The Baldwin-Whitehall Council of PTA was hoping for a big turnout at its Baldwin-Whitehall School Board candidates debate on Wednesday night. Unfortunately for the PTA, the candidates themselves didn’t turn out … mostly.
Five of the nine remaining candidates for school board seats in Baldwin-Whitehall stayed away from the PTA’s debate at Salvatore’s in Baldwin Borough, which got under way at exactly 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday with opening remarks by Fred Vella, the PTA member who led the committee that organized the debate.
Originally, five school board candidates told the PTA that they were coming, but Larry Pantuso backed out at 6:30 p.m. in an email to Vella and fellow PTA member Debbie Clinton. Pantuso cited “a personal matter” as his reason for not attending and apologized.
Pantuso is a member of the “Residents for Lower Taxes and Better Education” committee, which also counts Kevin J. Fischer, Sam DiNardo Jr., Diana Kazour and Ray Rosing as members still in the running for seats following May 17 primary elections. Neither Fischer, DiNardo, Kazour nor Rosing attended Wednesday’s debate, either.
All candidates were mailed an invitation.
Each of the four candidates who did attend the debate was a member of the “Committee to Build a Better Board,” which includes Richard J. Kirsch, Lora J. Kalwarski, Marion M. Shannon and Tracy Macek.
After an opening statement from each of them, Kirsch, Kalwarski, Shannon and Macek then answered questions written by both the PTA and the audience, as read and overseen by moderators from the League of Women Voters.
The “Better Board” committee agreed on virtually every topic with only slight differentiations. Some of the highlights from the evening are as seen below.
While Macek, Kalwarski and Shannon each denounced the concept of school vouchers, which would some give some public-school students tuition dollars to use toward a private-school education, Kirsch said that he supports the concept but that “the funding of it stinks.”
“It punishes districts really bad that aren’t as lucky as we are,” Kirsch said. “I think that the funding issue needs a big rethink, but the concept of having a child being able to go somewhere and get the type of education that he or she needs or that works for he or she is a great idea. But I think it needs to go back on the drawing board as far as funding, because once again, I think the funding is much too punishing.”
A school vouchers bill has been approved by the Pennsylvania State Senate and must still be approved by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. The candidates were asked how Baldwin-Whitehall could adjust if that bill passes.
Kalwarski said that she thinks that the vouchers bill, if passed, would have the same effect on Baldwin-Whitehall as the Young Scholars of Western Pennsylvania Charter School in Baldwin Township is having in that it moves B-W’s public school dollars to that charter school.
“The people (B-W residents) will probably look into it (switching schools),” Kalwarski said, “but I don’t think that it will take a lot of our children away because I feel that our teachers and our administrators are wonderful here.”
Kirsch said that the bill would not affect Baldwin-Whitehall “right off the bat.”
“But five to seven years down the road, it could very well hurt us,” he said.
Merger with Brentwood?
Each candidate was asked if Baldwin-Whitehall would consider a merger with a neighboring school district, such as Brentwood Borough’s, if that school district fell on tough economic times.
All four candidates did not see that as a bad idea.
“I would have open arms,” said Kalwarski, who earlier suggested that Baldwin-Whitehall could at least cooperate with other area districts’ clubs and activities groups in order to save money. “They are our neighbors.”
“I do not think it would be a bad idea to merge with Brentwood,” Shannon said. “They are a like-minded district. Although they’re smaller than Baldwin(-Whitehall), their neighborhoods are compatible to ours. The students have been brought into a district that’s like ours.
“It could help both them and us. We could combine services, we could combine budgets, and perhaps, we could help one another.”
“I think the Brentwood School District and the Baldwin-Whitehall School District are practically homogenous,” Kirsch said. “They fit very well together … If that would happen down the road, I think it would be a pretty seamless transition.”
Service Workers Contract
The candidates were asked to share their feelings about ongoing contract negotiations between the B-W School District and its service employees, who have been working without a contract since July 2010.
Kirsch seemed to sum up his committee’s opinion suitably.
“I think going into a second year without a contract is ludicrous,” he said. “Even if you’re rewriting it (the contract) from the very beginning, I think you could rewrite the Bible faster.
“There’s no reason for it (working without a contract) … I think it’s something that should be taken care of and taken care of, like, yesterday.”
Macek called the situation “disgraceful,” and Kalwarski said that the situation was “disgusting to (her)” and that finalizing a new contract for the service employees would be her “top priority” if elected.
Subcontracting Support Personnel
The candidates were asked what their “stand” was on “subcontracting support personnel.”
“I hate outsourcing … ,” Kirsch said. “(When doing so,) no one in the district is taking and actually watching over them people (subcontracted workers) the way that they should, and you always wind up coming back in the end, finding out that you probably could have done it cheaper in-house if you would have taken some steps to go that direction.”
“Stay in-house,” Kalwarski said. “Once you start subcontracting out, you end up dealing with the numbers (cost) being small in the beginning, and then, they start climbing very quickly over a very short period of time.”
Shannon called the district’s decision to employ ARAMARK as its food service provider “the worst thing.”
Improving Communications Throughout the School District
Kirsch and Macek used this topic to express a desire for school board meetings to be televised in some way.
“I don’t see why we can’t televise the school board meetings,” Kirsch said.
Added Macek, “It will encourage more people to come to the school board meetings.”
Shannon said that she would like to see surveys done of district teachers and administrators to gather their opinions on certain issues.
Kirsch also offered that speaking at board meetings should not be the only way that district residents and employees are able to reach board members.
Pay to Play?
Given that some area school districts have implemented fees for students to participate in interscholastic sports, the candidates were asked if they would support such fees in Baldwin-Whitehall.
