ASD budget, buildings top candidates' list
Armstrong School District directors will focus on buildings and budgets in the new term, and three current directors and three newcomers are seeking two seats in Tuesday's primary election. Current president Joe Close is running unopposed in his region for a third seat.
The district recently began construction on its long-debated high school, scheduled to open in Manor Township prior to the 2015-16 school year. With contractors already on site, this will be the first election in recent years where the possibility of building is no longer in question, but the upcoming board will be responsible for deciding how — and for how much — the school will be built.
The directors also face a razor-thin budget as state funding steadily decreases and teacher contract negotiations loom in June 2014.
There's also a faction of residents on the eastern side of the district who still feel disenfranchised by the closing of Elderton Junior-Senior High and the decision to build a new school with $80 million originally borrowed to renovate buildings the district has or plans to close.
All of the candidates will be on both the Democratic and Republican ballots.
In Region I, which includes Bethel Township, Burrell Township, Cadogan, Ford City, Ford Cliff, Manor Township, Manorville, North Buffalo and West Kittanning, incumbent James T. Rearic is opposed by Doug Smith, a regular attendee at board meetings.
JAMES T. REARIC:
After nearly six years on the board, Rearic feels the district is headed in the right direction. A longtime supporter of the new school, Rearic hopes to finish what he helped start.
“Now that we're on this path, I'd like to see it through. I think if we would've done some of the things we're doing now earlier, then we'd be further ahead as a district.”
Rearic believes building consolidation will be vital to creating a more manageable budget as the district prepares for contract negotiations.
“We're going to have some issues with Pfizer (pension) and health care,” he said. “And that's something that's going to hit all districts.”
Rearic spoke out against a referendum about the possibility of building the new school, and said the results of the previous election demonstrated public support.
“I think people got tired of the constant bickering of past boards,” he said. “(The previous board) had the majority going into the last election, but they chose a path that the voters came out and spoke against. Now we're on a path that works.”
Rearic, 45, lives in West Kittanning with his wife and two sons. He is a division manager for BP Lubricants.
Smith said he's seen the disagreements since he served on the board from 1980 to 1984.
“This sort of fighting has been going on here forever,” said Smith, 63, a former coal worker and truck driver, who took renewed interest in board affairs after retiring in 2010.
“The previous board borrowed $80 million to renovate three buildings. Then when I heard about some of their plans — like putting in a third-floor gymnasium at Ford City High School — and I became more attentive of what's going on.”
Since then, Smith has been a regular at board meetings and has been a watchdog of the directors' spending.
“They think the public has endless pockets and we don't,” said Smith. “We've got to change this spending philosophy.”
Although he said he initially had concerns about the new school, Smith is resigned to the fact that it will become a reality and said he would work to limit building expenses.
“My goal is to build it with the amount of money we have available.” said Smith. “I think we're spending too much money on that project and we still have two more years of fighting a budget before it opens.”
Smith lives in Manor Township with his wife and has a son and three grandsons.
In Region II, which includes Applewold, East Franklin, Kittanning, Rayburn, Washington Township, West Franklin and Worthington, current board president Joe Close is running unopposed. Close, who lives in Worthington, has been on the board since 2001 and also served as president in 2009 and 2012.
“I thought it best to run again regardless of whether I have an opponent to keep the continuity of the board moving along. It's an exciting time and I'd like to be here for it.”
The most hotly contested battle is in Region III where two incumbents face two challengers for two seats. Region III includes Atwood, Boggs, Cowanshannock, Dayton, Elderton, Kittanning Township, Pine Township, Plumcreek, Rural Valley, South Bend, Valley and Wayne along with Smicksburg and West Mahoning in Indiana County.
ADAM P. GRAFTON:
A staple at board meetings since 2009, Grafton has never hidden his disapproval of the district's direction. Grafton is critical of the directors and administrators during public comments and believes the board rushed into building the new school with little regard for residents in his region.
“The eastern elementary schools are in desperate need of repairs, but where is that money going? To the new high school. I think it's all going to come back to bite the taxpayers.”
