"Committee to Build a Better Board" Wants Your Votes
"You become the district of choice." – Richard J. Kirsch
The Baldwin-Whitehall area will see races for school board and borough/township positions in May 17 primary elections.
Eleven total candidates are competing for a position on the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board, which will soon have five seats open for four-year terms and one seat open for a two-year team.
Six candidates—Laurencine Romack, Larry Pantuso, Kevin J. Fischer, Sam DiNardo Jr., Diana Kazour and Ray Rosing—have formed a "Residents for Lower Taxes and Better Education" committee, while the other five candidates—Marion M. Shannon, Kevin A. Stiffey, Lora J. Kalwarski, Richard J. Kirsch and Tracy Macek—are running as the "Committee to Build a Better Board."
Each of the aforementioned Baldwin-Whitehall School Board candidates has cross-filed to have his or her name appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots.
Recently, Shannon, Stiffey, Kalwarski, Kirsch and Macek conducted a joint interview with the Baldwin-Whitehall Patch to answer questions about their pasts and their plans. (Not every candidate felt it necessary to answer every question.)
Shannon, 48, lives on Senior Drive in Baldwin Borough and is originally from the Overbrook-Carrick area of Pittsburgh. She graduated from Carrick High School in 1980 and is now working toward a bachelor's degree in organizational leadership at Duquesne University, where she works as an assistant to the dean of Duquesne's School of Leadership & Professional Advancement. Two of Shannon's children attended Baldwin-Whitehall public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, while another—a ninth-grader—attends a special-needs school in Upper St. Clair Township. Shannon is also a reading mentor to a second-grade student in Phillips Elementary School in the Pittsburgh Public Schools system.
Stiffey, 53, has been on the B-W School Board for the past four years. He lives on Blossom Drive in Baldwin Borough. His parents moved to Whitehall Borough when he was 5 years old, and Stiffey lived in Whitehall until he married and moved to Baldwin. He graduated from Baldwin High School in 1975 before earning an associate's degree in business administration from Community College of Allegheny County in 1977. Stiffey is a senior bridge designer for L.R. Kimball and has been in the drafting/design business for 29 years. He is also a part-owner of a Minuteman Press location in the North Hills along with former school board member John Egger. All three of Stiffey's children attended B-W public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Kalwarski, 46, lives on Varner Road in Whitehall and was raised on East Willock Road in the same borough. She graduated from Baldwin High in 1983 and is now a full-time student in a business-management program at CCAC. She is pursuing an associate's degree there. Kalwarski hopes to get back into the work force after graduating from CCAC and enrolling in Point Park University's accelerated Saturday program for business management. She hopes to earn a bachelor's degree from Point Park. Kalwarski is a homemaker with a child finishing fifth grade this year at Whitehall Elementary School.
Kirsch, 54, grew up in Brentwood Borough but has lived on Benson Circle Drive in Whitehall for the past 27 years. He graduated from South Hills Catholic (now Seton-La Salle Catholic) High School in 1975 before earning a bachelor's degree in economics from West Virginia University in 1980. He picked up a master's degree in business administration from Waynesburg University in 2007. Kirsch has also obtained a green-belt certification from Six Sigma training. He is a service executive for AT&T. Both of Kirsch's children attended B-W public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Macek, 45, also lives on Senior Drive in Baldwin but is originally from West Mifflin Borough. She graduated from West Mifflin Area High School-North in 1983 before obtaining a bachelor's degree in business—with a concentration in marketing—from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1990. Macek works from home as a part-time medical transcriptionist for Softscript in Santa Monica, CA. She has a seventh-grader enrolled at J.E. Harrison Middle School and a second-grader at W.R. Paynter Elementary School.
- Baldwin-Whitehall Patch: What makes the Baldwin-Whitehall School District attractive to new homebuyers?
Marion Shannon: Baldwin-Whitehall is a mix of a lot of things. We have apartment complexes here. We have regular-sized homes. We have large homes. So, it's a big mix of these homes. So, you have a lot of different kinds of people, diversity within our area. Just the different incomes that are here, and everyone, no matter what their income is or background, they all have the same opportunity for education.
