Seven vie for four seats on Southmoreland board
There are seven candidates vying for four vacancies on the Southmoreland School Board in the May 21 Primary Election.
The race includes three incumbents and four newcomers looking to fill those seats. Looking to return to the board are Levi Miller, Catherine F. Fike and Gail Rhodes. Also in the race are Cheryl Byers Shipley, Heather Wise-Yanyo, Robert Callaro and Lois A. Eberly.
Each of the candidates is cross-filed.
Miller, 68, is seeking is second term in his third stint on the board as he also served from 1989-1993 and 1995-2003.
“Some people came up to me five years ago and said ‘We could use someone with your educational background on the board,”' Miller recalled. “I thought I'd run one term, but some people came to me and asked me if I'd serve again.”
Miller feels the biggest issue facing the district is balancing Southmoreland's high achievement standards with budget realities.
“That has to do with being in the top third in the region in raw scores and achievement and being in the bottom three in the county in taxes,” Miller explained. “It's just an ongoing challenge that we face. Also, maintaining a certain good will and value in public education. Ten years ago, public education had been around for 100 years and probably deserved some of the challenges it had with cyber schools and charter schools. Now those schools aren't producing any better than the public schools are. I'm ready to say it's time to reinvest in public education. It's where all of our kids get a chance.”
Miller is retired after many years in the publishing industry. He has three grown children, each of whom are graduates of the Southmoreland School District.
Fike, 73, is seeking her second term on the board, but this was not her first stint as a school director. She previously served on the Yough School Board in the 1980s.
“In my heart, I truly believe I'm the only one along with (fellow School Director) Ken Alt, who truly has listened to and represents the taxpayers,” Fike said. “Many as soon as they're elected forget who put them in office. I don't speak from opinion, I speak from facts. You are there to vote on facts, for the best interest of all sides.”
Fike does not have a problem with the quality of education Southmoreland's students are receiving, but does have a bit of a concern in the area of college graduates. She cited a national average of 25 percent of a school district's students eventually graduating from college, while the number at Southmoreland is only 11 percent, she said.
“I worry about the long-term effects of future training,” Fike said. “I do think we have good first-line administrators. It's the cost of things....I am sincere. I may be unpopular. I'm just 11 percent of the board, that's the way you have to function.”
Fike is a retired school psychologist who has four children.
Rhodes, 58, is another candidate seeking her second term on the board.
She said she initially ran four years ago because there were “things going on I wasn't real happy with.”
“So I decided what the heck, I'll throw my hat into the ring and see what I can bring to the board to the board,” she said.
Rhodes feels that extreme increased pension costs in the not too distant future are something that makes it tough when formulating a budget.
“(It's something) we have to deal with every budget process,” Rhodes said. “The school district is doing well per all the awards we've been receiving. That's a great thing as far as leadership and the teaching staff with everything going forward at a great rate. We have a great team.”
Rhodes thinks having four years of experience on the board can only benefit her if elected to a second term.
“You just have to learn to look at the information provided and make the best decision possible. I stand behind what I do. I do listen to both sides and try to be fair,”
Rhodes works part-time for Erie Insurance in Scottdale and is married with two children.
Callaro, 64, has lived in Scottdale for 40 years. He is a retired federal government employee. His employment prohibited him from running for a position on the board. Now that he is retired he can seek a seat.
“I want to make sure the taxes we pay and the education kids are getting is comparable with what it should be, Callaro said. “I think I can bring maybe some common sense and unity to the board, help alleviate some of the tension. There's a lot of tension. I know a lot about rules and regulations and how people, when they work together, can solve issues.”
Callaro admits any candidate who is not concerned with taxes is “fooling themselves,” but also is concerned about the change in the national initiative in education.
“I'm looking at saying a lot of things I was taught at school, tried and true methods,” he said. “I also believe we need to look at spending the money. We have to look and see what we can save first, then if we have to raise taxes so be it.”
Callaro is married with four grown children and retired as a district manager in the East Liberty office of the Social Security Administration.
Wise-Yanyo, 45, moved to the district about two years ago and was invited by friends to a school board meeting. She didn't like what she saw.
“I never paid attention to politics before,” she said. “What they're doing is crazy. Why doesn't anybody listen to Catherine Fike? Why doesn't anybody listen to Ken Alt when he raises good points. Why are we blindly following Bill Porter just because he's a (former) business manager? Why is it every time they vote it's 7-2? (Fike) has a lot of really good points, nobody else will listen. I'm not a politician, just a concerned citizen who thinks the school board is not functioning the way it should. I want to see it function properly.”
Wise-Yanyo said the district's biggest issue is that the community's income cannot sustain the district's spending.
“Enrollment is dropping every year. High school scores are deplorable. It's been on warning status for two years, maybe three. The teachers' salaries are going up every year and (pensions) are going up. People in my neighborhood can't afford to fix our roof or fix our cars. Sooner or later there's going to be nobody in the district. Then what are they going to do? We have to have a sense of responsibility to the community.”
Wise-Yanyo is an artist who has one son.
Byers Shipley, 58, actually is no stranger to the school board, having served from 1991-1999.
She feels now is the time to try to return to the board.
“I've always been very civic-minded. I enjoyed it when I was on before,” she said. “I really believe in public education. My parents, grandparents, children and myself are all graduates of Southmoreland or East Huntingdon. I really believe it's ridiculous for children to attend private school when we have a very good public school system.”
When asked the biggest issue facing the district, Byers Shipley simply responded “money,” specifically changes in education funding
“I understand educational funding,” said Byers, citing 25 years of experienced as a college instructor. “I have experience in grant writing. We can't continue to rely on taxes in general education. We have to look at alternatives. I believe with my background in finance and business administration, I can help (the Southmoreland) administration make some good decisions. I have been involved multiple different ways in raising money.”
Byers Shipley is an instructor at Westmoreland County Community College and has three children. She said many Southmoreland students have made their way to WCCC.
“Being an educator on that level, I have an idea the kinds of things we should be preparing our children for,” she said.
Eberly, 58, moved to Scottdale three years ago and getting a glimpse at her tax bill prompted her to run for the school board.
“When we saw our tax bill, we were stunned,” Eberly said. “It was 2 1⁄2 times what we paid for a similar property when we moved to the state of Indiana. That got me looking at the school board situation because we understood school taxes were the main driver of our property taxes. A lot of what I do is volunteerism in the community. Since I'm retired, I have the time available. I certainly would put my efforts in being better educated on the issues of the board.”
Eberly cites decreasing enrollment in conjunction with increasing budgets as the biggest issue facing Southmoreland.
“The school budget seems to be going up and up and up and enrollment is going down,” she said. “I think it's a little bit out of whack and needs to be brought a little more in line. There may be some areas that can be looked at as far as holding the line with the budget. I know a lot of it's run by the state. Salaries and benefits are a key part of anybody's budget. A lot of those areas can't be touched, but there could be some areas where we can hold the line to keep from multiple tax increases. I don't think that should be a way of life.”
Eberly is a retired postmaster with six children.
Paul Paterra is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-887-6101 or firstname.lastname@example.org.