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Baldwin-Whitehall board hits 'magical line of dissatisfaction'

| Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, 12:03 a.m.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Baldwin-Whitehall solicitor Bruce Dice Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Baldwin-Whitehall board member David Solenday Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Baldwin-Whitehall board member Elliot Rambo Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
Heidi Murrin | Tribune-Review
Baldwin-Whitehall board member Diana Kazour Wednesday, December 4, 2013.
Martin Schmotzer

Residents pressing for change on Baldwin-Whitehall District's school board might have to wait until an election, though the recent controversial hiring of a board member to a highly paid post could have a ripple effect, says one expert.

“When board members act like this, it's bad for the kids, it's bad for the school,” said Thomas Alsbury, professor of educational leadership at Seattle Pacific University.

Board members took oaths on Wednesday over chants from nearly 300 residents outraged by the swearing-in of Martin Michael Schmotzer, who won another four-year term in the Nov. 5 general election.

Schmotzer, 57, of Whitehall resigned on Nov. 19 from the school board, which moments later appointed him to a new $120,000 position as supervisor of projects and special assistant to the superintendent. Board member Tracy Macek was the dissenting vote among the eight members.

Under pressure from residents who petitioned seeking his removal, Schmotzer resigned two weeks into the job. On Thursday, he listed nearly 25 projects that he said he completed, including hanging pictures and updating the South Hills district's website.

“I suggest they learn how to run for office and propose some ideas,” Schmotzer said of his critics.

Some residents want to remove the seven board members who hired Schmotzer, said Jerry Pantone, 49, of Baldwin Borough.

“We're not done. It's time for us to say, ‘Enough is enough.' The community is angry. They've been embarrassed for the last time,” Pantone said.

Several people said they plan to attend the board's next meeting on Wednesday.

After this week's session on Wednesday, school board President Larry Pantuso said, “The residents were heard.

“I'm not going to step down,” Pantuso said on Friday. “I was elected to serve, and my term is up in two years.”

Pennsylvania School Code provides that residents can petition to seek the removal of an entire board if “it fails to organize or refuses to perform its statutory duties,” said Steve Robinson, senior director of communications for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

A decision that residents don't like “doesn't really fall under that category,” he said.

Election season is the time for people to exert influence to make changes, Robinson said. The next municipal election is in 2015.

“There are ways to change things, and it's through the election process,” he said.

Research shows that when a school board crosses a “magical line of dissatisfaction,” residents start paying attention to its actions, Alsbury said.

“You've sort of awakened the sleeping giant, and in the next election cycle, you see the community moving forward to correct that wrong that they think occurred,” said Alsbury, co-director for the University Council for Educational Administration's Center for Research on the Superintendency and District Governance.

In many cases, though, a board shake-up results in administrative changes, then a shift in principals and ultimately, teachers, Alsbury said. Parents may become dissatisfied and send students to private or other schools.

Board members could work to remedy the situation, the professor said.

Stephanie Hacke is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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