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Budget tops Deer Lakes issues

| Sunday, May 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Five candidates, each cross-filed on the Democratic and Republican tickets, are vying for four seats on the Deer Lakes school board.

Three incumbents are running — Clara Salvi, Lisa Merlo and James McCaskey — and two challengers, Louis Buck and Phillip Ziendarski.

As with all public school districts, the pressing issue is the budget, which has been squeezed by state budget cuts, soaring pension plan contributions and flat revenue.

In 2012-13, Deer Lakes and Fox Chapel Area were the only districts in the Alle-Kiski Valley that didn't raise taxes or spend their savings.

But that came at a price: Deer Lakes furloughed 14 teachers and didn't replace seven retiring employees.

Future funding for the Public School Employees' Retirement System will be a big problem for most school districts, said Clara Salvi, who is seeking re-election.

“We know that the government has canceled or cut back on a lot of programs,” she said. “We have challenges, there's no question.”

According to Salvi, the hardest decision that she had to make in her four years on the school board was cutting teaching positions and not replacing some retired teachers.

Salvi said the district is bringing back some of those positions for the 2013-14 school year.

“Everyone — the community, parents, teachers, and the staff — will all have to make sacrifices for the education of students,” she said.

Lisa Merlo, the board's president, said the greatest issues facing Deer Lakes' budget are flat revenues combined with continued benefit-cost increases.

The 37 percent spike in the pension costs and five percent increase in medical insurance is driving the cost increases to the district.

“The state of Pennsylvania truly needs a pension reform law redefining the pension program away from a defined-benefit program,” she said.

Merlo said that she has sent letters to legislators and attended meetings with them to stress the importance of this reform.

“No Pennsylvania school district will be able to survive the high increases that will occur over the next 10 years,” she said.

“To survive, the school district will need to cut costs in every possible area,” Merlo said.

And that's just what newcomer Louis Buck says that he brings to the table.

A manager in an electrical supply business, Buck said, “I want to make sure that the board is fiscally responsible.

“I can't say anything pro or con against the current school board, but I want to make sure that the monies aren't spent unnecessarily.”

Buck has experience in energy conservation and is interested in looking at the district to find energy savings.

“I have a good working knowledge in ways to save energy and money for the school system,” he said.

Buck said that he is sensitive not to just the senior citizens on fixed budgets but average people whose working wages are somewhat fixed these days with scant raises.

But it's a tough balance to spare taxpayers.

“The challenge is to maintain the quality of education that we already have without raising taxes,” he said.

Candidates James F. McCaskey and Phillip Ziendarski could not be reached by press time for this story.

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