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McKeesport Area candidates: Accountability is key

| Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 3:01 a.m.

With seven candidates vying for four McKeesport Area school board seats, potential directors are focusing on education, accountability and district finances.

Incumbents Trisha Gadson, Tom Maglicco and president Patricia Maksin are joined by Scott Smith in cross-filed endorsements in White Oak and McKeesport. They are challenged by former director David Donato, a Democrat, and newcomers Dennis Robinson, a Democrat, and Patti Wells Gruber, a Republican.

“A lot of things we've started over the last three years and so many months, I'd like to see completed and more progress being made,” Maglicco said. “We've made great strides in the building process, and we're in a better financial position since we eliminated plans for a third elementary school.”

In 2012 the district chose to reduce its elementary plan to two primary/intermediate buildings — Francis McClure and Twin Rivers — for kindergarten through fifth grade and the addition of a sixth-grade academy at Founders Hall Middle School.

“We're on a good path right now, and I want that to continue,” Maksin said. “We're trying to get into the 21st century with our programming and technology. It's very important that we continue to move forward.”

Gruber said she doesn't like what she's seen in attending board meetings.

“The statistics aren't good,” she said, referencing data that lists McKeesport Area in the 481st rank among Pennsylvania's 500 public districts and roughly 50 more charter schools. “My motto is being dedicated to students and responsible to taxpayers. I'd like to go into our classrooms and see exactly what's being done.”

As a district, McKeesport Area is in its second year of Corrective Action 2 in terms of Adequate Yearly Progress determined through the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment standardized testing. This year, high school students switched to Keystone Exams to determine AYP.

McKeesport Area students have made significant strides that aren't accurately reflected in AYP data, Maksin said.

“We have a safe, wonderful environment for our kids to be every day,” she said. “And our teachers are doing wonderful things in their classrooms.”

Donato, who served on the McKeesport Area board for 18 years, said he has no doubt that teachers are working with students, but he wants to see more district-wide accountability for student achievement.

“They need help,” he said. “The school district has clearly gotten itself into a situation where student achievement is at an all-time low.”

He proposes an open dialogue between the district and regional charter schools, noting similar interaction in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

“The more responsible people you can get on board with different ideas could help immeasurably,” Donato said. “We've had an administrative team that's been together for a long period of time, and the board has a responsibility to re-examine that team to make sure they are the best we can offer our students.”

Smith said district staff should be held accountable — not only for student achievements, but for their desire to achieve.

“I believe that the teaching qualifications are phenomenal,” he said. “We as a school district have to overcome (our problems and find) the ability to encourage the kids. We have the staff, and we have to encourage our kids to want to learn more and improve themselves.”

Robinson — who, like Smith, is a coach in the district and in community sports — said he hears student perspectives on and off the field. He's a parent and an Auberle staff member.

“I understand our teachers have a tough job, but there should be high expectations for kids continuously,” he said. “With young people, I don't see high expectations today. I think there's complacency, and that's bothersome to me.”

Robinson mentioned a desire for thorough bidding processes and employment opportunities — something Gadson, who was not available for comment at presstime, has asked for more transparency with in recent years.

Smith said he is interested in learning more about district finances and is in favor of controlling spending as much as possible without taking away from students' education.

Donato praised the district for keeping McKeesport Area taxes among the lowest in Allegheny County, but said it must work within the financial constraints imposed by the state.

Maglicco said there is more financial pressure in coming years with increased pension obligations and the formula for charter school funding.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or