Lora Kalwarski: I would like to add that our busing is very close to (Down)town (Pittsburgh) and that we have two wonderful libraries (1, 2) here. It just makes it very nice for the community to have all of these different diversities, but it also helps the adults know that they are in a very safe environment here. We're like a little city close to the city.
Kevin Stiffey: One of our clouts is that the Whitehall (Public) Library is ranked in the top 25 of the state. It's a well-respected library. It's in this district; it's there for everybody to use. So, it's a plus for this district.
Richard Kirsch: I think one of the big things is we're right on a major artery—several major arteries—because the school district is so stretched out. We're right along Becks Run Road and (Route) 51. We're right along Brownsville Road—that type of thing. The opportunities that the kids have in this district to play various sports in all the communities. It's a very good soccer program in the communities. There's a very good baseball program. From peewee football all the way up. Plus, all the club sports you have at the high school and that. I think, in those terms, (the district) can't be beat. Very low crime rate.
- BWP: What programs or activities do B-W offer that are better than other districts' in the region?
MS: One thing that really comes to mind is our arts. The school plays have always been phenomenal here. The Gene Kelly Awards—the (high school) has always been nominated. They've won at different times. The sports—I'll have to agree with (Kirsch).
LK: The programs alone, just the clubs. They have a lot of opportunities for the kids that you don't have to be in sports. You can be in all different clubs also—math club, chess clubs.
KS: We also have one of the best music programs (band, orchestra, choir, et al.) that I feel in Allegheny County at least—winners of many competitions. It's a fantastic program. It's something to draw the kids to.
MS: They've participated in the Macy's Parade, which is a very big honor.
RK: Constantly invited back down to Disney's Magic Music Days. Just won five years in a row—I think—chapter champions for the marching band. And then, when they travel, they take chorus, orchestra, concert band, the whole nine yards. And once a year, they've been going down to Cal(ifornia) U(niversity of Pennsylvania) for adjudication. These kids were handed a piece of music, and they had 20 minutes to work with the instructor. They were playing college-level music. When I went to the (high-school musical) the other night, about a week or two ago, for "Children of Eden," the music they were playing was very, very difficult, and they performed very, very well. I was really impressed.
- BWP: What qualifies you to be a school director in B-W?
Tracy Macek: I've been a resident for 17 years. I have two kids that are currently in the district—one in seventh (grade), one in second. I am a major advocate of education, not only with my kids' education but for the other kids in the district (as well). Just paying attention to what's been going on in the last couple years with the decline in our (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment) test scores, and so I have definitely a true passion for education—that every child should be educated equally and given the tools that they need. I'm very active in the PTA, and so I spend a lot of time at the schools. I've volunteered for a lot of things—field trips, teen center, dances, everything like that.
RK: Starting in the mid-'90s, when my kids were in the mainstream—they're both young adults now—(I) started getting very involved with the district, and partners of mine actually started the Baldwin-Whitehall Music Patrons. We incorporated them, made them 501(c)3 in order to get them trailers and supplements from the district as far as things they needed—like, you've got very expensive uniforms, but now, you need raincoats. Get them transported around. I was able to interact with administration. I was able to interact with transportation. I was able to interact with facilities. The whole nine yards. So, I got a real good feeling of how a district works and how a district doesn't work. So, I got a real education from that. I do have a formal education. Also, the education that (I got from) attending classes on how to be an effective school board director put on by the The Education Policy and Leadership Center. We sat for several weeks with Ron Cowell, who was a state representative from the Wilkins area for a number of years. (Cowell) sat on the house education committee, and (I) just learned tons off this guy. Plus, (I) talked to retired administrators, people who currently are administrators—what their problems are, what they did to solve them and all that. So, (I) got a real education there. Also, for probably the last 10 years or so, in a private business that I work for, I got a real feel for what the school district's only starting to feel now—doing more with less, the pressures of trying to take some of your work offshore, the pressures of taking it out of the actual district and giving it to someone else to work (on) and all of the things that go with that: all of the headaches and what's good about it and what goes wrong with it, what's bad about it. I've really gotten my feet wet, in other words, so I think that I can handle just about anything they throw at me … As boring as this sounds, I sat down and read the state school code … It is extremely interesting as to what you can do and what you can't do, and probably about 85 percent of what a school director does is spell it out—boom, boom, boom—by that (code). You really know when someone's BS-ing you or not.
