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Plum School Board to fill vacancy Tuesday after Monday's interviews

| Monday, March 20, 2017, 9:15 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Tribune-Review
Plum Senior High School.

Plum school directors plan to fill a vacant school board seat with either a former teacher and witness in the district's teacher-student sex scandal or a former Woodland Hills School District principal.

Two candidates who interviewed Monday evening to fill the unexpired term of board Vice President Sal Colella were Scott Kolar and Reginald Hickman.

Colella, whose term expires at the end of the year, cited “personal health reasons” as to why he resigned early this month.

The board plans to formally accept Colella's resignation and appoint his replacement at a special meeting Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Plum High School, 900 Elicker Drive.

All eight current board members participated in Monday's interviews. Each asked one question, the same question, to both candidates.

Topics included the 2017-18 budget, transportation, school configuration, safety and social media.

Both candidates said they were not in favor of raising taxes or cutting programs or staff, but would have to examine all facts and information prior to making any financial decisions.

“We have to strike a good balance,” Kolar said.

Both said they take student safety very seriously, would not be influenced by social media and want to work for the betterment of the district.

Kolar said he would prefer Plum schools to have their own busing instead of contracting out transportation. Hickman said he didn't have enough information on the subject.

Each interview took about 35 minutes, including opening and closing statements.

“I think they both have good educational experience,” said board President Kevin Dowdell. “I thought they both interviewed well.”

Kolar left Plum High School's JROTC in July 2014 to take over North Allegheny's program.

He emailedthe school directors on Feb. 20, 2015, three days after police arrested former Plum teacher Joe Ruggieri on charges of institutional sexual assault and corruption of minors, claiming he warned school officials nearly two years prior about a teacher's possible inappropriate behavior with female students.

Kolar testified before a grand jury in May 2015. The 100-page grand jury report was released May 19, 2016 and stated district administrators turned “a blind eye to obvious signs of teacher misconduct.”

Three Plum teachers, including Ruggieri, pleaded guilty to having sex with students and are serving prison time.

Hickman, the former Edgewood Primary School principal at Woodland Hills School District, was placed on leave November 2015 for allegedly not dealing with unruly students after 11 teachers filed grievances over how he handled complaints of classroom violence.

Teachers at the time alleged they were kicked, bitten and scratched by students and that “nothing was done by the principal,” said Adam Forgie, president of the Woodland Hills Educational Association.

Hickman, 43, resigned from Woodland Hills to become an assistant professor at California University of Pennsylvania, where he currently serves in the Department of Secondary Education and Administrative Leadership.

Hickman was principal the 2015-16 school year. He previously served as Woodland Hills' director of pupil personnel services, grant coordinator and program director.

He has three children in the Plum district.

He is a member of the National Association of Elementary and Secondary Principals, Pennsylvania Association of Elementary and Secondary Principals and the International Association of Lions Clubs in New Kensington.

“I think this is the only thing I haven't done in education,” Hickman said about becoming a school director. “I love education. I love the process of education. I love students to learn.”

Kolar was a teacher at West Mifflin Area High School, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as an Air Force recruiting service operations commander before coming to Plum.

Kolar declined to discuss the Plum sex scandal.

He said he wants to be on the board to improve the district.

“There are a lot of different topics that interest me,” said Kolar. “Not only taxes, but the level of education and the safety of students. That's the number one priority — the safety of students. I think there are some things that can be improved upon. Right now, it seems like a board divided.”

No board members asked any questions about Kolar's involvement with the grand jury.

Dowdell said he “hadn't thought about it” when it came to picking interview questions, and it would not have been fair to do so because that type of inquiry would not apply to Hickman.

Kolar has cross-filed to run for the four-year seat in the spring primary.

Kolar has children in the district and owns several properties in Plum.

He was appointed to the board in 2005 to fill a vacancy, but did not seek election for that seat because he “had no interest” at the time. He did pursue a borough council seat as a Republican, but was not elected.

Hickman took an active role in several district board meeting and parent discussions about diversity this school year.

He said a Confederate flag issue at the high school and the election of President Donald Trump were contributing factors to try out politics.

If appointed, he would be the only African American on the nine-member board.

“It's not enough just to say I'm unhappy with this, or this, or this,” Hickman said. “It's an opportunity to affect change and to be a part of the process. That's what's important to me.

“I think I will bring a different perspective being an African American man. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Should that be the determining factor? No.

“I happen to think I'm the most qualified for the position. Diversity is never a bad thing. Having different points of view, having people with different backgrounds only helps and enhances an organization to move in the right direction.”

Colella was the second Plum board member to resign in as many years.

Michelle Stepnick resigned in September, then retracted that action shortly after, and was appointed back to the board by Allegheny County Judge Michael E. McCarthy in January.

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-871-2367 or mdivittorio@tribweb.com.

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