Indiana Area School District voters elected four freshmen directors, including two retired district administrators, to the school board in the general election Tuesday.
Deborah Clawson, the superintendent from 2006 to 2012, and John Uccellini, who also retired last year from his post as the math curriculum coordinator, will join the board in December along with Indiana attorneys Julia Trimarchi Cuccaro and John Barbor.
Voters also returned incumbent director Diana Paccapaniccia for a third term, but passed over current board Vice President Walter Schroth, who leaves after serving eight years on the board.
Barbor was unopposed for the remaining two years of a term vacated by Terry Ray in early 2012; the others all were chosen for full four-year terms on the board.
The complexion of the board changes at a time when directors have been immersed in solving the district’s most serious budget challenges in many years.
With the district’s required contribution to the employees’ retirement fund annually spiraling higher, the board and administration have struggled to carve $1 million of expenses each year. At the same time, Indiana district officials have searched for ways to maintain all the same class offerings while trying to avoid significant increases in the local real estate tax.
The election came eight days after the board voted on two dramatic plans of action for the 2014-15 school year.
The plans both aim to preserve the academic integrity of the school district but they’re financial opposites.
One calls for reconfiguring the attendance areas of the four elementary schools, which would result in smaller class sizes without having to hire more teachers. The other proposes a spring primary referendum, asking district voters to approve a 12 mill real estate tax increase to pay for additional teachers while keeping the schools unchanged.
“I don’t know that there is a message (in the vote),” Schroth said. “The voters obviously didn’t like something about what we were trying to do. Whether it was the referendum, whether it was the grade realignment, I’m not sure which. I don’t know if you can read that, probably because Julia ended up as the second-highest vote-getter and she and I were standing on basically the same platform.”
Schroth said that no matter who is on the board, change needs to come to Indiana Area School District.
“If the voters were saying we want to maintain status quo, they may not like what comes later,” he said. “And if they’re saying ‘we don’t like the change we’re seeing but we want a different change,’ that’s unclear from the election.”
Those elected Tuesday will take office the first week of December.
“As a new board member, I want to have more detail, and I’m ready to get to work,” Cuccaro said. “The problems are pretty serious whether you’re on the academic side or the financial side of the equation.
“And people are just beginning to realize the problems are serious. We’re beyond the point of simple answers.”
Cuccaro has served since mid-2012 as chairwoman of an ad hoc committee working to establish a Challenger Learning Center in Indiana County. Modeled after NASA’s mission control and the International Space Station program, Challenger centers promote science, math and technology education in the context of space missions.
“Academics come first, but it has to be within a sensible financial framework,” Cuccaro said. “We can’t get into huge deficit spending — it’s a mistake, in my opinion.”
Cuccaro polled 3,149 votes (20.9 percent), trailing only Clawson, who led in the balloting with 3,335 votes (22.1 percent).
Clawson said she is looking forward to having a different role at the board table.
“We have a very, very capable superintendent and my role will be to weigh in with as much information and as much knowledge as I can, and then be a part of decisions and votes — some of which may reflect my opinion, some of which may not,” Clawson said. “That will be my role.”
Clawson said she learned through campaigning that district residents’ main concerns seem to have changed in the last two years.
“One of the driving issues was about what would happen with specific schools, but this time it appeared to be more general, and what we would do to meet our budget,” she said. “It shifted a bit from specific schools’ fates to ‘what are you going to do as a board member to figure this out?’”
She agreed that the board’s recent votes on realignment and the referendum remained on voters’ minds Tuesday, but that the board has a chance to learn more about the residents’ wishes before finally deciding what to do.
“I think we’ll find out moving forward, as people talk to us, what it is they hope we’ll do,” Clawson. “I’m not sure we can sort it out until we have time with the community and the stakeholders to see what this all means in terms of a consensus of the voters.”
Paccapaniccia, who served as the board president from 2008 to 2010, had 3,054 votes (20.2 percent).
“I think the election of John Uccellini, Deb Clawson and Julia Trimarchi will benefit the school district,” Paccapaniccia said. “It will allow for more debate at the board table, which I think we need. So with the addition of two educators, John and Deb, I think the right questions regarding education will be asked as we move ahead into realignment and how our district should look in the future.”
Paccapaniccia said residents made their priorities clear when she campaigned, but that not all can expect to get exactly what they desire.
“We can’t govern or make decisions based on one constituent group,” she said. “We are one school district and we have to make decisions that would educationally benefit the entire district. That’s hard to do because each person … but I hope that at some point in time, people would be comfortable with the decisions that are made even though they don’t agree with them.”
Uccellini, a teacher and administrator in the Indiana district for 30 years, finished with 160 votes more than Schroth — 2,738 to 2,578 (or 18.2 to 17.1 percent).
Having the chance to meet voters in the campaign and at the polls Tuesday was “a positive experience for me,” Uccellini said.
“I think the referendum for the 12 mill tax increase was a factor in this election. I hope that when the new board comes on, we can revisit that issue and pull that from the May primary election,” he said. “The district alignment is a more difficult question because it is tied up in finances and school staffing. It’s going to take time for those of use who are new board members to come up to speed on the factors that went into those decisions, and … to see if those are the directions the district should go in the short term.”
Uccellini said he wants to work for a stronger long-term financial plan so the board doesn’t face a crisis each year.
“And I would like to extend my thanks to Mr. Schroth,” Uccellini said. “We may disagree on some of the issues, but no disagreement on his dedication to the district and his years of service. I hope I can be as good a board member as he was.”
With four new members seated, the directors will have the latitude to change the plans approved by the school board last week. They can change the amount of a tax increase needed in the budget, and can change or get rid of the referendum proposal.
The board also has the option to change or reverse the reconfiguration of the elementary schools.
But Schroth said the grade realignment plan is the best choice both academically and financially, because the district still faces a $1 million deficit without the plan.
“It’s not something you can put off. At some point in time you have to pull the trigger and get it done,” Schroth said. “And if that’s why I lost the election, that’s OK, because I believe it was the right thing to do in the long-term best interest of the district.”