LK: I've been a resident of Baldwin-Whitehall all my life. I graduated from Baldwin (High) in '83, and one of the reasons why my husband and I have chosen to live here was that I felt, when I was growing up, that the education was very high-quality. I also went to the same seminar that Rich was speaking about it (a Pennsylvania School Board Candidate Workshop), and I did learn that there were some inefficiencies that Baldwin is doing with this district, (which) could be doing so much better for the children. I am a very high advocate of children's education. Over the five years that my child has been (a student in the district), I've seen a lot of things that (the district) should be doing that (it's) not doing, and my experience of working out in accounting—a lot of my experience is in not-for-profit—(has shown me) that this district's run exactly that way. And I know that they are struggling with budgets, and with my experience, I feel like I could bring a lot to this district and make it thrive the way it was when I was going here. I think that declining test scores are very disturbing, just not for me but for parents out there … I went to the Pennsylvania state parent conference up in Seven Springs for Title I on the behalf of the Baldwin-Whitehall schools. I understand the Title I program and how it runs—what's out there for the children and what needs to be out there for the children. And speaking to a lot of people in other districts, such as Philadelphia, what's been working at the city schools and what they're doing. It was a wonderful conference.
KS: Well, why don't I just start with the obvious? I'm a U.S. citizen, I'm over 18 years of age, I've been in this district more than a year, and I've never been fired from a job of public trust. That being said, I've also done my stint in the band (music) patrons, so I'm familiar with the school district that way. I, too, went to the workshop through the EPLC (Education Policy and Leadership Center) … and I also attended numerous seminars at the beginning of the year for evaluating your superintendent, understanding and preparing budgets, (and) numerous other seminars I've gone to. And, not the least of importance, (for) the last four years, I've been a school board member, so I have experience there.
MS: I've lived here for 25 years. My husband and I have raised two children through the district. Both have graduated (and are in college), and our youngest is in ninth grade. I feel a connection to the school board, and I want to be on the school board because I've been involved in the schools for years—like Tracy, like Lora and these guys, too. I've volunteered as our kids have gone through different things. Grade school, you're coordinator for different events. When my kids got into high-school band, we were in the band patrons. We helped out, and my husband flipped burgers. And you sit in the ticket booth, and you sell 50-50 tickets. So we were very involved with our kids in the activities that they were involved in with the schools. Our oldest child was always in the gifted program, so she had IEPs (individualized education programs) throughout all 12 years in school for gifted. Our youngest son has learning disabilities. He, too, has had IEPs from the beginning, so I've kind of seen them from both ends of the spectrum. So, I'm a parent of all three; my middle son's an average student. I've gone to many IEP meetings—met with administrators, teachers—to try to make the best educational plan I could for my child. I have a passion for that. I've said that I'm an educational advocate for my children because that's what I want for them. This district has so much to offer for kids in special-needs: gifted, learning-disabled. And I want to see that they're all getting what they deserve. Every parent's goal is to raise a child that's going to be productive in society, and we have to address the needs of all the kids, be it ESL (English-as-a-second-language) kids, kids with IEPs for whatever reason. They're all entitled to the same education. I work at a university. I'm an assistant to the dean. In the last two years, we've (Duquesne's SLPA) had, compared to the school district, we have had hundreds of thousands of dollars cut from our budget. And we've had to function with that. So, working with the dean and our budget manager, you have meetings all the time on how to offer the same programs, offer better programs with what you have—with the money that you have. I've worked in coordination with other people in our department to research and write (for) grants. (I've) monitored grant-reporting and reported to the state on grants. I think grants are great things to have for colleges, school districts. There's free money out there for the taking, so I'd love to see a little more of that. You can't continue with cuts and still offer the same or better, so it's got to come from somewhere.
- BWP: What made you want to run for a spot on the B-W school board?
MS: I have a passion for the education of the kids. I feel it should be an equal education for everyone, and for a lot of years, I've sat back and watched things happen and not been able to have a say in that. And I'm at a point in my life where I have more free time with my children getting older, and with my experience within the schools, I feel now is the time to be a voice.
