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Baldwin-Whitehall School Board hottest ticket in town

| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 10:12 a.m.
Randy Jarosz | For The South Hills Record
Baldwin-Whitehall school district business manager Mark Cherpak hands a ticket to Kathy Eisel of Baldwin Borough to attend the districts school board meeting Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at the administration building. Only 87 people were allowed in the meeting including board members.
Baldwin-Whitehall school district business manager Mark Cherpak explains the ticketing system after Elaine Rhode received the last ticket preventing her husband, Jack Rhode to attend the districts school board meeting Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at the administration building. The Rhode's are Baldwin Borough residents.NOTE: Another resident eventually gave up their ticket so Mr. Rhode could attend.
Residents spent time in the cafeteria waiting for the Baldwin-Whitehall school district meeting to begin. Those without a ticket watched the meeting from the cafeteria on a projection screen.
The last ticket
Residents who were not fortunate to get a Baldwin-Whitehall school district board meeting ticket watched from the cafeteria on a projection screen.

Residents who want to watch the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board in action now need numbered tickets to hand to a constable at the door before a meeting.

And those who don't have tickets to get inside the school board chambers must watch the meeting on a large TV screen in the Whitehall Elementary School cafeteria, several rooms away.

“I don't know much of what happened,” said Marcie Hock, 67, of Whitehall, who viewed the Jan. 15 meeting from the cafeteria. “At the end, we were all sitting there saying, ‘Did that vote go through?' It really was not what you could have expected.”

The board hired a high school assistant principal and voted on budgetary measures that night. Residents outraged by the November appointment of longtime school Director Martin Michael Schmotzer to a newly created administrative job with a $120,000 salary, moments after he resigned from the board, have continued to fill board meetings.

New public participation guidelines for attendance at Baldwin-Whitehall meetings took effect at the Jan. 15 meeting, after recent crowds led district leaders to move proceedings to other locations. The procedures will stay in effect for the foreseeable future, Superintendent Randal Lutz said.

Schmotzer resigned from the administrative job after two weeks, and was sworn in Dec. 4 to a new four-year term on the school board.

Fewer than a dozen residents typically attended school board meetings before November. The board majority agreed to hold meetings in the board chambers, where the room's capacity has been set at 87 people by fire officials and district architects, Lutz said.

That's why numbered tickets will be handed out to those wishing to attend meetings on a first-come, first-served basis up to 87.

But everyone, no matter where they're sitting, will be given the opportunity to comment during the public participation part of the meeting, Lutz said.

“No one will be denied that,” he said.

Baldwin-Whitehall's move to require that some residents watch board action from a different space isn't unique, when it comes to handling large attendances at public meetings, said Steve Robinson, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association's senior director of communications.

“There's nothing illegal about it. It's been done in other places,” he said, although he said he doesn't know how often school districts have separated audiences into two rooms.

A 1999 Commonwealth Court ruling upheld the practice of video streaming, to accommodate a crowd larger than a board room could handle, Robinson said.

Some Baldwin-Whitehall residents are frustrated with the board's decision to hold meetings in the board room, which they say is an attempt to silence them.

“If you didn't have that golden ticket, you were a second-class citizen,” said Lora Kalwarski, 49, of Whitehall. “They want us to go away. It was a psychology tactic.”

Some residents who arrived early for the Jan. 15 meeting and secured tickets gave them away to others who were contemplating leaving the meeting.

Not all board members agree with the new guidelines.

“I am opposed, and I want the public to know, to streamlining video to the cafeteria,” board member Tracy Macek said as she motioned to move board meetings to the high school auditorium.

The motion failed 5-4, with Elliot Rambo, Patricia Nixon, Schmotzer, Diana Kazour and Ray Rosing voting to keep the meetings in the board room.

Lutz said he reviewed other venues, but many are in use by students on board meeting nights.

“I'm not a fan of displacing kids,” Lutz said.

The district will begin streaming meetings live onto its website in February, and will attempt to improve the quality of video streaming to the Whitehall Elementary cafeteria, Lutz said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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