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Latrobe race focuses on sports complex

| Monday, May 13, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
Paul M. Upson
Gregory A. Fumea
Bill Mohler, candidate for Greater Latrobe School Board
Conrad Lazor for Greater Latrobe School Board race
Greater Latrobe School Board candidate Rhonda Laughlin
William Palmer, Greater Latrobe School Board candidate

The Greater Latrobe School Board's decision last year to spend about $9.5 million to construct a multi-purpose athletic complex with artificial turf fields, 2,000-seat bleachers and a fieldhouse has come under fire from challengers running for four seats on the board.

Seven candidates, including three incumbents and a former school director, are battling for nominations in the May 21 primary on the Republican and Democratic tickets. All the candidates reside in Unity. The district includes Latrobe and Youngstown.

The three incumbents seeking re-election — Kathryn Elder, Rhonda Laughlin and William Palmer Jr. — defend the board's decision to build the athletic complex at the junior-senior high.

David Moffa, a 2011 appointee whose term expires this year, is not running for a full term.

Conrad Lazor served on the board from 1987 to 1995 and from 2003 to 2011 and lost a bid for a third consecutive term.

Three other candidates, Gregory Fumea, Bill Mohler, and Paul Upson, are running for public office for the first time.

The incumbents said the school board has not increased real estate taxes as a result of the athletic project and that the Greater Latrobe Partners in Education Foundation is raising money for it. The foundation has raised about $3 million.

Elder, who has served on the board for 31 years, said she is concerned about the future of public school financing because of the reductions in state aid as costs are rising.

Those who have criticized the decision to build the athletic complex should realize the board discussed the project for eight years and waited until interest rates were at historic low levels, Elder said. It isn't responsible for the board to ignore the need to improve facilities, she said.

“It's not fair to have our kids on our athletic teams work with facilities that are not what neighboring schools have,” Elder said.

By installing artificial turf, the school's sports teams and physical education classes can use the fields even after inclement weather, Elder said.

Laughlin, who has three children in the district, said she has a “vested interest and fiscal knowledge” to serve the students, parents and community well.

In the next four years, the board will have to focus on how to pay the district's contribution to the Public School Employees' Retirement System without sacrificing education, Laughlin said.

Laughlin contends that candidates who oppose the athletic complex have distorted the facts, because the board has not raised taxes to pay for it. Physical education classes, the school band and sports teams will benefit from the project, Laughlin said.

“It concerns me that after being educated on this, they both continue to either lack the understanding needed, or they are just using it as a scare tactic to get votes,” said Laughlin, a board member for 11 years. “I've not heard one new candidate running give specific ideas on how to fix funding problems at hand or how to better improve education or school for our kids.”

Palmer, who is running for a second term, said the facilities are not sufficient for Greater Latrobe's 45 sports teams. The district was bearing transportation costs to take the teams to practice fields, Palmer said.

“This has been seriously talked about the last three years,” Palmer said.

Palmer is confident the Partners in Education Foundation will raise enough money to cover the cost of the project.

The board has made a “significant difference” in cutting costs at a time when state and federal funding has declined, reducing the teaching and administrative staffs, Palmer said.

Two of the challengers, Fumea and Upson, are supported by the Concerned Citizens of Unity, a community activist group that successfully opposed Unity Township providing taxpayer funds for library services. After the library failed to garner voter support in the November 2012 election, the Unity supervisors withdrew support and Adams Memorial Library in Latrobe closed its Unity branch.

Fumea said he is seeking elective office for the first time primarily because he opposes construction of the athletic complex.

“I feel strongly that sports is taking a step ahead of education,” Fumea said. The district would have been better off using that money to fund teacher pensions and install a new roof at Latrobe Elementary School, he said.

“I feel I can be a better shepherd of the taxpayer's money,” said Fumea, a member of the Latrobe-Unity Parks & Recreation Commission and the Unity Township Zoning Hearing Board, both appointed positions.

Lazor said he is running to make sure the district continues to provide a good education while keeping taxes as low as possible.

“I don't have any agenda,” Lazor said.

Mohler said he believes that the board has not gotten “the general public to buy into what they are doing.”

The board needed to have “much more community buy-in” on the decision to spend $9.5 million on an athletic complex. “The main problem is they did not get the community involved” in the decision, Mohler said.

Mohler said he doesn't believe Greater Latrobe should offer a form of cyber schooling, which allows students to take online classes at home or at school.

Upson said he believes “the current board has not exhibited a great deal of financial responsibility,” especially by spending nearly $10 million on the athletic complex.

Upson said he believes the Common Core Standards, drafted by the state Board of Education to set standards in English language arts and mathematics and adopted nationwide, will give the federal government “virtually total control over what is taught.”

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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