Franklin Regional candidates talk balancing education with costs
By Daveen Rae Kurutz
Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 8:42 p.m.
The bottom line is a hot topic in the race for party nominations for four seats on the Franklin Regional School board.
Five newcomers are challenging three incumbents in the May 21 primary, where Republican and Democratic voters will decide who will vie for four open seats this fall. Paramount in the eyes of voters and candidates is the financial state of education. All eight candidates appear on both the Republican and Democratic ballots, so this primary could winnow the pool down to four candidates or send as many as eight on to the Nov. 5 general election.
Prior to this year, the school board has raised taxes for 10 consecutive years. Part of the reason for the increases are growing retirement contributions mandated by the state, which will continue to skyrocket for the next several years. Officials have said they are left with few options – raise taxes or cut programs.
Two-term incumbent Paul Scheinert said he wants the opportunity to continue the work he's been a part of. He said he supports keeping tax increases to a minimum, and he said he places a high value on academic programs.
Scheinert said it has taken a lot of work to get the cost of education down without hurting academic offerings.
“I want to provide high-value education at the lowest possible cost,” Scheinert said. “We are a service to the community — they are our customer. I am not predisposed to want to cut any programs right now. I'd like to maintain as much as we can, and cut only if we need to while still best serving the needs of our community.”
Newcomer Jeremy Samek said he became interested in running for school board last fall after attending community meetings and when he began doing research on Constitutional rights in public school districts for his work as an attorney. He said he worries about the trend of tax increases in the district and believes that the state can't “bail us out.”
If elected, Samek said, he would want the board to reevaluate what is important to the district, what things are being done well and what it can do without.
“Whether we cut programs or have tax increases, there's going to be some sort of pain involved for somebody,” Samek said. “We all need to come to this with the goal of sharing the benefits and the cost of public school education.”
Incumbent Dennis Irvine said sorting out the district's budget is “a balancing act.” Irvine, who is seeking his second term, acknowledged that dealing with retirement contribution spikes is going to be a battle.
He said he does not want to cut academic programs; instead, he'd rather see officials look at the activity fee the district implemented two years ago and other extracurricular programs.
“We have three things going that all districts strive for — economic stability, academic stability and labor stability,” Irvine said. “It's a balancing act. I believe that keeping our standards high and offering a quality educational program keeps our property values high.”
Quality education programs is what got Bobbi Watt Geer interested in becoming involved in the district. Initially, she was invested in the 2012 debate of possibly cutting full-day kindergarten. But during that conversation, she wondered why that was the only program being considered.
If elected, Watt Geer said, she would look at the impact, cost and benefit of programs in the district, while trying to maintain the quality of the school district. It's a delicate balance, she said.
“I don't want to see taxes go up, but we need to be careful and really critical when we look at programs and what we cut in the district,” she said. “We have not fully recovered from the recession. We have to put a critical lens on expenditures.”
Incumbent Kim Bondi said she wants to see continued collaboration between the board, administration and union. Seeking a second term on the board, Bondi said she feels the pain of tax increases as much as other taxpayers — she and her husband own three properties in the school district.
Bondi said she wants to avoid hurting programs and increasing class sizes. When considering a program, Bondi said, the number of students affected has to play a role.
“With what we're asking of our children these days, an academic program should not be cut,” Bondi said. “If we have the money, I'm more inclined to keep things. You don't cut things just to cut.”
Newcomer George Harding said he worries that continuing to increase taxes will cause the district and taxpayers to suffer. Instead, he suggests looking at ways to merge or eliminate programs that aren't well-used.
“I'm sure if we examined each program, we'd find some to eliminate, some that should be expanded, and others that might need added,” Harding said. He proposes sharing services with neighboring districts, including Plum, Gateway and Greensburg-Salem.
“We need to find ways to do things smarter, more efficiently,” Harding said.
Candidate Susan Ilgenfritz suggested finding “creative ways of funding.” Among her suggestions are applying for capital grants and website advertising to avoid dealing with program cuts. Ilgenfritz, a mother of four daughters under age 7, previously supported cutting full-day kindergarten during public meetings but said, if elected, she wants to preserve programs as much as possible and avoiding tax increases unless necessary.
“Ten consecutive years and having the highest millage in Westmoreland County are concerns of mine,” Ilgenfritz said. “I believe in exhausting every solution before just raising taxes as an option to balance the budget.”
Gregg Neavin said he would like to see the district seek local, private funding to help with budget problems. Rather than cutting programs, he suggests expanding the district activity fee and looking at farming out smaller programs that benefit few students.
Some programs run their course, Neavin said, such as Latin or German classes. When it comes to program cuts, he would look at each on a case-by-case basis.
“I think there's a need for balance. I am, number one, pro-kid and quality education,” Neavin said.
“There are two sides to every checkbook. We need to come up with more money and we need to spend less.”
All eight candidates are cross-filed. The top four vote-receivers from each party will appear on November's ballot. Elected board members will take office Dec. 2.
Daveen Rae Kurutz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8627, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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