Indiana Area school board hopefuls air views
“With God’s help, and maybe a change of governor, we can do a better job.”
Indiana school board candidate John Uccellini wasn’t the only one thinking about the hard financial times for public education at a pre-election forum held Thursday, but he was the last one to talk about it and didn’t pull any punches.
Uccellini’s remark came as he talked about what will challenge the Indiana Area School District in the next four years.
“We face a funding crisis that is not of our creation, and the solution is not within our ability to rectify,” Uccellini said. “We all need to approach our legislators and come up with a better way to fund public education. We cannot keep the burden on our taxpayers.
“Whether it’s sales tax or some other method of funding public education, that’s the No. 1 problem we have. And by the way, it’s not selling liquor stores.”
Nine of the 10 candidates for the school board took part late Thursday afternoon in a forum sponsored by Indiana Area Education Association. It was the only event scheduled so far to bring together all the candidates to talk about the issues.
All the candidates have cross-filed for nominations on the Democratic and Republican sides in the primary election on May 21.
Teachers’ union President Michael Tshudy emphasized that the event was not a debate. There was no back-and-forth between the candidates, no responses or rebuttals, no questions from the floor.
About 100 people attended the forum in the senior high auditorium; Tshudy said almost half of them were members of IAEA.
Each candidate had 10 minutes to talk and that was it. They were given up to five minutes to introduce themselves and offer an opening statement of any kind, then answered two questions posed to them by IAEA leadership in the rest of their allotted time.
All the candidates had been given in advance a list of 20 possible questions so they could prepare their answers. And because none of the questions were repeated, the candidates’ answers couldn’t be directly compared to the others’.
One candidate, Eric Palmer, offered all his answers, telling the audience that his 20 responses would be posted on his campaign website, http://palmer4board.com.
Candidate Danica Jackson was absent from the event. It was due to an unforeseen personal matter, Tshudy said, and she sent her regrets.
Jackson, who had worked in social services and as a teacher in Oklahoma and Arkansas before her family moved to Indiana in 2010, is a candidate for a four-year term on the school board. In an earlier interview with the Gazette, Jackson said that the upkeep of the elementary schools and reinforcing the elementary students’ curriculum should be top priorities for the board.
In all, eight candidates are running for four seats available for full, four-year terms. Two are running for one seat that’s available for two years, the remainder of a term that was on the ballot in 2011.
Candidate Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro mentioned the district’s money problem in her opening remarks.
“There’s no question that the budget pressures are enormous, and there is all kinds of pressure about safety issues, which were never a problem when I was a kid growing up,” she said. “It’s real and it’s going to be very expensive.
“I think, in order to address these issues, we have to develop an offensive plan and a defensive plan. On defense, I see education as an investment … and like any investment, you have to be very careful about diversifying your risk.”
On the offense, Cuccaro said, Indiana has the academic program to prepare students for growing numbers of jobs in energy and medicine in western Pennsylvania.
Moderator Scott Mossgrove drew a question about money and another about academics for Cuccaro.
The district cannot raise the tax rates by much, she said, so “every dollar spent has to be well thought through.”
“We must build more efficiency into the system so we don’t replicate programs across the county,” she said.
Cuccaro, an attorney, also said she supports early childhood education, but would have to study whether the local Head Start and private pre-kindergarten programs are enough or if the Indiana Area School District should offer one.
“I’m not sure it’s my priority,” Cuccaro said.
Uccellini, who retired after 30 years as a math teacher and curriculum coordinator for the district, talked about his experience in implementing Indiana’s cyber school, the “IDEAL” distance learning program.
In addition to the question about the district’s primary challenges, he was asked if any programs could be reduced to help save money.
“No,” he said. “We can’t do more with less. I don’t see any place where we can reduce programs and still have savings.”
Incumbent board member Walter Schroth, operator of the family-owned Schroth Industries lumber business, told the audience that the board needs consistency.
“My skill set from my business, and my experience of almost eight years on the board, is what the community needs,” Schroth said.
He had a short answer to a question about what facility upgrades the district needs.
With a $16 million district project now under way to improve energy efficiency and to fix the roofs of the schools, “no large projects will be needed for the next 10 to 20 years,” he said. The board now is studying ways to improve safety and security, and will have to monitor the maintenance of the schools.
How can the district increase achievement of elementary students?
Concentrate on having all elementary students reading at their grade level and get them excited about math and sciences before they reach high school, Schroth said.
Board member Diana Paccapaniccia, who also is running for a third term on the board, said she was educated and worked as a nurse before moving to Indiana 22 years ago. She talked about putting two children through Indiana schools, and their involvement in arts and athletics.
She said her experience in labor contract negotiations and planning building projects would provide needed continuity that the “current board majority” does not have.
Paccapaniccia said she disagreed with a proposal to reconfigure the elementary schools so two buildings would house kindergarten through second-grade students and two would have third through fifth grades.
Transportation costs would rise, she said. And families need the connections to schools that develop when their children attend the same building for many years.
She also was asked about technology training for students.
Paccapaniccia said students should be using technology all day and that she supports providing a laptop computer to each student.
“We need to get all our students plugged in from the moment they get in the door,” she said.
The candidates running for the two-year term answered questions first at the IAEA forum.
