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Plum school board candidates have differing ideas on district progress

| Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

The incumbents and challengers for four open seats on the Plum School Board have divergent ideas about the operation of the district.

The four Republican candidates are incumbents Sal Colella, Kevin Dowdell and Andrew Drake, who have teamed up with Jim Rogers, who unsuccessfully sought a seat on the board in 2011. Republican Shane McMasters is not seeking re-election.

Newcomers Michele Gallagher, Dawn Lynn Check — former public relations director for the district — and Michelle Stepnick, all Democrats, are the challengers. Gallagher, president of the Oblock Junior High PTSA and past vice president of the Pivik Elementary School PTA, won the nomination on the Democrat ballot after mounting a write-in campaign less than a week before the primary.

Dowdell won nominations on both ballots.

The general election is Nov. 5. The term of office runs from December through December 2017.

One of the issues that separate the Republican candidates from their Democrat challengers is the consideration of hiring outside companies to perform various services in the district.

The Republican incumbents voted to hire Kelly Educational Services to handle staffing of substitute teachers and other district workers. The incumbent candidates also approved contracting with Aramark Corp. to manage the district's facilities.

The Republicans also are seeking proposals from outside companies for custodial services.

The Democrats said they would end outsourcing.

“I have a large concern for the direction this district is headed,” Stepnick said. “It is upsetting to me to have programs cut and jobs outsourced.”

Drake said the board has a responsibility to explore all options when looking at district services.

“It's our fiduciary responsibility,” said Drake, board president. “We have to look outside to make sure we aren't paying more for internal services that someone externally provides (for less).”

Colella, Dowdell and Drake want another four years to build on their accomplishments.

They point to a variety of measures including reducing elementary school class sizes, starting a new reading program in the elementary schools, instituting five-year strategic plans, upgrading the district's technology, approving the new Holiday Park Elementary School, taking steps to result in the district's bond rate increase to an A+ and balanced budgets with minimum program cuts.

Colella wants to work to encourage more family involvement in students' education.

“My objective in the next four years is to embrace to a greater extent family engagement,” Colella said. “With families more involved, student performance will increase. For me it's about the classroom, and I want to be fiscally prudent for the citizens.”

Drake wants to implement the district's five-year strategic plan including completion of a list of facility improvements. Drake also aims to continue to challenge the administration, teachers and staff to improve academic performance. He also hopes for successful contract negotiations, particularly with the district's teachers.

“I believe we could negotiate a good contract that would bring back the family and consumer sciences and German (programs at the high school),” Drake said.

Dowdell wants a “sustainable budget” over the next five years.

“I want to keep staff without making cuts,” Dowdell said.

Dowdell also wants to explore different types of programs for students including ones that are offered online.

“We have to make sure we are serving the needs of students and adjust the curriculum into the 21st century,” Dowdell said.

Rogers acknowledges that student test scores have improved. Rogers, though, wants to continue the strides.

“The test scores are good,” Rogers said. “I want to see them get better.”

Rogers also would work for fiscal responsibility and sees the key to successful contract negotiations being give-and-take.

“Everyone will have to compromise,” Rogers said.

Check would beef up the district's special-education program including providing more aides.

Check also supports more elective programs, particularly those that teach students life skills.

She also believes new board members would be more successful at negotiating contracts with the district's employees.

“We need to rebuild the bridge that has been severed by the threat of outsourcing,” Check said.

Gallagher said she is heavily vested in the district, particularly with three sons who next year will be at all three levels -— elementary, junior high and the high school.

Gallagher also opposes outsourcing.

“If it isn't broken, why fix it?” Gallagher asked.

She also aims to maintain educational program and electives and would monitor class sizes.

“We need compromise and balance,” Gallagher said.

Stepnick wants to maintain educational programs, stop outsourcing and achieve a balanced budget.

“I don't believe we should cut programs for one child, Stepnick said. “If one child feels they got the short end of the stick, we have not done our job. Every child deserves a quality education to compete globally.”

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400 ext. 8753, or kzapf@tribweb.com.

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