6 candidates running for 5 Penn Hills school board seats
Six candidates are vying for five seats on the Penn Hills school board this November.
Incumbents Robert Marra and board President Erin Vecchio were the only two candidates on the May Primary ballot. They earned enough votes to be on both the Democrat and Republican tickets.
Candidates Jackie Blakey-Tate, Meryl Thomas and Elizabeth Rosemeyer earned enough votes via write-ins to be on both tickets in the general election.
Resident Michele Greene secured enough write-ins to run as an independent.
Following is information submitted by the candidates as well as their response to questions posed by the Trib:
Erin Vecchio, D/R
Why did you decide to run for election? I decided to run for re-election because I promised I wouldn’t rest until our issues were sorted out. So far, during my tenure as president of the board, we have balanced the budget, successfully raised test scores across the board, disruptions to class have fallen double digits, and with the help of Sen. Jay Costa, we have acquired $3.5 million in grants this past year alone – and in doing so eliminated the need for a tax increase. If that’s not enough to earn some trust, how about our latest accomplishment in saving approximately $15 million on refinancing our debt, which doesn’t require an extension of the payoff date. None of this was possible without the help of our other fine board members who have put in the hours to get people working together. We continue to make progress and look forward to fresh ideas like a revamped curriculum that would benefit students and attract charter school participants back into the district, which ultimately is a significant cost saving to taxpayers.
What is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed? If we’re serious about saving taxpayers money, we need to address the out of control costs of charter schools. I understand that folks have been reluctant to send their children to a struggling school district, but I can’t stress enough that in the past couple of years our hometown has stepped up to the challenge. We have pulled ourselves together and our comeback is well on its way. Nobody’s perfect and we still need to work some things out, but I promise you it’s nothing that can’t be improved if we work together. Charter school costs are approaching $20 million a year, trust me when I say your money will be better spent in The Penn Hills School District than in a charter school that isn’t required to abide by the same standards.
What do voters need to know about you? I am here to work with you. There is no issue that you can’t come to me about if you are having a problem. I have lived here my entire life and I will continue to do so because I love my friends and neighbors here, whether we agree on everything or not we are all here together and need to do what’s best for every single resident.
Robert Marra, D/R
Home: Rushmore Drive
Occupation: Vice President of Global Technology
Previous elected office: Penn Hills school board
Why did you decide to run for election? In January of 2018 I was asked by the Penn Hills administration to become the treasurer of the Penn Hills School District. I remained in that position until June of 2018 when I was appointed to the school board to fill a vacancy. I have been chairman of the finance committee, where I have worked closely with the business manager and the chief recovery officer. I feel that we are moving the district in a positive direction, but there is still work to be done. I feel that I work well with the administration and bring a knowledge of finance and business to the board. I would like to continue to work to preserve the education for our students while addressing the financial issues that our district faces.
What is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed? Of course, the biggest issue that needs to be addressed is the financial status of the Penn Hills School District. We need to work with the CRO to implement the recovery plan which was approved by the board in June of 2019. But, at the same time, we must ensure that we don’t negatively impact our curriculum and the academic opportunities offered to our students.
What do voters need to know about you? We have lived in Penn Hills for 35 years. My wife Jane and I have four children who all graduated from Penn Hills and went on to further their education. They are all proud to be from Penn Hills. I received my PhD from MIT and have been employed by an international chemicals company for 37 years. I am currently the VP of Global Technology and am on the executive committee of this company. Over the past two years, I have applied this experience and knowledge to ensure that the Penn Hills budget has been realistic, accurate and addresses the current financial situation.
Jackie Blakey-Tate, D/R
Occupation: retired school administrator and school social worker
Previous elected office: none
Why did you decide to run for election? I initially wanted to run because of the tax issues. As I became more involved, I recognized that there were a number of issues that raised my level of concern.
What is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed? The biggest issues which need to be addressed are holding the line on taxes while trying to find ways to solutions to current financial issues; improving student achievement on all levels and providing the youngsters in Penn Hills with opportunities to make them competitive and successful in the job market, and safe and drug free learning environments for our students.
What do voters need to know about you? I am not a politician – I decided to run for this office because as a retired educator I have some areas of expertise which may be helpful. I also believe in service and reaching out to help others for the betterment of our community as a whole.
