Candidates for the Indiana Area school board picked up Wednesday night where the school directors ended their agenda of business earlier this week, weighing in critically on the plans to hold a tax referendum and realign attendance at the district’s four elementary schools.
Sanctioned by the Indiana Foundation for Education community group, the forum brought together four of the six candidates running in Tuesday’s election for the school board.
Director Diana Paccapaniccia and challengers Deborah Clawson and John Uccellini, nominees for full four-year terms on the board, and John Barbor, the unopposed candidate for a two-year term, took questions for a little more than an hour.
Discussion in the community and on social networks has centered on the board’s votes on Monday to adopt two plans: one, to reconfigure the schools with grades pre-K through 3 in Ben Franklin and East Pike schools and with grades 4 and 5 in Eisenhower and Horace Mann schools beginning in September, and to hire additional staff as needed; and two, to leave attendance patterns unchanged but to place a referendum question on the spring primary election ballot asking district voters to approve a 12 mill property tax increase (11.5 percent), and to hire teachers needed for class-size reduction and for math and reading intervention.
Moderator Beth Marshall, of the League of Women Voters, led off Wednesday night’s forum by asking how each candidate planned to move forward in light of the board’s decisions.
Paccapaniccia, who voted against both of the alignment plans, said her job as a director now, in keeping with board ethics, is to assure that either plan would move forward without glitches or problems for students or teachers.
But she criticized the tax increase proposal, saying the board had ignored residents’ appeals to save money by closing a school rather than to realign them.
“It’s responding to one constituency and not to the other,” she said.
Uccellini said the board failed to provide reasons for realigning attendance.
“I have a lot of unanswered questions. … I’m not saying it is a bad decision but as a board member I would want to know how they arrived at that decision,” he said.
If elected, Uccellini said, he would expect to be given all the information available to directors and propose at his first meeting to drop the tax increase plan.
“It think it’s a travesty for this board to put that kind of an issue forward,” he said. “To scare the senior citizens of this community on an issue that will never pass at a referendum is unconscionable.”
Clawson said she, too, would ask the board to reconsider the plans because they appear to be driven by economic factors.
“The realignment of K to 3 and 4 to 5 could certainly have merit, but … I am not clear at all on the relative savings and costs of each of the options,” she said.
Clawson sought to clarify that the vote on the referendum does not mean a 12 mill increase is guaranteed.
“It is not a default action, it is seeking approval for a 12 mill increase and I personally believe that is a mistake,” she said.
Barbor called the alignment plan “the best of all the less-than-wonderful options that were presented,” but questioned other parts of the plan, such as the wisdom of bringing Horace Mann Elementary School into compliance with handicapped-accessibility laws.
He said the apparent reasons for holding a tax-increase referendum do not comply with the spirit of Act 1, the state’s school tax law.
“I don’t think it’s good public policy because of the additional confusion over the plans,” he said. “No one will know what will happen until May 20,” he said.
Later in the forum, Marshall asked the candidates how the realignment plan would benefit the students and parents in the district.
Clawson, who served as district superintendent from 2006 to 2012, held the shift of the sixth grade from the elementary schools to the junior high school in 2011 as a model for a successful transition of classes between buildings.
“It’s an example of how it can be done well,” she said. “The staff must be in communication with the parents. It’s about a plan that is inclusive.”
As intended, the realignment would result in smaller classes, Paccapaniccia said, but “it’s the only benefit I see.”
She said the costs of accessibility improvements at Horace Mann and the addition of intervention teachers could outweigh the cost savings of the realignment.
Uccellini, a retired mathematics teacher and math curriculum coordinator for the district, said he struggled to identify any benefits. The plan positions many children to make two transitions between schools before they even reach the junior high, he said.
“It’s going to be a lot of confusion. For families, it will be chaotic for many years. It will take a lot of work to minimize the impact,” he said.
Barbor agreed that the plan enables the district to cap the class sizes, but said he believes it would save money.
“And money is necessary to save programs,” he added. “So this probably is the right thing for the district to do at this time.”
About 30 people attended the forum at the East Pike school gymnasium-auditorium, and submitted written questions that were screened by a panel of LOWV members.
Candidates were asked to list their financial and academic priorities, to comment on athletic department expenses, to speculate on the upcoming teacher contract negotiations, and to evaluate the transparency of the work of the current board.
Uccellini said the district website includes an example of a school-realignment study and report compiled by another western Pennsylvania school district — “that’s transparency” — but questioned why the Indiana website doesn’t provide the same amount of detail behind the plans the board voted on this week.
“We can’t get a straight answer on anything. Ask how much has been saved? Nobody can tell you. Did they research transitions? Yes. Where is the data to support that? It’s not there,” he said. “If we can put on our website the work of a district that has done an excellent job with issues like this, that’s very transparent, why can’t we?”
“Transparency has been lacking,” Paccapaniccia said, citing what she called a lack of public participation in board committee meetings and the delay in posting committee meeting minutes on the website.
She said she had watched the dynamics of seven boards of school directors while serving as superintendent, and devoted her answer to defending the committee system.
“Committees are neutral structures,” Clawson said. “Their purpose is to gather information from diverse stakeholders. ... I believe the committees are becoming work sessions. Of course the board has work to do.
“Other boards have struggled with this, and I believe this board may be struggling with how it intended to operate, and the public is just not coming to the work sessions. I think it needs to be rethought without rancor.”
Barbor also defended the way the committees have been working, calling them appropriate and necessary.
“This board has made every effort to be transparent,” Barbor said. “Anyone who wants to inform himself can do so. For transparency, I give the board very high marks.”
Two school board candidates had previous commitments that kept them from participating in the foundation’s forum. Board member Walter Schroth and challenger Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro are running for four-year terms on the board.
In all, five candidates are on the ballot and four seats are available.
PHOTO: Candidates for Indiana Area school board who attended Wednesday’s debate were, from left, John Barbor, Deborah Clawson, John Uccellini and Diana Paccapaniccia.
Absent because of prior commitments were Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro and Walter Schroth. (Teri Enciso/Gazette photo)