Kathryn Elder prepares to leave Greater Latrobe School Board
Kathryn Elder has spent more than three decades helping to provide an education for generations of students at Greater Latrobe School District. In turn, she's learned a lot about education in the district and across the state.
“That's been my life,” Elder said. “You keep an open mind and, wow, it's amazing what falls in and you find out.”
Elder's 35-year run as a member of the district's school board is nearing an end, as she opted not to seek re-election this year. She'll attend her final board meeting Tuesday.
“It just seemed that this was the time,” she said, noting she is 79. But, she added, “I don't think I'll ever lose my interest in what is happening with school boards all over.”
Elder attended school board meetings in her native Allegheny County and noted a positive difference when she checked out a Greater Latrobe School Board session — once she, her husband and their three children moved to Unity Township, in 1974.
The Latrobe board, she said, was “very willing to share information with members of the audience. That had not been my experience with other school boards.”
Elder got her chance to join the board when she was appointed to a vacancy in the early 1980s.
“I don't think anybody should go onto a board with all their own ideas and have those fixed,” she said. “I think you need to ask questions and find out what is really happening versus what you think may be happening if you're looking from the outside.”
Elder was confronted with a weighty agenda at her first board meeting.
“Talk about jumping into the fire,” she said. “I had to vote on the budget and the new teacher's contract.”
Longtime member and current chair of the school board's finance committee, Elder recalled Greater Latrobe once had one of Westmoreland County's lowest property tax millage rates.
“By the time we got into the 2000s, we began to inch up,” she said.
In recent years, the board has approved a series of roughly single-mill increases, citing the district's growing financial obligation to the state's Public School Employees' Retirement System.
“It's gut-wrenching to raise taxes,” Elder said. “I think board members take that more seriously than anyone in the district because it's their decision.”
Resolving contracts can be an equally tough proposition.
“You want (teachers) to do well and stay in your district,” Elder said, “but you always have the taxpayers in mind and, overall, what do our kids need?”
Elder earned respect on both sides of the bargaining table when she served as the district's chief negotiator in employee contract talks.
“When I'm negotiating, I don't start out asking for the moon,” she said. “I start out asking for what I really want to get, and I keep asking for that. The idea is you cut out a lot of the fluff and you also are becoming reliable.”
Susan Mains, who has been a Greater Latrobe school director for 26 years, looked to Elder as a mentor when she joined the board.
“She's an amazing person,” Mains said of Elder. “She's really dedicated her life to this. She's a champion for the kids.
“With the years of experience she's had, she has so much knowledge.” But, “She's not always dug in on issues. She's a true asset to the district. I really hate to see her go.”
Elder served as president of the Greater Latrobe board for more than a decade and became involved with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, representing counties in the southwestern corner of the state.
A member of the district's art conservation trust, which oversees works lining the halls of the high school, she counts completion of the school's new athletic complex and ongoing construction of a new Latrobe Elementary School among the highlights of her tenure on the school board.
Though she'll no longer vote on local school issues, Elder has other community concerns to command her attention. She coordinates a Meals on Wheels program that serves people in the Latrobe and Derry areas and hopes to continue on the local Adams Memorial Library board — as an at-large member instead of a school board representative.
Elder will end her stint as a Greater Latrobe member of the joint operating committee at the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center.
That's the “big involvement I'm going to miss a lot. I have a lot of interest in and loyalty to that school,” she said. “When you see those kids who have built a robot, and they're so proud of what they did and they're so knowledgeable about how it works and how to fit all the pieces together — it's an amazing place.”