KS: When I first ran four years ago, I really didn't understand what I was getting myself into. And for the past four years, my eyes have been opened, and I'd like to continue to do what I'm doing. I would like to do it with a different board; it's been frustrating. I'd like to do it with a board where everybody's on the same page and has the same agenda. And I think these people can do it, so that's why I want to get back on the board.
LK: I think what opened my eyes to decide to run was the letter that I received in August (2010) when the parents of Whitehall (Elementary) were given the choice to move their children to a different elementary school. The letter stated that with the AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) scores being low at Whitehall Elementary, being under School Improvement I, that under School Improvement I, it had to go out to the parents to give them school choice. Obviously, I did not do that for my child. That's when I decided to really start looking at what is not getting done, for not only my child but for every child in this district. That's where I decided maybe I need to look into this, and as I'm being more and more involved in this school this year with my child going into Harrison next year, I am seeing flaws. And again, it's disturbing that these scores are very, very low, but personally, I have seen these scores since my daughter was in second grade. And I personally see her not being able to achieve at the level that she needs to be achieving at. And she's getting all the support at home. What is it doing to the children that aren't getting all the support at home? So, my heart just aches for the children that aren't getting it at home.
RK: I've been going to school board meetings for quite a long time now, and I used to consult and I used to teach how to run a meeting. Well, what I saw was 180 degrees from what I used to teach. I've seen mistakes made over and over again, like people not learning from what they've done in the past. I've seen bad interaction with the public. I've seen bad interaction between board members. It just isn't the way it should be, and going back, it was more of a business-type thing. There was respect. They listened to the audience; they listened to each other. And there wasn't obvious things that you know were already discussed in the past and they were just out there doing a show to say, "Okay, we did this in public." A board is supposed to act as a board of nine. You've got a president, and the only thing more a president does is he's supposed to interact with the superintendent. He or she is supposed to take and disseminate this information down to the rest of the board. But it's evolved into a majority and a minority, and the minority is just a second thought. This community voted these people in to represent them, and I'm just sitting there feeling like these people don't have a say. I don't feel like the public really has a real say. If you're getting up there and you're getting asked questions and you don't know the answer, you should be telling people, "I don't know that answer, but I'll find out and I'll get back to you." You don't sit there and argue with them. I also think that the meetings tend to drag on and drag on. They could be much more compact to get people out at a decent hour because these people are volunteers. And you have teachers and administrators that have been there all day long. They don't want to be walking out of there at 11 o'clock at night just dog-tired. That's one of the reasons, but one of the other things that really bothers me is seeing things that didn't work four years ago, eight years ago, going through the same process, and it's like nobody remembers what happened in the past. There's like no continuity. There's like this year, and then, everything else is just like the slate's been wiped clean. The old saying is, "Those who don't remember the past are doomed to repeat it." That's what I see. I also am a financial guy, and the numbers are telling. Let's put it that way. A lot of debt. I'm seeing them cause just generational spending (passing debt on to younger generations). Just the past two weeks, they announced that they wanted to balance the budget for this coming year with $2.8 million left over from the (high-school) construction fund. Well, you're going to be paying for that $2.8 million through a bond issue or whatever the case for the next 20 to 25 years to finance one year's operations. In the business world, that's a big no-no. I sit there, and sometimes, I just have to shake my head. What are they thinking? Who's leading this?
TM: I think the reason that I wanted to run is mainly because of the decline in our test scores. The district's ranking (by the Pittsburgh Business Times) has decreased 14 positions since 2008, including six positions from last year. I, too, have gone to school board meetings for the last few years, and they keep telling us that it's going to get better or they're going to do this. But, it doesn't; it doesn't get any better. My kids are in seventh grade and second grade, and it needs to get better for them. We chose to move here because the rumor was that Baldwin-Whitehall was such a good school district. I'm not saying that it's not, but when the test scores continually decline, it makes you nervous as a parent. Are your kids being educated? Are they being educated to the fullest extent? Are they getting the tools? Do they have the good teachers? It makes you question a lot of things as a parent. I think that any parent that was concerned and involved in their children's education would feel the same way as I do. Going to school board meetings is probably what pushed me to the edge to run for school board. There have been numerous times that I've seen some questionable board behavior, not only (from) certain members of the school board but maybe other school board members not addressing questionable behavior with another school board member. That's scary to me. It's scary that these people are making decisions with our money as taxpayers. They're making decisions about my child's education. You have to conduct yourself appropriately as a school board member … I think there's a lot of issues not being addressed in Baldwin-Whitehall besides education. There's issues that are tossed aside with maybe administration issues and service-workers issues. And I think that the board says that they're hearing the issues, but I don't think they're trying to resolve them. That's another reason why I want to run. I think that everybody that works for the district or is part of the district should be given the opportunity to at least have their issues listened to—at least have somebody make an attempt to resolve them. So I have to say that those things are what definitely pushed me to run for school board to hopefully make a difference.
