Plum’s primary packed with incumbents, first-time challengers
Plum School District’s upcoming primary election is packed with incumbents and challengers — 16 in all — vying for their party’s nominations for six seats.
Up for election are five, four-year terms and a two-year seat.
Of the 14 candidates for the four-year terms, 12 have cross-filed while two are only seeking the Democratic nod in the May 21 primary.
Incumbents are Sue Caldwell, Steve Schlauch and Karin Acquaviva, all of whom cross-filed.
Others who cross-filed include Amy Wetmore, Michael Caliguiri, Michael Devine, Jacqueline Thomas, Mark Stropkaj, Adam Hill, Michelle Stepnick, Nathan Polacek and Rick Anderson.
Hope Campbell and Jessica Delaney filed solely as Democrats.
Residents Tim Sandstrom and Joe Tommarello are running for a two-year seat that was formed by the February resignation of Brian Wisniewski, who left his elected post after sharing an anti-Muslim Facebook post.
Acquaviva was recently appointed to fill Wisniewski’s vacated seat.
Many of the challengers said restoring kindergarten back to full-day is among their top priorities. The district curtailed the program at the start of this school year for budgetary reasons.
Steve Schlauch, 36, serves as a corporate actions senior analyst for Pittsburgh-based Federated Investors.
Elected to the board in November 2015, he’s the finance committee chairman and served as president last year.
“I bring a lot of experienced leadership to the board,” he said. “No one has been a bigger advocate of the taxpayers and saved a lot of money than I have. Collectively as a board, we made a lot of courageous, tough decisions that benefited both the students and taxpayers, as well as looking out for the safety of students.
“We hired an outstanding administrative team lead by Superintendent Brendan Hyland. We established a school police force and did what’s best for the safety side of things. I hope to continue getting the educational side of things turned around to exceptionally prepare our students for success while also being fiscally responsible for the district and taxpayers.”
Karin Acquaviva, 46, graduated from Penn Hills High School in 1991 and has lived in the borough since 1998.
She owns and operates Easy Traveling LLC, a home-based travel agency. Acquaviva also worked as a practice manager for Medigenics Longevity Center. Her daughter graduated from Plum last year.
“I believe one of the biggest issues in Plum is our reputation,” Acquaviva said. “For years, we have been targeted as an insulated network that protects the teachers and not the children. We need to change our image and prove that we do care for our children and want the best for them.
“We have a duty to teach them, keep them safe and make sure they are exceptionally prepared for the future. We must remain fiscally responsible, while creating a learning environment that is engaging, technologically advanced and academically superior.”
Michael Caliguiri, 42, runs a real estate and property management business in Pittsburgh.
He grew up in Bloomfield and has lived in Plum since 2005. Caliguiri spent 20 years managing human service programs in Allegheny and Fayette counties.
He has two children in the district and it’s his first time running for political office.
“About three years ago, I explored the option of running with the intent to find ways to create a better academic and career environment based on achievement and excellence and safe schools,” he said. “Last year, we saw more challenges in the district that had to do with expenditures and cutting of programs, notably full-day kindergarten to half day, as well as furloughs of well-qualified and gifted teachers, and determined it was no longer an exploration phase.”
Caldwell, 62, is in the final year of her first term. She recently retired as a registered nurse. Caldwell earned multiple medical certifications and degrees.
She went on several mission trips to Third World countries to assist with joint replacements with Operation Walk Pittsburgh, and worked at the corporate level in clinical informatics as well as an infection control practitioner.
“When I was elected, we were facing an (teacher/student sex) abuse scandal, and the community was asking for change,” Caldwell said. “Shortly after, we were handed a $5 million-plus deficit. We have worked to transform Plum over a few years, and must maintain this very positive course. I pushed for administrative changes and we have hired a stellar new superintendent, assistant superintendent, business director, IT director and multiple new principals. I pushed for sensible consolidation to avoid unnecessary construction, costing taxpayers millions.
“We now have schools property aligned for our kids to succeed. I supported and worked for hiring of our own school police force, and we now have an armed police officer in each school protecting our precious children. I have voted for a proposed balanced budget this year with no tax hike. I have voted against past tax increases, because I believe we still have some excesses to address. In the meantime, we have improved our educational process, including all students grades 6-12 having individual district technology devices.”
Stepnick, 41, a self-employed political consultant, seeks more time as a district elected leader.
She was on the board from 2013 through 2017 with a few months off in 2016 due to a legal battle over her resignation and later court reappointment. Stepnick is active in the Pivik Elementary PTA.
“My (number one) goal has been and always will be doing what’s in the best interest of the students. Sometimes it’s not the popular decision, sometimes it is. I feel as if I’m ready to, on day one, take office and continue down a positive path for our kids. You do it being fully aware that you represent the whole community. If our school district continues to spiral in a downward motion, then our community does as well. … We can’t be giving out five- and six-year contracts, and that includes administration. We don’t have a fund balance to fall back on.”
Stepnick said she wants to bring back full-time kindergarten, reopen dialogue with state legislators to bring in more resources and maintain student programs while balancing a budget.
Wetmore, 48, makes her second attempt to become a school director. She is a program coordinator for LEND, Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and related Disorders, through the University of Pittsburgh.
She said she was motivated to run again by her son, and wants him to be proud to graduate from Plum.
