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Public schools remain safe haven, school board association official says

Paul Peirce
| Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, 9:13 a.m.
Thomas J. Gentzel
Thomas J. Gentzel

Despite the massacre in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza killed 20 first-graders and six adults inside Sandy Hook Elementary School, the new executive director of the National School Boards Association maintains that public schools remain among the safest places for children.

Thomas J. Gentzel, 61, began his new job in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 3 after working 32 years with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

“As horrific and awful as the tragedy was in Newtown, it would have been much, much worse had teachers and administrators not followed the lockdown procedures they were trained to do, had they not shielded the students from additional harm,” Gentzel said.

“Schools are among the safest places to be on a given day,” he said.

Schools have been fine-tuning security measures for decades and those efforts heightened after the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, according to Gentzel.

Gentzel said he was nonplussed by National Rifle Association head Wayne LaPierre's assertion that every school needs armed guards. “I'm sure we will be discussing it a lot. But a number of schools already have security guards or agreements with local police departments,” Gentzel said.

Gentzel, who grew up in State College and earned graduate and undergraduate degrees at Penn State University, went to work with the PSBA as a staff lobbyist before being promoted to head governmental and member relations. He was named executive director in 2001. The group is in the process of selecting his successor.

Gentzel and his wife still maintain a home in the Harrisburg area, but now have an apartment in Washington near his new office.

Public schools across the nation are grappling with the same problems, Gentzel noted.

“It's interesting when I started as a lobbyist, then advocacy department head, money was always a big issue for schools. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, it was a matter of how much or how much more the state would contribute, trying to reach that 50 percent level... which we exceeded for awhile but that has since dramatically fallen off,” Gentzel said.

All students should have access to quality education, he said.

He said he is troubled by the move toward public funding of charter schools at the expense of public school funding.

“I realize charter schools are here to stay, but while most legislators want to see a successful public school system, the debate has changed somewhat,” Gentzel said. “Some so-called public-interest groups have an agenda against public education. And their motive is profit.”

He said he was proud of a November decision by federal education officials to back the PSBA's objection that the state Department of Education was using more lenient criteria to evaluate charter schools' achievement. Federal education officials said the state must assess charter schools by the same standard as traditional schools and ordered the state to recalculate charter schools' results.

With the recalculation on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment examinations taken by students in 2011-12, no cyber charter school — which teaches students online — made adequate yearly progress, according to the state Department of Education.

A smaller percentage of other charter schools made the grade under the more stringent calculation.

“There is no evidence of people taking vouchers and sending their students to other schools and they do better. Don't get me wrong, there are some high-achieving charter schools, but a lot them are pretty bad too,” Gentzel said.

“Those schools are given relief from the mandates we have to follow, but there is no evidence out-performance is occurring. As a parent, I should be able to look at the performance of these schools; not only performance, but absenteeism, finances,” he said.

In addition to security and financial concerns, Gentzel noted that financing public school employee pensions is another concern nationwide.

“We do have our plate full here. You look at the polling and most people say their local school districts are doing a good job and most want to maintain good public schools in their communities. Those polling numbers give me encouragement,” he said.

Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or

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