE also assumes teachers’ salaries would remain the same. Rather, he said, salaries would be renegotiated and a new contract drafted. That would result in a $500,000 savings by “realigning teachers to new curriculum.”
Pantalone asked the board to disregard PDE’s opinion and provide continued support for separation.
McGregor spoke again after Pantalone, telling the board and the public there is one truth they can believe in: “Our kids aren’t coming to Blairsville.”
He said state Rep. Joseph Petrarca, the committee’s namesake and legislative supporter, asked him to ask the board what is wrong with status quo in a district that has $13 million in the bank and hasn’t raised taxes in eight years.
McGregor said the problem with status quo is that there is no way to guarantee a future board with a different majority would not consolidate and bus Saltsburg’s students to Blairsville.
The next step, he said, is to revise the committee’s proposal and present it to the community for consideration.
“We’re committed still to separation,” he said, and suggested that the board “recommit themselves” as a first step to getting a lawmaker to introduce legislation for separation.
Board member Rick Harper suggested the committee introduce a formal plan at the next meeting, and then have the board take another vote.
In other business, the board:
• Heard from Jeff Soles, acting superintendent, on a water issue. As a precaution, water at all school facilities is being tested for lead content. Testing officials called Wednesday and reported high lead at Saltsburg Elementary, but called back later to say the results were actually from the Blairsville football locker room.
Water will again be tested, he said.
Before learning they were provided “some misinformation,” Soles said they shipped in bottled water for drinking at the elementary school, and letters were sent home with students.
• Will hire a third party to get the district’s accounting up to date while the new business manager works on the budget. When Gary Zuchelli was hired as business manager, he said the district’s books were six months behind. He said he needs the help in order to focus on the school’s budget deadline of May.
• Accepted a bid of $18,775 from C&C Lawn Service Inc. for drainage work at the Saltsburg campus football field.
• Rescinded reimbursement to an employee identified as #811 in the amount of $2,799.99 for an unauthorized purchase.
• Accepted, with regret, the resignation of Nancy Powell, administrative assistant to the business manager, effective Sept. 2. Powell worked for the district for 21 years. The board approved the vacancy to be advertised.
• Hired Sherri Jorgenson as a cafeteria aide at Blairsville Middle/High School for 3.75 hours a day with a hire date of Wednesday.
• Approved a three-month leave of absence extension request for employee #1503, with benefits.
• Appointed Alice Santoro as board secretary for a term that runs from June 1 to May 31, 2021, paid at the salary established by the board. She will serve as secretary pro tempore until the beginning of the appointment.
• Approved the following supplemental contracts: Jonathan Cunkelman, BSSD cross country coach; Jim Buckles, BSSD varsity volleyball coach; Ralph McGinnis, BMHS varsity girls’ baskeball head coach, with Lynn Martin, assistant; Zack Faith and Kenneth Main, BMHS football fourth assistant co-coaches; Rebecca Smith, BMHS girls’ junior high basketball head coach; Jennifer Woodring and Shawn Battistelli, SMHS varsity cheerleading head co-coaches, with Ashton Battistelli as assistant coach; and Deanna Fink, SMHS junior high cheerleading head coach.