“I think that by their actions, the board that is sitting now has shown they don’t necessarily always support what (district Business Manager John) Zahorchak says. Fiscal responsibility isn’t just about cutting costs. It’s also about generating revenue. We need people to come in with ideas on how we can generate revenue and enhance the resources that our teachers have and that our students can use.
“One of the things we should invest in is working with a professional grant writer, someone who knows how to seek out money and win money for the district. There’s a whole lot of money out there that we don’t even know about.”
Stropkaj, 51, is the chief financial officer for Pittsburgh-based law firm Meyer, Unkovic & Scott.
He moved with wife, Gina, to Plum three years ago. He has an accounting degree from Robert Morris University and a political science degree from Geneva College. It’s Stropkaj’s first time running for political office.
“With my background in finance and accounting, I believe I have a lot to bring to the board,” he said. “I’m looking to come in and help make a difference, try to put education first and stay away from politics, which is hard to do when you run for a position. The key issue for me is the budget and the finance of the district. Lots of programs have been cut due to budgetary reasons. Maybe we can bring some of those programs back eventually.”
Devine, 38, seeks his first political office. He has three children, with the oldest in kindergarten.
The 1998 Plum graduate has a liberal arts degree with a focus in history from Penn State University. He works as a senior client service manager for Highmark’s national sales department.
“I chose to run because I have been complaining about the decisions being made for the last several years, and I am not one to sit back and not take action,” Devine said. “It is hard for me to fathom the increase in taxes while programs are being cut or reduced to state minimum.
“Currently, there is one board member that has kids in the district. The parents of Plum are not very well represented when decisions are being made. We need someone who can look at issues from a parent’s point of view as well as a taxpayer’s point of view and make those tough decisions.”
Campbell, 47, has been a borough resident 14 years. It’s her first time running for school board.
She’s the editorial director for the entertainment website, soaphub.com. Campbell has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and television and radio production from Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I’m running because I don’t like what I have been seeing in Plum schools for some years,” she said. “There have been so many changes that have affected too many kids negatively. Something needs to be done. There’s so much potential in Plum, but there are so many problems.”
She said the problems include cutting kindergarten to half-day, consolidating elementary schools and redistricting students.
Hill, 42, is a systems administrator for FedEx Supply Chain and part-time deejay/event coordinator. He has participated in multiple district activities.
Hill has a bachelor’s degree in information technology from Penn State University and coaches boys and girls Plum Area Youth Soccer teams. It’s his first time running for any political office.
“There’s a lack of transparency,” Hill said of the current board. “They don’t seem to listen to experts that they bring in, and they don’t listen to the community whenever they speak. They’ve stopped videotaping meetings. They’ve brought things to a vote without proper discussion. I have a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old in this district, which is why I got involved.
”With the financial situation we’re in, I think we need to get creative in how we get revenue. When a decision is made, we need to think about the district as a whole. We need to think about the kids that the decision is impacting. We need to get politics out of this district. Too many times they’re voting along party lines. It’s a dangerous game they’re playing. This is our kids’ future. This is our borough. It doesn’t belong in this district.”
Sandstrom, 64, is a retired teacher from Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County, Md. It’s his second time running for school board.
He decided to run for the two-year seat instead of the four-year opportunities because of the competition.
“I know who my opponent is,” Sandstrom said. “I’m running for the board because I have a different view on how the school board functions, and two years appealed to me as soon as I heard Joe (Tommarello) was running. Primitive societies practice slash-and-burn agriculture. We’re better than that. We’ve slashed teachers’ programs, administrators. We’ve burned bridges with Regency (School) parents, Sampson Family YMCA. School boards are supposed to reflect the will of the people, not tell the people what their will is.”
Tommarello, 26, served on the board from 2011 through 2015 and as vice president in 2014. He’s the other candidate running for the two-year term.
The 2011 Plum graduate works for the family business, Tommarello Landscaping and Construction. He studied at Robert Morris University before transferring to the University of Pittsburgh and majored in political science.
“I am focused on taxes,” he said. “I would create a tax break for senior citizens who are really struggling, and give a tax credit to all of Plum’s first responders. I never voted to raise taxes during my previous tenure on the board. In terms of education, I want to restore full-day kindergarten, as the development of young children is essential at that age, and I will also look into expanding the current course selections.”
He also said more transparency is needed to earn the public’s trust, supports open negotiations and posting contracts 30 days prior to a vote and wants the district to hire a grant writer.
Thomas, 44, served as a teacher in the Butler Area School District for 22 years and has been a Plum Area Youth Soccer coach the past six years.
She lives in the borough with her husband, Michael, and their 11-year-old daughter. She could not be reached for comment.
Delaney, 33, works as a digital communication specialist for the Port Authority of Allegheny County. The 2005 Plum graduate has lived in the borough the past 28 years. She also has a degree in political science and public administration, and is raising three children with her husband. Delaney could not be reached for comment.
Polacek, 22, is a business operations and management executive for a regional construction business. He said there is not one pressing issue facing the district, but “a series of challenges that would need to be addressed,” listing fiscal transparency and offering courses that teach life skills to students as some of those challenges.
“I believe we need to give our students the best education possible with an affordable, stable price tag for our residents — the stakeholders we are responsible to,” he said.
Polacek is a graduate of Plum High School, lifelong resident, founder and board member of the community charity CW. He is pursuing a degree in international affairs with a minor in pre-law from La Roche University.
Anderson could not be reached for comment. No background information was submitted.
Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter .