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5 battle for 4 Norwin school board seats

Joe Napsha
| Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Becky Gediminskas
Becky Gediminskas
Raymond Kocak
Raymond Kocak
Donald Rhodes
Donald Rhodes
Barbara Viola
Barbara Viola

Three Norwin school directors and two challengers are battling for four seats in the November election.

The winners will help to oversee a district that likely will deal with the same issues it faced last spring – how to cover a budget deficit while avoiding furloughing teachers and cutting programs that could hurt the quality of education.

Two incumbent directors – Donald Rhodes and Barbara Viola – won Republican and Democratic nominations for four-year terms.

Raymond Kocak, a former school director, and Rebecca Gediminskas, a current director, won spots on the Democratic ticket. On the Republican side, Rhodes and Viola, both running for fourth terms, share the ticket with Kocak and Brian Carlton.

Gediminskas, running for a fifth term, lost her bid for the Republican nomination in May. Carlton did not run on the Democratic ballot in the primary because of a mistake in his nominating petitions. Director Al Lynn chose not to run for re-election.

The district covers North Huntingdon, Irwin and North Irwin and about 18 residences in Allegheny County.

All of the candidates said the biggest challenge for the district is providing a quality education within financial constraints.

Superintendent William Kerr has characterized the financial challenges Norwin and other districts face as the “new fiscal reality.” Norwin would have furloughed 10 teachers this school year were it not for savings realized through bond refinancing, Kerr told the school board.

Norwin faced a $3.3 million deficit for the 2017-18 school year before implementing cost-cutting measures and savings through teacher retirements and resignations.

While the district cut costs in a number of areas, “I think you need to look at the administrative expenses before you affect the students,” Carlton said.

Gediminskas said school safety, reductions in government reimbursement, high pension costs, academic requirements, technology needs and resource management are among the challenges a school director must face.

Norwin has made significant reductions in the budget, and will seek to be more efficient, while keeping a focus on the quality of education and the consequences of those actions. Rhodes said.

Rhodes said he has introduced the idea of creating GoFundMe accounts to provide direct funding to the district and measure the community's interest in specific areas.

We are going to have to create unconventional ways to strike this balance,” Rhodes said.

Striking a balance between providing the best educational opportunities possible for students within the financial constraints of the community remains “the ultimate challenge,” Viola said.

Norwin's enrollment has grown and that has brought more revenue to the district and the community, but has contributed to an increase in operating costs, Viola said.

Kocak, who served one term on the board before losing in the 2015 election, said he believes additional waste could be cut in the school district.

“You have to keep looking for ways to cut to keep those programs going,” Kocak said.

One of the issues that arose this fall was whether the district should implement a “pay-to-play” fee on students who play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities. The board postponed discussion of the issue until early next year.

All the candidates opposed instituting a fee to participate in such extracurricular activities.

The pay-to-play fee presents a barrier for students to participate in clubs and athletics and puts an unnecessary burden on families with limited funds and multiple children, Gediminskas said.

“They already pay to play,” Gediminskas said.

Extracurricular activities should be for all students — despite family resources — ”to grow minds, touch hearts and build bodies, to develop skills and to amass experiences and friendships that a classroom cannot provide,” Rhodes said.

With the increase in substance abuse, Rhodes said he believes those extracurricular opportunities “in some way work to combat these destructive behaviors.”

Viola said she was on a board committee several years ago when it addressed the issue. Norwin implemented parking fees for students a few years ago, to generate additional revenue for athletics and extracurricular activities, Viola said.

“Instituting an additional fee for participation at this point amounts to double dipping and places an unfair burden on families,” Viola said.

Carlton said he would like the district to explore other options, “such as giving businesses the opportunity to sponsor these program to absorb some of the costs.”

Kocak said parent groups already raise money for their children's activities.

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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