Incumbent director Rob Werner, who described himself as “between jobs” and most recently with S&T Bank, said “there are no villains” on the school board — only different points of view.
He took one of the earliest jabs at Gov. Tom Corbett.
Mossgrove asked what Werner thought about Indiana Junior High School students spending 10 percent of their time in school preparing for and taking mandated, standardized tests.
“I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now,” he said. “But I’m not the governor.”
While the tests are required, Werner said, the district has to make the most efficient use of time in preparing for them.
Mossgrove also drew the question about the school board’s role in student discipline for Werner, who said there needs to be a change.
Most discipline for minor offenses is handled within the schools, and decisions on some of the most serious offenses, the Level IV violations, are made by the school board, Werner explained. But the board decided a few years ago to delegate some Level IV decisions to the superintendent and administrators.
“I think we should go back to having the board being fully responsible for Level IV discipline, not the administration,” he said.
John Barbor, an attorney in Indiana, also running for the two-year term, declared his support for arts education. He said humanities “may need to share a haircut with other areas … but should not be beheaded” when the board considers spending and program cuts.
Barbor also said in his opening remarks that he “has reservations” about the board’s committee system. Only a few board members get the important information that all directors need to know before making decisions, he said, and the committees don’t necessarily save the board’s time. But he said some committees have worked well, particularly one on which he served seven years ago that guided the senior high gymnasium project.
Barbor was asked whether he supports changes in the school employees’ pension system that have been proposed in Harrisburg.
Barbor predicted that the PSERS system — which is beyond the school board’s control — would be changed so that future employees would pay more into the system and have smaller retirement benefits.
And on a question about school security, Barbor said “it is counterproductive to try to turn a school into a fort” and that having a school psychologist to counsel at-risk students “could be more valuable than reinforced doors.”
Palmer, an administrator at Indiana County Technology Center and an instructor of entrepreneurship classes at the Eberly College of Business at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, promoted his blend of education-business experience and promised he would work with “openness, accountability, collaboration and respect” if elected.
He was asked for his philosophy concerning retention of students who don’t meet grade-level requirements.
Having kids repeat grades holds a social stigma, and a “rinse and repeat” approach doesn’t work, Palmer said.
“We have to pay attention for students who are falling through the cracks,” he said.
The board is considering a suggestion to institute “pay to play” fees for students in extracurricular activities. Mossgrove asked for Palmer’s reaction to the idea.
“I hate pay to play… it’s not a good idea,” Palmer said. Even if the district offered discounts or waived fees for kids from low-income families, using free lunch program guidelines, Palmer said many families or students would not want to deal with extra paperwork and some students would be left out of activities.
“This would create chaos for lower-income students. We can be more creative” in funding extracurricular programs, he said.
Deborah Clawson, who retired in 2012 after a career in education ending with five years as superintendent of Indiana Area schools, offered a three-point philosophy for being a school director.
First, she said, the people who will succeed as school directors will be those who are willing to change.
“We must do what’s best for students” from kindergarten through 12th grade, serving all of them equally and allowing teachers to lead them, Clawson said.
Finally, “accountability begins in Harrisburg,” with the Legislature and governor — but “it extends to me, as a taxpayer,” she said.
She was asked to compare Indiana to other districts, to identify its strengths and areas that need to be improved.
Comparisons have limited value, she said.
Mossgrove also asked about what district expenditures could be reduced or reallocated.
After recent rounds of budget cutting by the school board, Clawson had no suggestions.
“If we had any frivolous expenses, they are long since gone,” she said.
Douglas Steve, a former senior high business teacher now working as a financial adviser, said in his introductory statement that the “current board majority is barely getting by.”
He said he disagrees with the board’s committees system and said the full board should be delegating work to the committees for study, rather than the committees initiating discussion and sending its findings to the rest of the board.
Steve also said the school board annually adopted the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s code of ethics while he served, but has not done so since he left the board in 2011.
He also said the board reduced district spending in two years when he served, but has increased spending eight times in the past 10 years.
Mossgrove asked Steve whether the district has an obligation to attract businesses and residents to Indiana.
“We do,” he said. When business operators contact local agencies and individuals talk to real estate agents about coming to Indiana, “they ask what the schools have to offer and they want to be shown the buildings. Those things are being asked.
“It is important to have the facilities” that will attract them, Steve said.
Steve also was asked about a proposal by Pennsylvania Department of Education to begin a teacher and administrator evaluation system that would be tied to the results of student achievement tests.
He said he opposes to the idea.
“It’s too vague. They don’t say what they mean,” Steve said. He suggested that it would further motivate the schools to concentrate efforts on getting high PSSA (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) scores while sacrificing in areas other than reading, math and biology.
“When you teach to the test, you don’t have a well-rounded education,” Steve said.
Tshudy said the IAEA does not recommend which candidates the voters should elect, because of the direct working relationship between the board and the teachers.
“While we don’t endorse specific candidates, I am glad to see 10 candidates for five spots, all of whom I think I can work with, if elected,” Tshudy said.
But as he wrapped up the program, Tshudy played off Uccellini’s closing comment about replacing the governor.
“You’ll hear more from me about who to vote for in 2014, the gubernatorial race. But at this point we’re more interested in the school board race. I encourage you to get involved, get informed and vote.”