- BWP: Which political party are each of you registered with?
RK: The school code, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and many people in the legislature all agree that a school-director position should be nonpartisan. Their reason is everybody is there for the same reason. Everyone's there to promote and give these children the best education they possibly can. So, there's no black; there's no white. It's just what it is. So, the law allows us to run, because of that, on both the Democratic and Republican ticket. There's two of us that are Republicans and three of us that are registered Democrats. We're not running for any political gain or recognition. These are unpaid, volunteer positions, and what you need to do is you need to bring people, regardless of their backgrounds, in that can add something to the board as opposed to just there because you are a particular person or of a particular affiliation. There is a time for partisan politics—I agree—but at this level, there's no A and B. It's one way.
KS: I'm a registered Democrat, and I can honestly say that I can guarantee you that in my four years on the school board, I have never once voted on something by my party. I've always voted on facts and how it will better this district. Never once have I voted (based on) a Democrat-Republican format.
- BWP: What made you all decide to run together?
KS: When I first decided to run again for another four years, I was going to run by myself until I talked to these folks, and after talking to these people—these four candidates—I knew they were the candidates that we needed to get on the board to make this school district better and back to the way it was. These people have their heads screwed on straight, they know what they're talking about, and they will do the job. Let's make one thing clear: These people are not puppets. Each one of (us) five are individual thinkers. We will make decisions based on facts. We won't make decisions based on whether we owe a vote to somebody. We won't make decisions based on the fact that we don't know any better and somebody tells us how to vote. We are individuals. These people are smart people, and I am proud to be on the committee with them. And that's why I got on the committee with these four folks.
- BWP: What would you make your No. 1 priority as a school director?
MS: I want the same quality of education for all students at all levels. They deserve it, and I think it should be the same for everyone—not the same education but the same opportunity. I have an issue with the bullying policy currently. I would like to see it be enforced as an effective anti-bullying policy.
KS: My No. 1 priority is to make sure that our education process is in good shape. Right now, it's not, obviously—test scores and other things, even the instruction (students) get in class for social behavior, the whole ball of wax. My belief is you start by raising the morale in the school district. Right now, morale is so bad in this school district for people working in fear. And that's not the way you run a school district. You make it attractive. You bring the people in. Those are the good people you want. They, in turn, put that passion on to the kids, and the kids learn. Let's start there first. Raise the morale.
LK: Advocate for every child. I just feel that that needs to be my No. 1 priority. I think that, once you start raising morale, you get all the kids what they really need—their tools, the teachers and their tools, administrators and their tools. Then, you can bring up these test scores.
RK: Mine's at a little higher level, at the 10,000-foot level. I think everything trickles down from the top, so I'd like to get the board back to the function it should be. And I think, once you do that, and you're allowing the people to do the job that they're hired to do, then they will help turn things around, turn the attitudes around, increase morale and have people that are trained educators working on education, trained curriculum people work on curriculum, et cetera, et cetera. We hire these people; we need to let them show that they can perform and do their job.
TM: I think my No. 1 priority would be to work with administration to ensure that the kids are getting everything that they need to achieve their academic goals, and because each child has a different need and it's individualized, you have to work with administration on that. Working with service workers, listening to their issues because they do have their own set of issues. Issues from the parents and promoting more parent involvement. Being a voice of the people. And the morale—nobody really comes to the school board meetings. It's not like it's a packed house unless there's a major issue. And, usually, if there is, they just kind of get swept over now—their issues. I definitely feel we need to work more on addressing and listening and trying to resolve issues.
- BWP: What is the school board currently doing that you would like it to continue to do or to stop doing? And why?
