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Pensions cast shadow in Greater Latrobe

| Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Rebecca Emanuele | for the Tribune Review
'It's really too bad. It is a great event for the community, a chance for many to get together. Bringing people in from out of the area also brings awareness to all of the services the Latrobe airport has to offer.' Kathryn Elder Unity Township
Greater Latrobe School Board candidate Rhonda Laughlin
Conrad Lazor for Greater Latrobe School Board race
Bill Mohler, candidate for Greater Latrobe School Board
William Palmer, Greater Latrobe School Board candidate

Three incumbents, one former board member and one newcomer will battle for four seats on the Greater Latrobe School Board in the Nov. 5 general election.

Two of the incumbents — William A. Palmer and Rhonda Laughlin — won on both the Democratic and Republican ballots in the May primary, as did Bill Mohler, who is running for public office for the first time. Former school director Conrad Lazor won on the Democratic ballot, while incumbent Kathryn Elder won only on the Republican ballot.

David Moffa is the only board member whose term expires this year and is not running for another term. Moffa was appointed to the board in 2011.

All of the candidates are registered Democrats except Palmer.

As the controversy over the school board's decision in 2012 to spend about $9.5 million to build a multi-purpose athletic complex has died down, candidates discussed the challenges facing Greater Latrobe and all school districts to maintain a quality educational program. Greater Latrobe, like other school districts, must make payments to the underfunded Public School Employees Retirement System.

Elder, who is seeking her eighth term on the board, said she wants to focus on student academic progress. It is important for the board to aid the administration and teachers in helping educate students. The school district, she noted, has white boards in all of the classrooms in the junior high school.

“I think the teachers are using all the tools to help the students,” Elder said.

The district wants to continue upgrades at the junior high school, improving the hallways, the entrance and the floors, she said.

“Taxpayers need to be aware that the budget problem we are facing is not of our own making,” said Elder, referring to the state's problem with the underfunded retirement system.

Lazor, the top Democratic vote-getter in the primary, served on the board from 1987 to 1995 and 2003 to 2011, then lost a bid for re-election.

Lazor said he views serving on the board as a community service and wants to “keep the education standards high and the taxes low.”

“I have no hidden agendas. I just want to keep it positive,” Lazor said.

Mohler said he is running to offer a new perspective on the school board.

“It's time to change out some of the people on the board and approach things from a new direction,” Mohler said.

He pointed out that the school board did not get the community behind the decision to spend money on the multi-sport athletic complex and questioned whether the district can afford the long-term cost of maintaining the complex.

“I don't think it is the right thing. They didn't get the community to buy into it before doing it,” Mohler said.

Palmer said he would like to continue focusing on how the school district will respond to “the whole PSERS (Public School Employees' Retirement System) mess.” The school district must set aside money in its budget to pay for its contribution to the pension system.

“They've made that bed,” Palmer said, referring to the state, “and they're making us lay in it.”

Palmer said he would like to focus on continuing to increase enrollment in Greater Latrobe's eCat Online Academy, the cyber education program that gives students the flexibility of taking online classes full-time or part-time. By decreasing enrollment in outside online schools, the districts keeps more of its education subsidies from the state.

“We're giving a heck of a product to taxpayers,” Palmer said.

Laughlin, a board member for 11 years, did not respond to requests for comment.

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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