Kalwarski said that she would look into a “co-op program” first to see if Baldwin-Whitehall could share resources with another district.
“There’s a lot of expensive things that we are doing here that we can cut,” Kalwarski also said, “and I don’t think that athletics or musicals or any of that needs to be cut first, because that is (those activites are) part of the education of our children. So that (pay-to-play fees) would be a last resort.”
Shannon agreed that fees “would be a last resort” but added, “If faced with cutting educational opportunities or faced with cutting sports, I would implement a pay-to-play process.”
Kirsch was not in favor of athletics fees at all, but Macek hinted that she would consider the fees if academics were threatened.
“I hate raising my taxes,” Kirsch said, drawing laughter. “I don’t know about anybody else … Nobody likes it(, but) sometimes, there’s absolutely no choice. But that got to be the absolute last choice.”
“Of course, I am opposed to raising taxes,” Macek said. “That would require my own taxes to be raised. I think that raising taxes is more of an easy fix. It would be more advantageous to review the budget and tear it down.”
“I don’t want my taxes going up, either,” Kalwarski said. “ … You do have people that would like their taxes raised, but I’m truly not one of them.”
“Who wants to pay more on their taxes?” Shannon asked rhetorically. “My mother-in-law is an elderly widow. She can’t afford her taxes raised. I would not vote for that. I would hope that, in light of the next budget that comes up to us, I would hope that we could dig in … to find ways to fund that budget.
“However, in light of how the budget this year was balanced, with some of the incumbents voting on taking the excess from the (Baldwin High School) construction fund to balance the budget that we’re going to pay on for the next ‘X’ number of years, I’m concerned.
“I would not take out a loan to pay my taxes and then pay on that loan for a number of years. I would try to look, personally, to see what could be cut before I used loaned money to pay something, to pay on that loan for a number of years.”
The candidates were asked to share their opinions on the B-W School Board’s decision in March to allocate funds—not to exceed $20,000—for a promotional DVD about the district.
The consensus among the four candidates was that that money should not have been spent in such a way.
“Twenty thousand dollars,” Shannon said. “What could we have done to educate a student with that amount of money?
“Sure, it promotes our school district(, but) I think results (academic performance) promote better … We’re a good district, and I think it should speak for itself. I don’t think we need a commercial that costs $20,000.”
“I see why they (the current school board) did the DVD,” Macek said. “I get it that they wanted to promote the district, but they should have put the $20,000 more into education because people aren’t going to watch a movie and say, “Ooo, that’s where I want to live.’ Most informed parents, or people, will look, when they’re going to buy a house, ‘What are the test scores (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment results)?,’ especially if they have kids.”
“Our scores tell it all,” Kalwarski said.
Video Cameras and GPS Units on School Buses
“I really do think—for the safety of our children and the safety of our bus drivers—I think it’s (surveillance is) a good thing,” Kalwarski said. “In the same sense, this also can be used in the wrong ways.
“I think that, if it is used in the correct ways, it can be an advocate for the bus drivers to help with discipline and know(ing) their routes a little better, but if it’s used in a negative manner, it also can make life very miserable for everyone.”
Shannon did not talk specifically about video cameras but spoke against the GPS units.
“I don’t think monitoring (to that extent) needs to be done of our bus drivers,” Shannon said.
Kirsch didn’t see a problem with the video cameras and said that GPS units could be helpful for route decisions and emergency situations.
“I only agree with the GPS system for safety reasons only,” Macek said. “Otherwise, if it’s being used as a micromanaging tool, then I don’t agree with it.”
High School Renovations
“Was it wise to use $2.8 million from the high school renovation fund to balance this year’s budget?” was another question that the candidates faced.
As a whole, the “Better Board” committee vehemently opposed that practice.
“I think that we should pay our debt first, and then, balance the budget from there,” Kalwarski said.
“I do not believe it was a wise decision to do that,” Shannon said. “However, it’s an election year. It’s always a positive thing to say, ‘We have a balanced budget with taxes being lowered.’ However, you don’t give that other piece to the picture, the other piece to the puzzle, saying, ‘Oh, but we took that from the construction fund.’
“So, no, I do not (see that as wise).”
“If you were a corporation,” Kirsch said, “and you borrowed money to enhance your cash flow, you can just watch your stock price drop like a rock. And that’s basically what they’re doing here. They had to use that $2.8 million to balance the budget.
“I think it was the result of six years of not doing proper fiscal management.”
“I don’t think that it was a good idea at all … ,” Macek said. “I believe that it was just a matter of shuffling money around from one account to another.”
Highlights from Closing Statements
“One thing that did not come up was bullying in the schools,” Shannon said. “One thing that I really, really have a heart for is making a permanent, positive culture change within our schools.
“It (Bullying) affects children’s learning, and it needs to be a priority (to stop any bullying).”
“Baldwin and Whitehall has split,” Kalwarski said, “and it never was like that. I grew up here, I’m raising my family here, and we need to be united. And I know that there’s a lot of people out there that want that.
“We (the Committee to Build a Better Board) all have the same vision,” Macek said. “We’re trying to do what’s best for the children. We know that there are a lot of challenges … I think that we can be responsible in allocating funds.”
“I applaud everybody for coming tonight … ,” Kirsch said. “I’m disheartened that there’s no other candidates here. Where are they at? Is your time not precious to them? …
“We’re going to be inheriting some baggage from the past administrations (if elected), and all that I can say is, ‘I encourage you to help us.’
“We can’t do it alone. We need your input, and we want to hear from you.”
Nov. 8 is Election Day.
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