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Blairsville-Saltsburg school director faces write-in opponent

| Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

A race has developed for a seat on the Blairsville-Saltsburg School Board as newcomer Calvin Snyder has launched a write-in campaign against longtime incumbent Mary Whitfield.

In the Nov. 5 general election, they'll be vying for votes in Region 2 of the school district, which includes portions of Burrell, Blacklick and Conemaugh townships.

Running unopposed for another term are Rick Harper in Region 1 (Blairsville Borough and a portion of Burrell Township) and Holly Hall and Linda Brown in Region 3 (Saltsburg Borough, Loyalhanna Township and portions of Conemaugh and Young townships).

In announcing his campaign last month, Snyder, 55, of Blacklick Township, stated that he is running as a “candidate for change” but is not focusing on a single issue.

Whitfield, 59, of Burrell Township, is looking to add to her 18 years of service on the board, which began in 1991 and included two two-WWyear gaps. Whitfield said she has “no personal agendas” as a board member but is committed to seeing Blairsville-Saltsburg continue to advance as a district.

Both candidates indicated that they place top priority on serving the best interest of students. Each also cited a need to be responsible to district taxpayers.

A veteran of the U.S. Air Force, Snyder works as a supply specialist at the Blairsville Westinghouse plant. In relation to union representation at his workplace, he noted he has served for 17 years as the recording secretary of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1096 and has been involved in negotiations for six labor agreements. He pointed out that experience could serve him well if he is elected as a school director. “That's what the school board is going to be doing,” he said.

Snyder has a daughter who graduated from Blairsville High School in 2008 and another daughter and a son who currently attend the school.

He said he decided to run for a school board seat because he has reached a point where he has more time to devote to such a role as he's cut back on involvement with some district and community youth sports programs.

He currently is president of the Blairsville Football Boosters and is a member of the girls' and boys' basketball boosters.

He previously served as an assistant softball coach for the district and an elementary basketball coach as well as vice president of Blairsville Little League.

“I work here and live here. The community has helped me,” he said. “At this time in my life, I need to give more time to this school district.”

If he is elected, Snyder said he would bring a new perspective to the school board. “The board has been sitting with the same people for a long period of time,” he said.

As a new school board member, Snyder acknowledged he would go through a learning process. He said he would listen and talk to other school officials.

“I would not go in and try to rule something with an iron fist,” he said.

But he suggested there is room for change: “Change is good 99 percent of the time.”

Snyder said he believes the board should always make decisions that reflect the needs of the entire district and should not sway between giving preference to either the Blairsville school campus or the Saltsburg school campus — which are located at opposite ends of the district.

“It is actually two separate schools, but it is one school district,” he said. “It's everybody's schools.”

Steps to enhance security in school buildings and the move to a half day of instruction on Fridays are among recent district issues Snyder indicated he'd like to reexamine after being elected and gaining more information.

“The main responsibility of the position I am seeking is to provide the children the education needed to succeed at the next level. Whether that next level is post-secondary education or a place in the workforce, the school must prepare the students for this transition,” Snyder stated.

One of his goals, he said, would be to “ensure that all the money will be spent to benefit the children and not on frivolous expenses.”

Snyder also is a member of the Knights of Columbus in Homer City and of the Red Barn and Coral-Graceton sportsmen's clubs.

While her opponent looks to bring change to the school board, Whitfield said the board and the district are involved with change on an ongoing basis.

“I think we live in an age when change is constant,” she said. “We have to be willing to evaluate and then determine not only what change is right for us but make it work in our students' best interest.”

She cited the move this fall to a half-day of instruction on Fridays as just such a change.

To prepare for “so many things the state is mandating,” including new testing to assess student academic skills, Whitfield said, “We have to be able to train our teachers more.”

She said the schedule of half-day Fridays now allows 70 hours per school year for teacher training while the district still will meet the required 180 days of instruction for students.

As an added benefit, she said, the new weekly instruction schedule is saving district taxpayers several hundred thousand dollars per year.

While some parents expressed concern about obtaining child care for students on Fridays, Whitfield noted that parents previously had to cope with occasional modified school days when instruction was curtailed or started a few hours late to allow for teacher training.

“We've been doing this all along, just not in a structured, predictable way,” she said.

Whitfield noted she could not reveal publicly the specific steps the district has taken to address heightened security concerns that have become a factor for all public schools. The school board did decide recently against pursuing use of armed guards.

“We have a very sound security system in place now,” Whitfield said, though she said district measures could be subject to change as needs are reevaluated.“It's something that will be always evolving,” she said.

Whitfield said school board members need to keep themselves up to date on changes affecting the education field. To do that, she said, she attends conferences sponsored by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association whenever possible.

She said the seminars provide valuable information and insights, not only through listening to scheduled speakers, but also through comparing notes with board members and administrators from other school districts

“It's important to our district to get a handle on what everybody is doing,” she said.

During her years on the board, Whitfield noted she has served on a variety of committees — including a panel devoted to curriculum and another that helped develop the district's new comprehensive plan.

Such experience, she noted, has helped her in making decisions as a board member: “Sometimes you have to make the hard decisions because it's the legal, moral and ethical decision to make.”

Whitfield also brings to the board her experience teaching preschool children for more than nine years. She currently works at Blairsville's nonprofit Happy Time nursery school.

She previously was an administrator at a day care center in Indiana that had a staff of 13 and an enrollment of about 50 children.

Though her own two children have graduated from Blairsville High School, Whitfield said her preschool job continues to give her added investment in the district.

“I know these students before they ever get to (public) school,” she said of the children at Happy Time. “That's been extremely helpful to me.... I have a stake in the education of these children.”

Whitfield also teaches Christian education to adults at her church and she is a member of the Burrell Township parks board.

Through the latter board, she became involved in supporting development of soccer as a club sport at Blairsville-Saltsburg. She said she would like to see the program developed into full-fledged competitive boys' and girls' teams.

“I think there's room for another sport to be played,” she said. “One of the things on my wish list is to accomplish and finish this.”

Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or

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