Residents continue to be watchdog at Baldwin-Whitehall board meetings
By Stephanie Hacke
Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
They're not going away.
Residents in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District say they will continue to attend meetings and rally together — even standing outside waiting to get in and watching videos on a live video stream in a nearby room, if that's what it takes — until they get the answers they're seeking.
United by what they say was a hastily, secretly-executed decision by a group of board members nearly two months ago to appoint one of their own to a top-paid district position, residents continue to question the district's leaders.
Nearly 90 residents attended the Jan. 8 school board meeting; many of the same residents continue to seek answers for the board's Nov. 19 appointment of Martin Michael Schmotzer, 57, of Whitehall, to a position as supervisor of projects for the board of school directors and special assistant to the superintendent.
He was to be paid $120,000 a year, with a five-year contract.
Schmotzer — who had resigned from his school board seat to take the newly created job — resigned from the position two weeks later and was sworn in to a new four-year term on the school board that night.
“Mr. Schmotzer wanted to be king,” Whitehall resident Brian Rampolla said.
Schmotzer said he can take the heat.
“I've got big shoulders,” he said. “I understand people wanting to pick on this position.”
Yet, Schmotzer said, the job he was hired for was not the only one that board members have not advertised, nor interviewed for.
Board member Diana Kazour in December said she is sticking by her vote to create the position and hire Schmotzer.
Board President Larry Pantuso last week said he will stand by any vote he's made as a board member and someday, he will explain his votes on Nov. 19.
“I'll hang my hat on anything that I've ever done on this board,” he said.
But, he said he wants to wait until residents will listen, “when I know that we will have a dialogue,” Pantuso said. Residents said they plan to continue rallying.
“I appreciate the persistence,” Pantuso said.
Residents have formed a group known as the Baldwin-Whitehall Citizens for School Board Excellence.
About 50 people met twice in December and the group was formed, said Lou Rainaldi, 44, of Whitehall, who started the BWaction.com and is on a seven-member committee for the citizen's group.
Organizers are working on a charter and short-term objectives. They also plan to meet once a month at the Whitehall Borough building.
Group members are taking the latest petition started by Rainaldi — seeking Schmotzer and solicitor Bruce Dice's resignations — door-to-door in the Baldwin-Whitehall area and are working to promote the action group.
“People are interested,” Rainaldi said. “They want the information. We want to make sure that it's good information that they're getting.”
So far, there are more than 500 people who have signed up for an email list on the Baldwin-Whitehall action website and the site has been viewed more than 6,000 times since its launch on Dec. 13, Rainaldi said.
Their objectives, for now, are simple. They want answers.
“I want the truth,” Rainaldi said.
Schmotzer's resignation from the board, also, continues to be sought.
“He resigned,” Rainaldi said. “When you give your boss a resignation, you don't come back on Monday and say, ‘Oh, no that was just for last week. I wanted a long weekend.'”
While residents plan a continued effort, school district leaders want to get back to business, Superintendent Randal Lutz said.
Moving the board meetings to Baldwin High School's auditorium, as was done on Dec. 11 and 18, or the Whitehall Elementary cafeteria, as was done on Jan. 8 makes it difficult for the board to operate, Lutz said.
“These are not effective rooms,” he said.
A plan for meeting attendance was released this week, where the first 87 people will be given numbers and granted access to the board's meeting room at the administrative building. Everyone else may watch the meeting via a live video feed in the Whitehall Elementary School cafeteria.
Residents are not happy with this, Rainaldi said.
Residents said they want the meetings to be recorded and televised for the public. This could be a project for high school students, they said.
They also want the board to be more transparent.
Some residents and media members who had filed right-to-know requests for documents related to Schmotzer's hiring received answers from the district last week. Those included a copy of his contract, that Rampolla said included a “golden parachute” termination clause.
Baldwin Borough resident Jerry Pantone questioned why the position was for five years, when even the superintendent only received a three-year contract.
While they have questions, residents also want to help.
“Obviously bad things happened to get us to where we're at today. But, to be honest, I've seen this before in my business career. Something ‘bad' like this is actually really good,” Whitehall resident Jack Parkin said. “There's a ton of us. We care. We're paying attention. What I'm hoping is going to happen here in the future here is we're going to put down our pitchforks and we're going to start working together.”
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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