Deer Lakes juggling many concerns, school board candidates agree

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, 1:41 a.m.

Managing the district's financial concerns while being mindful of taxpayers and providing for students remains a top concern of candidates for Deer Lakes School Board.

At least one new member will join the board after the Nov. 5 election, in which five candidates are vying for four seats.

Mike Coletta served one four-year term and chose not to seek re-election.

Running for re-election are board President Lisa Merlo, Vice President James McCaskey and Clara Salvi. All three will appear on the Democratic and Republican ballots.

The other candidates are political newcomer Louis Buck and retired Deer Lakes bus driver Phillip Ziendarski. Buck appears on the Republican ballot, while Ziendarski will be on the Democratic ballot.

Ziendarski declined to be interviewed for this story.

Buck said he was motivated to run because as he nears retirement age, he sees others in a similar situation.

“I want to try as hard as I can, if elected, to keep the taxes down as much as possible,” he said. “Frankly, I don't understand how some of these older people can do it.”

Buck said he would use his business experience to try to find ways for the district to save money and “do things better.”

“The school is a business,” he said. “It's no different than any other business. I think there's ways they can do things to save money.

“I don't have any board experience. I'm not different from anyone else running for the board for the first time — they (incumbents) didn't have experience. I think I'm as qualified and more qualified as anyone else to do this.”

Those incumbents say they want to continue the work they started.

“There's a lot of challenges ahead for our school district,” McCaskey said, pointing to state funding cuts that have hit all districts. “We have to try to come together with a plan. We have to keep trying to survive, basically.”

“We have to choose wisely on where we spend our money,” he said. “We're going to have to make some sacrifices.”

But cuts that would affect students, he said, would be “our last choice.”

“I think the district's made progress. You might not be able to see it because of the financial issues in front of us, but we could be a lot worse off,” McCaskey said. “The board as a whole, we do our job.”

The district's contract with its teachers expired in June, and the two sides continue to negotiate, Merlo said.

“We're trying to be as realistic as we can, economically, to make sure we do the right thing for our staff but also for the taxpayers,” she said.

Pension costs are rising sharply, and reform is needed at the state level, Merlo said.

“In the next three to four years, we're not going to have the money to pay those costs. It's increasing too dramatically. That's our biggest problem,” she said. “We need the governor to step in and reform pensions.”

The district's debt is another financial challenge. Merlo said millions saved from refinancing bonds have helped the district pay salary and pension costs.

“Academic excellence is our number one concern,” Merlo said. “We want to do that in the most fiscally responsible way we can do it.”

As a former teacher, Salvi said furloughing teachers was difficult for her to do. Any savings that can be found, no matter how small, can add up to saving a teacher's job.

As an example, she said the district saved $25,000 by not mailing out a calendar, which appears on the district's website instead.

“We look at everything,” she said.

Salvi is on the district's teacher contract negotiating team and said she'd like to see that through.

“We're not a district that has a lot in reserves,” she said. “We're facing some very difficult financial decisions in the future.

“The top priority is always the students. We have to keep what's in the best interests of the students in mind.

“We have to keep in mind the needs of the community we have, which is not a lucrative community. We have to keep expenses in mind for them, too.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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