5 seek 4 seats on Southmoreland school board
Five candidates will vie for four seats on Southmoreland school board in Tuesday's general election.
Running are two incumbent Democrats, Levi Miller and Gail Rhodes, and Republican challengers Cheryl Byers Shipley, Robert Callaro and Lois Eberly.
Miller praised the district for its academic success, including the elementary school's recognition as a National Blue Ribbon School. However, he said, the district faces financial challenges.
“We're a high-achieving school district,” Miller said. “We're being recognized for that nationally. ... We're a very efficient school district when compared to (others). We're in the bottom three of the school districts in Westmoreland County in our millage rate and tax rate. We're certainly in the upper third in regard to achievement levels.
“It's a case of continuing in a positive way, knowing we have tremendous challenges ahead. We're a modest-income community, so we do have the challenge of trying to maintain a high level of achievement and an efficient operation,” he said.
Miller said his experience will benefit the district, where his three adult children were educated.
“I see the importance of selecting strong leaders,” Miller said. “Seeing that we have strong personnel in leading our district is one area where I think my experience does help.”
Rhodes, who is seeking a second term, believes skyrocketing pension costs and funding levels will cause difficulties.
“It's the biggest part of the budget,” Rhodes said. “We have to deal with the hand we're dealt. We have no control over that. There's a fine line that we have to balance. You don't want to take away money from the primary purpose — to educate our children. It's a fine line, and it's hard to walk that line.”
Rhodes said she has gained valuable experience in the past four years.
“You have to know where there's a problem and where there's not a problem,” she said. “If something's working and moving forward and receiving national and statewide accolades, we should be very happy and very proud to be a part of that.
“(But) we're not putting our head in the sand and putting on rose-colored glasses. I don't think that's the type of board we have. They're not willing to rest on their laurels. They're always setting the bar higher,” she said.
Byers Shipley, who served on the board from 1991-99, also cited funding as the most pressing issue.
“We have a finite amount of money and an infinite amount of opportunities,” she said. “We have a wonderful school district, and we're doing very well. Every school district has problems. ... Everybody wants to do better.
“That's one of the things we want to look at. What can we do with what we have? If we ever have to raise taxes, are we raising them to truly better the student population?” she said.
Byers Shipley said she encounters Southmoreland graduates at Westmoreland County Community College, where she is an instructor.
“Not only have I been on (the board) before, I had three children very successfully graduate from Southmoreland. As a professor at WCCC, I see our students at the next stage of their lives,” she said. “One of the things that sometimes makes a difference between a good student and a great student is parental involvement. The stronger we make our community and the stronger we educate people, the stronger we make our future generations.”
Callaro said the tax rate is his greatest concern.
“I'm impressed with what the school district has done in improving the education in our area — kudos for the recognition they've gotten,” he said. “We need to make sure the things we need, we're able to pay for. A lot of school districts don't fare nearly as well as we do, and we don't have the resources they do. That's a credit to the administrators and the school board.”
Callaro said fresh eyes on a problem can bring a fresh approach.
“I think you get stale if you keep having the same people and the same ideas all the time,” Callaro said. “We need new people just to bring new ideas. Sometimes people get lazy, get lackadaisical. I can bring enthusiasm and new ideas to the school board.
“Those who voted for me in the primary know who I am. They know I'm going to make decisions with them in mind,” he said.
Eberly, who has attended recent board meetings, said declining enrollment combined with increased costs presents a major issue.
“Declining enrollment and ever-increasing budget issues are the factors driving the cost as well as trying to get a good balance between educational needs and financial needs,” Eberly said. “Right now, they manage to hold off any tax increase. But in order to do that, they've depleted the unassigned fund balance.
“Without those resources in play next year, tough choices will have to be made. Hopefully, the board will be able to work through those issues,” she said.
A retired postmaster, Eberly feels her “practical experience and management” can be an asset to the district.
“My experience with finance and personnel can all come into play,” she said.
Paul Paterra is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-887-6101 or firstname.lastname@example.org.