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Plum School Board member attends education conference

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
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Joe Tommarello (right) joined more than 700 members of school boards across the country from Feb. 2 to 4 to advocate on behalf of public education at the federal level. Here, Tomarello talks to Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Sewickley Republican.

Joe Tommarello has more than a passing interest in how government works.

Tommarello, 21, is vice president of the Plum School Board. He also is studying political science at the University of Pittsburgh and aspires to be a lawyer.

The youngest member of the Plum School Board earlier this month got to interact with government leaders in Washington, D.C., when he participated in the National School Boards Advisory Institute.

Tommarello, who last year was appointed to the National School Boards Association Federal Relations Network joined more than 700 members of school boards across the country from Feb. 2 to 4 to advocate on behalf of public education at the federal level.

The board members attended sessions on key issues affecting school districts, including Common Core standards, teacher evaluations and budgeting, Tommarello said.

“A lot of things they talked about are going on here in Plum,” Tommarello said.

A couple of the featured speakers included Bob Woodward, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author whose talk was on “Presidential Leadership and the Price of Politics,” and the Rev. Bernice King, an orator and author who is the daughter of slain civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. She discussed “Public Education & Equal Opportunity for America's Students.”

Participants also learned about proposed legislation.

“It helped us learn about emerging federal issues,” Tommarello said.

Tommarello said he most enjoyed interacting with other school board members and finding out the similarities and differences in school districts.

Plum's teacher contract also was discussed, Tommarello said.

“I talked about our experience with teacher salaries and benefits and that more than 70 teachers are making over $100,000,” Tommarello said. “Some (board members from other districts) were surprised by Plum's teacher salaries.”

The conference also was capped off by board members having an opportunity to speak with senators and representatives.

Tommarello got some one-on-one time with U.S. senators Bob P. Casey Jr., a Scranton Democrat, Pat Toomey, a Lehigh County Republican, and U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus, a Sewickley Republican.

“I told Keith Rothfus about the lunch boycott (at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year),” Tommarello said. “His reaction was ‘Go students.' ”

Students were protesting higher prices and also the smaller portions required by new federal standards,

Tommarello also expressed to Rothfus his worries about school districts' increased costs and reduced federal-government funding.

Rothfus said he and Tommarello spoke about the importance of local school boards and officials having the authority to make the decisions that are best for their individual districts.

“Decisions are best made at the local, state, then federal level,” Rothfus said. “They (local officials) are closest to the classroom.”

Tommarello said Toomey urged board members to support a bill he introduced aimed at protecting children from violent predators.

The legislation — Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act — would require school officials to perform background checks on all new and existing employees and require them to notify local law enforcement if a background check indicates a sexual predator has applied for employment.

Tommarello said he invited the legislators to visit the Plum School District.

“I learned a lot and took a lot of knowledge from the conference that I will relay to the district,” Tommarello said. “The biggest thing was putting the name of Plum out there.”

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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