TM: What I'd like it to continue doing is student recognition, when students come to (board meetings) to be recognized for different things. I think it's important. They have student representatives at the school board meetings (as well). I think that's a great thing to have.
RK: (As far as a practice that should stop), we've all seen too many instances of micro-management—people trying to work with someone constantly looking over their shoulder. We've seen, for how many years now, they continue with a contract with an outsourcer in food service (Aramark), and every year, they keep on losing money. Yet, they keep on renewing the contract. Why are they doing that? They were promised profitability from the start, and it's never happened. And it's been going on now for a number of years. Generational spending, I'd like to see them stop doing that. (The board) should be able to plan ahead. The (board) need(s) to do a five-year plan. We told the board two years ago, "You need to do a five-year plan," and they told us, "You can't do a five-year plan because you don't know what your funding's going to be." We need to stop looking at things on a year-to-year basis and start looking further on down the road … It's just like your home finances. If you know you're going to need a car, you know you're going to need a roof on your house, you know you're going to need to put a furnace in the house, you'll need new windows, start putting money aside for that. You don't just say, "When it happens, it happens," and then go up to the bank and get a loan … I think I also mentioned before, learn lessons from the past—what worked, what didn't work.
KS: As far as what the board is currently doing and should continue to do … the continued financial support of the books and the education tools that are needed. That's always been something that this board has always done, and I'll give them that. We've always made sure that we've had the latest books according to what our administrators tell us we need. We've never denied books and educational tools. We continue to do that. Another thing is giving opportunities (and) the ability to attend outside functions. We always have our students either go to New York for something or to a track meet or anything, and I'm not just talking sports. It could be The da Vincian Society, anything. We've always given our children that opportunity to attend these things to enrich their learning experience and their lives. We should continue to do that. That's a good thing. As far as what I would like to change, I would like to see a round-robin sort of process in place for the (board's) presidency and vice presidencies. They do it in other councils. Right now, we have a process where it's voted on every year, and you get the same people in there every year. It gives no opportunity for the newly elected board members to experience being a vice president, being a president. Give new opportunities. It's a little closed-door thing going on. I don't like that. I think we need to have a "You get it this year; next year, it's yours." And then, everybody perpetuates, and that way, everybody learns. Everybody gets an opportunity at it.
LK: I think that, once you take the position of a school board member, it's up to you to also educate yourself. As you're advocating for every child, you also should be educating yourself. You should be going to seminars. You should be finding out what is the latest technology out there. Board members should be doing that, too. If children see that you are also educating yourself, they see how much education is important even after you have graduated from school. I think that that should be something that we should see happen.
- BWP: What new topics would you like the school board to explore? And why?
LK: We'd like parent involvement and perspective with administrators and teachers in the schools to help adequate their achievement. (Board) meetings, we'd love to have televised. There are parents that might not be able to come (to the meetings), and there are senior citizens that would be very involved that can't make it physically. And it could be very educational for our students (who can't make the meetings). Bus transportation, exploring other payroll options. Striving for excellence, adequate and acceptable. And we need to explore the opportunity to keep our taxes low without compromising the quality of education for all our students. And exploring grants and the federal funding opportunities that are out there.
TM: Just to clarify bus transportation, when we have that listed as a topic that we'd like the school board to explore, I just want to clarify that that does not mean explore other options. That means explore the issues that the (district's) bus transportation has now. I definitely want to make that clear—not to explore outsourcing, because we are opposed to outsourcing. Just to explore the issues, because there are a lot of issues in transportation. That's what me mean by that. I don't want anybody to take that the wrong way.
KS: We want the topic to be mak(ing) our bus-transportation system the best it can be, and by doing that, we need to get in and talk to the people, see what their feelings are and make it work from there. No way, no how are we ever considering outsourcing. We want to make what we have now better, plain and simple.
TM: The bus drivers are very smart. They're very informative. They're well aware of their own issues. I think that they try a lot to get their issues at least heard. I think that they are to the point where they are discouraged to even come to a school board meeting to bring up their issues just based on the board not even listening. They want to be respected because they deserve to be—not just transportation, all service workers. They're equal like anybody else that works (for the district). They're taking care of our kids; that's an important thing. If you talk to bus drivers, they will tell you—at least the ones that I talk to—they are all about the kids.