Meryl Thomas, D/R
Occupation: retired social worker
Previous elected office: none given
Why did you decide to run for election? I have been involved in our school system for over 25 years and feel we need people who have a knowledge of Penn Hills to keep us moving in the right direction. Our financial situation is very serious and I think it’s important that school members are ready to work hard to do what is best for our school district and community.
What is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed? I am sure that we all agree our biggest issue is the $172 million debt we are facing. In addressing this, we must also keep our quality of education and staff intact. So, we have to all be willing to do what it will take to achieve this.
What do voters need to know about you? My husband and I have lived in Penn Hills for 42 years and have three children who graduated from Penn Hills. Since 1990, I have been very involved in the schools and attended school board meetings as well as committee meetings, so I do understand the issues at hand. I served as a PTA president for 20 years in the different schools as well as the council level in the school district. I also have worked with many different administrators through the years so I have hands-on experience to bring to the board. I will work very hard to make sure decisions are made that we can all live with and are what is necessary for our school district.
Michele Greene, I
Occupation: retired educator
Previous elected office: none
Why did you decide to run for election? The reason is centered around two instances that occurred earlier this year. The first instance was my attendance at a meeting with fellow Penn Hills residents that took place at CCAC Boyce campus to hear what State Auditor General Eugene Depasquale had to say about the situation surrounding the financial crisis taking place in the school district. At the meeting, I heard comments from the residents who expressed their concerns about various things, including concern for their children who attend the schools, charter schools, accountability, the raising of taxes, and other issues connected to the problem. I left that meeting thinking about those concerns, my own displeasure of a tax increase to cover the actions of people who put the district in such deep debt, and my own worries about people saying they would leave Penn Hills.
The second instance that occurred this year was when I read that Penn Hills did not have enough school director candidates for the Primary election and that if people wanted to be considered as write-in candidates, they were encouraged to do so. This was troubling to me as I felt that apathy had set in, that people had given up on our being able to find solutions to our problems.
What is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed? I believe the biggest issue is completing the recovery from the debt crisis. However, it needs to be completed with the goal of not harming the educational experiences of the students and not putting an excessive burden on taxpayers.
What do voters need to know about you? What I bring to the job (includes) experience in both public and private school, awardee of Innovative Educator Award, master’s degree in organizational leadership, member of National Society of Leadership and Success, Ph.D. student in public policy and administration (and) currently doing research on education reform through collaborative initiatives. I believe in the importance of providing ways for students to have positive and valuable learning experiences. I believe that good teachers are the main ingredients in sustaining a good educational system. I believe that parental engagement is key to the success of the children and the schools. I believe that the beauty of Penn Hills is its vast and diverse makeup of smaller communities and that valuing and understanding the needs of every one of those communities plays a key role in maintaining a strong education system. I believe we can find innovative ways in solving our problems by considering all Penn Hills residents in order to sustain education in our municipality.
Elizabeth Rosemeyer, D/R
Occupation: attorney, Title IX coordinator at Carnegie Mellon University
Previous elected office:
Why did you decide to run for election? The viability and reputation of the Penn Hills School District is one of the most important aspects for the growth and development of our entire community. I believe I can contribute to the improvement and success of the school district. I am also the parent of a student at Penn Hills High School. We have had a great experience in the school district and I want other families and students to have similar experiences.
Finally, the district is at a significant crossroads. It will require strong leadership from individuals who are willing to make tough decisions based on what is best for everyone in the district. I believe I can do this through thoughtful and thorough examination of the challenges facing the district and problem solving with all stakeholders to identify the best steps forward.
What is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed? The school board must regain the trust of the community. To do this, it must continue its efforts to achieve financial solvency with full transparency and explanation of its decisions. I believe these decisions should be based on the long-term success of the district, rather than short-term fixes that could create difficulties in the future.
Also, the district must improve the academic performance of all its students. The board should support school administrators, teachers, and families to create an environment of excellence where all students can learn, thrive and are prepared to succeed after high school.
What do voters need to know about you? I will be honest and accessible. My decisions will always be based on what I believe is best for the educational success of our students. I also want voters to know that I am a parent, a community member and an educational advocate. I bring knowledge and background in education law, along with experience volunteering on non-profit boards. If elected, I welcome the opportunity to be a part of the board and to work in support of a school district that meets the needs of all its students and contributes to the overall well-being of Penn Hills.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .