13 candidates compete for Franklin Regional school board seats in primary
The Sloan “elementary campus” project is not the only reason the Franklin Regional school board primary is so crowded, but it’s certainly near the top of the list for many of the 13 candidates competing for six seats.
“As a former senior public school administrator, I can unequivocally state that a more-thorough vetting of the Sloan school program needs to be undertaken before making a decision of this magnitude,” said Democrat Richard Arnold, 74, one of a few candidates that is not cross-filed.
“I am not cross filing because the voters of this district need to know where I stand politically and educationally,” said Arnold, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Slippery Rock, a master’s in education from WVU and a doctorate from Kent State.
Current school board members last year approved a roughly $54 million project to renovate the existing Sloan Elementary School, build a second elementary school on the Sardis Road site and consolidate all elementary students onto one campus.
“I have not seen evidence we need to build another grade school with over 300 seats empty between the three current grade schools, and declining student population over the past 10 years,” said Republican candidate Ed Mittereder, 64, who is cross-filed. “The solution is fixing existing buildings and doing maintenance that’s been neglected. If in time we have a student population growth and need more room, it should be in a location that is not in a remote area on a two-lane road.”
For cross-filed Republican Bill Yant Jr., 82, the bottom line is he does not believe the district’s operational and capital expenses are sustainable.
“I am very concerned that with the continuing reduction of state and federal funds, more and more of this burden will fall on local taxpayers,” Yant said. “And worse, the state limiting index constraints will force the cutting of teachers and programs.”
Democrat Michelle Milan McFall, a former high-school English teacher in the Mt. Lebanon School District, said that “allowing a single issue to steer the entire discussion of this year’s election diminishes the enormously important and complicated role of the school board” in her campaign literature.
She said she is running for school board to “ensure and build upon FR’s tradition of academic excellence and to address all of the important issues and challenges that come with the position.”
Democrat Susan Stewart-Bayne, 45, said she is unsure of her position on the Sloan project.
“This isn’t a decision I’d feel comfortable committing to until I became a school board member, had the opportunity to look at all the options and get community feedback to make the best decision,” she said. With a background in mental health and disability work, Stewart-Bayne said her top priority is helping the district navigate “these important areas with greater respect and understanding. I also feel that while FR is one of the best schools in regard to ‘test’ scores and ranking, we can improve in areas that can’t necessarily be tested.”
Cross-filed Republican candidate Tabitha Riggio, 51, shared Stewart-Bayne’s cautious approach to the Sloan project.
“I recognize that our buildings need improving,” she said. “Out of respect for my predecessors, I’ll remain open-minded to their decisions while reading and researching, conducting a fair review and providing oversight moving forward.”
Cross-filed incumbent Democrat Herb Yingling, 70, said he was on the fence about the Sloan project “until a tour of our buildings revealed their condition,” he said. “Some have blamed the board for letting the schools get into that condition and that is not true. During my time on the board, we have never turned down a maintenance project that was needed, but if we were not informed of problems, then there isn’t much we can do.”
Cross-filed Republican candidate Scott Weinman, 43, a senior IT security analyst at the University of Pittsburgh, said he is firmly opposed to the Sloan project, and his main priority would be to address long-term planning.
“Districts all around Franklin Regional are experiencing financial difficulties, typically due to new construction and increasing pension costs,” Weinman said. “I would work with the administration to develop long-term plans and financial projections, which align costs with educational standards and requirements.”
Incumbent, cross-filed Republican Dennis Pavlik, 67, cited the district’s comprehensive feasibility study as the reason he supports the Sloan project.
“Maintaining the status quo by repairing may seem cheaper, but required education, safety and security enhancements make the present campus untenable,” Pavlik said. “The recent (rejected) Sloan bids showed the greatest variance from estimates were for the renovation, not the new building.”
Cross-filed Republican candidate Denise Podowski, 69, is part of a group of candidates — including Mittereder, Yant, Weinman and Gary English — united in their opposition to the Sloan project.
“I believe we can come up with a plan for enhanced and re-designed schools with the buildings we already have and keep the burden on Murrysville residents as minimal as possible,” Podowski said.
Incumbent and cross-filed Republican John Koury, 73, said upgrades and renovations over the next decade will not address the district’s aging infrastructure.
“(Project opponents’) option does not pass the ‘common-sense test,’” Koury said.
“The Sloan project will provide Franklin Regional elementary school children with educational spaces uniquely designed for learning support, life skills, autistic support, state-of-the-art project design activities across the curriculum, occupational therapy, speech therapy, etc. These educational facility capabilities do not exist or are very limited in the current Franklin Regional elementary school buildings.”
Cross-filed Republican English, 63, who has lived in Wilkinsburg and Penn Hills and watched both districts go through financial woes, said he does not want the same for FR and opposes the Sloan project.
“The amount of interest in this year’s primary is tantamount to a ballot on the Sloan project,” English said. “This short-sighted plan jeopardizes the fiscal health of the district, leading to substantial tax increases, and leaves no funding available for the middle or high schools.”
All of the candidates in this story are competing for five seats, each with a four-year term.
Patrick Varine is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Patrick at 724-850-2862, [email protected] or via Twitter .