- BWP: How would you help the B-W School District improve its PSSA scores?
MS: We feel, as a group, interaction with our curriculum people is key—not teaching to the test but giving all the students the skills so that they understand what they're being tested on. Do the teachers have the necessary resources? Do they have the tools and skills to not teach the children to the test? In the lower grades, we teach study skills. I think that's something that can be taught throughout all grades. (For example,) we teach them in college: study skills where the students are understanding the things that they're learning fully. In math, not just understanding how a problem is done—why are you doing it this way?
TM: I think that I agree with Marion, but I also want to add that working with curriculum people would be administration, the superintendent, the assistant superintendents, the teachers. You can get a lot of information from the teachers. You can get a lot of information from the superintendents. I think working with them, finding out where the problems are (would be beneficial). It's such a complicated thing when it comes to PSSAs—the test—because classroom size is an issue. You have the curriculum and how quick (teachers) have to go through it. I know this based on my own kids, based on both my children. For example, my daughter, in math last year, she gets taught so quickly now because they have so much to cover in such a small amount of time with 30 kids in the classroom. So, you have a teacher trying to teach my daughter, who's just not good at math, and we would have to work with her at home. So, it was difficult every day with her, because they would rush the curriculum and she didn't have enough time to catch up. She would still be working on things from two days ago, and they were already blowing through some (parts) of a chapter. So, there are a lot of factors when it comes to the (PSSA) scores … It's classroom size, but then, that goes to: Do we have enough money to make the classrooms smaller? So, it all just kind of feeds off one another.
- BWP: How can B-W adjust to Gov. Tom Corbett's proposed 2011-12 state budget?
TM: We feel that the district needs to come up with spending reductions in order to handle the cuts in case any changes come down the line. We think that each budget line item should be reviewed. This is the work of the superintendent and is reviewed and voted on by the board. There's a lot of good people in the district, and the community can contribute ideas on how to do things better and cheaper on a day-to-day basis. I think that, if we look at each line item, it's no different than budgeting your house. It's on a much larger scale, but you can cut back, you can look at your budget and you can make reductions in your budget and not compromise education at all. So I think that it can work; I really do. I mean it's (approximately) $1.5 million (proposed cut to Baldwin-Whitehall's funding), but we would have to sit and review the budget line after line and see where the money is going.
KS: We can also look into the duplication of effort on a lot of things in the school district. There very well may be people doing the same job, and we can cut that out. I'm not saying eliminate jobs but eliminate that function of their job perhaps and move them somewhere else where they can be the best and cost-efficient. We need to look at that.
- BWP: How can B-W adjust to Senate Bill 1 if it passes (allowing students to attend private schools on public-school money)?
RK: Senate Bill 1, the "voucher bill," is where you would basically wind up taking a hit on your appropriations from the state in order to pay for a child to go to another school. I understand the intent of that—what they want to do if your child's in an underperforming district to look at a non-underperforming district rather than a school that's just not serving their needs because different children learn differently. They have the opportunity to go somewhere else. The public-school side says, "Hey, you're taking my tax revenue, and you're giving it to somebody else. We could use that money better here." Basically, with Senate Bill 1, the tax dollars follow the child. There's, I believe, one and only one way to take and combat that problem, and that is you have to realize now that you are no longer an oligopoly—for lack of better terms—in the education world. It's no longer (like) when I grew up; it was the public schools and the parochial schools. There was no cyber. Now, it seems like everywhere you look, there's a cyber school for this, a Propel School. And charter schools are coming up; there's one even in Baldwin Township. So now, what you got to realize is, as a school director, as a superintendent, you have competition. And the only way you win when there's competition is you have to become the school of choice so parents aren't looking. And if you bring up your education excellence, if they're getting what they need, people aren't going to go looking outside. And you're not going to have parents sitting there going, "I can send Johnny or Suzie here or there." No, you become the school of choice; you become the district of choice. Then, you don't have that problem anymore.
- BWP: How closely would you pay attention to the Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School in Baldwin Township?