Grafton said the district — and Superintendent Stan Chapp — should have made more of an effort to unload the $80 million the previous board borrowed.
“(Dr. Chapp) was charged with offering that money to other districts and the man did nothing,” said Grafton. “They made a conscious decision to leap into building.”
Grafton is a vocal supporter of the proposed Everlasting Elderton Charter School and secession efforts by South Bend Township and believes ASD is struggling to adequately educate its students.
“(ASD) is rated middle of the pack in the state as far as education.If we're satisfied with that, then let's keep going the way we've been going. But if we're not, we need to make big changes.”
Grafton, 67, and his wife live in South Bend Township and have a son. Before retiring, he worked in quality control at the Ford City works of PPG and was a technical service representative for the company in Lourdestown, Ohio.
As a math teacher with ASD for 14 years and as president of the Armstrong Educators Association, Scaife has seen the inner workings of the district from a unique perspective. When he retires at the end of the school year, he wants to shift his efforts to the school board. “If I was hiring someone to run a construction company, I'd want someone who knows about construction,” said Scaife. “I know how the classrooms operate and I really think having someone with experience along those lines on the board isn't a bad thing.”
As for his role in upcoming contract negotiations, Scaife said he would remain objective despite his current job.
“My pay will no longer depend on what the contract says,” he said. “If there's some conflict, I'll abstain from the vote, but I'm just a person who tries to look at things from both sides and fairly for everybody.”
Scaife attends most meetings and believes the directors are on the right track.
“They needed to save money and what they've done will eventually put them in a position to make better use of staff,” he said. “And that's the biggest way the district can save money.”
Scaife, 60, lives in Boggs Township with his wife and has two children and one grandchild.
D. ROYCE SMELTZER:
Seeking his fifth term on the board he's served on since 1997, Smeltzer knows what it's like to be the odd man out. The last remaining director who supported reopening Elderton Junior-Senior High School after it was first closed in 2009, Smeltzer often casts the lone opposing vote in regard to the new high school.
“It's my opinion that (the new school) wasn't the best option for the district or taxpayers,” said Smeltzer, who feels the board should have used a referendum to decide what to do with the original $80 million borrowed for renovations. “That money wasn't borrowed for a new school that not all students in the district can attend. With that much money involved, I think the taxpayers should have been able to vote on it.”
Smeltzer also supports the South Bend area secession efforts and frequently asks the board what is necessary to move that plan ahead.
Smeltzer is also concerned about school security and the need for the district to “keep up pace” with changing technology.
“Our kids are eager to learn and we need to give them the tools to do it,” he said. “But the challenge for the district will be deciding between what we want and what we can afford.”
Smeltzer, who owns and operates DRS Trucking in Creekside, lives in Plumcreek with his wife and has two children.
During her 34 years as an English teacher with ASD, Walker said she taught at nearly all of the secondary schools in the district — including several that have since been closed — before retiring from West Shamokin Junior-Senior High School in 2008.
“I believe in community schools, but there comes a point when they might be too small,” said Walker. “I think we have too many teachers for the number of students we have, and we're duplicating too many services. With this new school, we may lose a little bit of the small-size feeling, but we might finally be on the right path towards providing a good education while containing costs.”
Walker is running for her first full term on the board after being appointed to replace Sara Yassem, who resigned last year. During that time, Walker has served as a representative of the district with the ARIN Intermediate Unit and Lenape Vocational School joint operating committee.
“I think it's important to see what other districts are doing,” she said. “We can't keep going down the same path we've been going and expect different results.”
If elected, she said she'd like to see less of an emphasis on construction and more on curriculum and student safety.
“My expertise is in the classroom, and that's where I think I add to the board's knowledge,” she said. “The most important thing we can do is try to give our students the most sound education we can in the safest environment we can while being mindful of the taxpayers. We're a board of buildings right now, but I want it to be a board of education.”
Walker lives in Wayne Township and has two stepsons and five grandchildren.