Two current school board directors and two challengers are competing for two seats on the Armstrong School District Board of School Directors representing Region III, which includes Smicksburg Borough and West Mahoning Township in Indiana County.
D. Royce Smeltzer is seeking his fifth term on the board, and Linda Walker is seeking to retain the seat she was appointed to fill after the resignation of Sara Yassem last year.
The challengers are Adam Grafton, a regular school board meeting attendee and vocal critic of the school board, and Timothy Scaife, a teacher and president of the Armstrong Educators Association until his retirement at the end of the school year.
Region III also covers Atwood, Dayton, Elderton and Rural Valley boroughs and Boggs, Cowanshannock, Kittanning, Pine, Plumcreek, South Bend, Valley and Wayne townships in Armstrong County.
The district is in the process of constructing a new junior-senior high school and closing and consolidating buildings. Elderton Junior-Senior High School and Kittanning Township Elementary School were closed last June — Elderton for the second time — and Ford City Junior-Senior High School and Kittanning Senior High School and Kittanning Junior High School will close when the new school is completed.
Meanwhile, school directors elected this year will face renewing teacher contracts, which expire in June of 2014.
All four candidates will be on both the Democratic and Republican ballots.
ADAM P. GRAFTON
Adam Grafton, of South Bend Township, said he is concerned with the direction the school board is taking and believes that the directors in Region III have failed to represent the people who live in the region.
“They’ve fallen into lockstep with building the new school, which leaves Region III schools — the elementary schools, that all need upgrades, they all need work — that leaves them with no money,” he said.
Grafton has repeatedly questioned the decision to build a new high school, arguing that the most recently elected board members reneged on campaign statements that they would “do nothing at this time.” He argued that the current board members never made a good-faith effort to divest the $80 million borrowed for the canceled renovation projects.
“They never really developed an overall plan for the district, what they were going to do. They kind of jumped into this high school thing,” he said.
He also mentioned the upcoming teacher contract negotiations, and said a number of board members either are retired teachers or have family members who are teachers.
“I think there has to be a balance between the teachers getting a fair contract and some protection for the taxpayers,” he said.
If elected, he said he believes any significant tax increase should be approved by the voters through a referendum, and said the district must learn to live within its means.
Grafton and his wife, Michelle, have lived in South Bend Township since 1983 and have a son. He graduated from Kiski Area High School and earned an associate’s degree from Penn State University in business administration.
He worked for PPG both in the Ford City glass fabricating plant, where he was in quality control, and later in Lourdestown, Ohio, where he was a technical service representative. He is now retired.
Timothy Scaife, a West Shamokin mathematics teacher who is retiring this year, said he wants to see the school district start working together.
“We’ve never really operated as one district and never got the people to buy into the fact that we have to all work together toward a common goal,” he said.
Scaife has taught in district schools for 14 years, including stints at Elderton, West Shamokin and briefly at Ford City. He attended Dayton High School, which is now closed, and has always lived in the district.
“I think that just being around for that period of time and knowing the history … if anybody can help listen to people and make the common-sense argument to work together, then I think I’m the person that can do that,” he said.
Scaife has also served as the teachers’ union president. But he said that, if elected, he would answer to the taxpayers, not faculty.
“I have no real connection to any of the teachers once I leave the district,” he said. “I have worked for the teachers in the last several years and worked as hard as I could for them, but it’s like anyone else changing jobs. My job will then be different. I will be representing children first, and representing the taxpayers.”
Scaife said he believes the district is headed in the right direction, and needs to continue.
“I think we just have to look at everything that the district spends. ... We have to continue to look for efficiency in our buildings and to use staff as efficiently as we can,” he said.
Scaife and his wife, Linda, live in Boggs Township and have two children and one grandchild.
Royce Smelter, a resident of Plumcreek Township, has served on the school board since 1997. He is the only remaining board member who supported efforts to reopen and renovate Elderton Junior-Senior High School after its first closure, and consistently votes against plans for the new high school.
“I’m not afraid to say no to some things. I don’t go along with the (rest of) the board. I try to get a feel for my constituents and vote that way,” he said.
Smeltzer said he is concerned that the district is headed “in the wrong direction,” and that decisions are being made “with blank checks.”
At the forefront of his concerns are the teacher contracts and the district’s financial situation.
“I think contracts are out of control,” he said.
He also said that the district seems to be falling behind educationally.
“It just (doesn’t) seem like we’re keeping up to the students’ educational demands,” he said.
Over the past 16 years that he’s served, he said the best part of being a director is graduation day.
“I think for me personally I’ve never missed a graduation,” he said. “My experience, my record, speaks for itself. I’ve done the best I can. It takes a lot of time to be a board member and I’m willing to take that time.”
Smeltzer and his wife, Cindy, have two children. He owns and operates DRS Trucking.
Linda Walker was appointed to the school board after Sara Yassem resigned last year, and is running for her first full term. A retired English teacher, she worked in the Armstrong School District for 34 years, retiring from West Shamokin High School.
“I’ve always thought that it was beneficial to the school district and to the school board to have one or two retired public educators on the board of education,” she said. “We bring to the table a store of knowledge about the classroom and about education.”
Walker said she would not participate in contract negotiations because “I don’t have that expertise.” But she would vote on the contract that the administration had approved.
Going forward, she said she wants to see the board be able to focus more on improving education.
“I envision our district stable, and I envision board meetings where we can actually talk about education and not buildings,” she said.
The biggest issues Walker sees facing the district are school safety and finances.
“I think our district needs to work more closely with the law enforcement agencies,” she said, both for protection and to combat drug and alcohol problems. She also suggested bringing drug-sniffing dogs into schools more often and doing random drug testing for students, staff and administrators.
Like the other candidates, she mentioned financial concerns: “I don’t want to keep going back to the taxpayers’ pockets because their pockets are getting lean,” she said. “As long as we have buildings, we have to staff them. And so reducing our building inventory and again, unfortunately, cutting staff would be a big factor in that.”
Walker lives in Snyderville and has two stepsons and five grandchildren.