TM: I think we have to pay attention very closely because of economic constraints and for the welfare of our children. We need to focus on education because the charter schools don't follow the same rules that a public school does as far as certifications and testing, et cetera. So, therefore, it could become more harmful than good educationally. The charter schools can continue for years before they're shut down and before the state realizes or it's realized that they're not meeting the standards. And the state would shut them down, but by then, it could ruin or affect the children who have attended there. I think that we not only should pay close attention but also hold the administrators accountable because they need to closely monitor the situation to make sure that the charter schools are following the state regulations.
KS: We also owe it to the taxpayers to keep an eye on this because we are fully funding that charter school. Money that comes from the state we are now giving to the charter school for each individual student (from B-W), and we still bus them. We incur the cost of transportation for those children, so it's our duty as school board directors to keep a watchful eye on that because it's our district's tax money … I think, right now, it's about $10,000 or $11,000 per (B-W) child that goes to that school. That includes the money from the state and the transportation costs.
TM: That's an important thing for people to know as taxpayers. This is what it's costing us per child.
- BWP: What are your reactions to the number of threats of violence at B-W schools this school year, i.e. bomb threats? Did district administration act appropriately in each instance?
KS: I was concerned when I heard about these, and naturally, everybody in this district should be. That being said, we never realize that every threat has different circumstances attached to it. While administrators do follow certain protocol for each instance, these protocols need to be coordinated with the appropriate authorities (police) each and every time. That didn't happen. The presence of professional people on site not only would have a calming effect on the students and faculty but put the right people in the correct position to deal with the situation. There needs to be a concerted effort by this district to ensure a plan is instituted with each borough's police and fire department so that our children are safe.
LK: The policy needs to be looked at. As Kevin has said, we all would really like to sit and look at that policy and also maybe even get the public opinion and find out if there is an expert that can come in or we could go to and ask, "What is the correct protocol to make our children safe?"
RK: A lot of this has to go back to bullying. A lot of times, you hear about things happening because a kid just didn't want to go to school that day or he just couldn't bring himself to go to school that day. So, they wind up calling in a threat. The school code basically says that the school district, every year, has to send in a thing to the Department of Ed(ucation detailing) what their bullying policy is. And every two years, that has to be reviewed. I think that, in conjunction with that, every two years, just to make sure to keep it up-to-date—or even annually—keep on looking over the policy that we have for in-house emergencies. That type of thing. I think that's all intertwined.
LK: On that same level, (for) each generation, bullying changes. When we were younger, it was calling somebody out on the parking lot. Now, it's texting. Now, it's cyberbullying; it's taking it to a different level. Facebook bullying. I think we need to stay current with the technology that is out there and make sure that we are making our children safe in and outside our buildings, and educate our parents.
MS: It needs to be a truly enforced policy, not just words. It needs to be enforced on all levels, and everyone needs to be accountable. The students need to be accountable for their behavior, the parents need to be accountable for their children, (and) the teachers need to be accountable for their classrooms and behavior that goes on in the classrooms, in the hallways, in the locker rooms. It's a big issue, and I think everyone across the board needs to be accountable.
RK: And if that takes changing the laws in Harrisburg, so be it. Talk to our legislators. For example, on a bus, you can have a camera on a bus, but you can't have sound. It's a violation of state wiretap laws. A picture says a thousand words, but you add voice to it—it's just like in the movies: When it went to "talkies," it was a whole different world. You can really hear what's going on. There needs to be a legislation put in place to strengthen the authorities' position and what they can do and what they can't do. When it comes to cyberbullying, how many times have you heard young girls just destroyed because some clique went after her and just propagated (rumors about her)? These kids have got to learn and have got to be taught what the meaning of World Wide Web is. It goes everywhere. Kids tend to see the world as their little igloo, their little enclosure, and they don't realize this stuff is going out and there's all kinds of consequences. It's there forever unless you can take it off or whatever the case may be. In addition to that, we (should) send this stuff home so the parents can realize because there's a lot of parents that aren't tech-savvy. They don't know where this is going.
TM: But you have to become tech-savvy, because if your kids are, then you have to become tech-savvy as a parent. Absolutely.
RK: You need to get the parents the tools to sit there and say, "Hey, look. The reason I'm restricting you from doing this, the reason I'm doing this is, ‘This is why. This is where it goes. This is what happens. This is what has happened to people in the past. Don't, for God's sake, put yourself in that position.'"