Highlands School Board race may serve as referendum for superintendent
The election for Highlands School Board may, in part, serve as a referendum on the district’s recently elevated superintendent.
In the contested primary in Region 3, incumbent board member Michelle Peters praises Superintendent Monique Mawhinney as having a “great vision” for the district.
Challenger Laura Butler believes Mawhinney is not qualified for the job and says the district needs to find a new leader.
Kristie Babinsack, meanwhile, hasn’t decided.
The three women are all cross-filed on both party ballots for two seats representing the region on the nine-member school board.
Peters was appointed to the board in February 2018 to replace Ryan Hanford and is seeking election for the first time. She had unsuccessfully sought election to the board twice before.
Babinsack had been an applicant for the same vacancy; Butler has never sought elected office before.
Peters is the only incumbent running in Region 3, which consists of most of Harrison. Board member Heath Cohen is not on the primary ballot; he did not respond to a request for comment as to why he apparently is not seeking re-election.
Races in the district’s two other regions are uncontested in the primary. Incumbent Judy Wisner and Gene Witt are the candidates for two seats in Region 1; Kelli Canonge is the only candidate for one seat in Region 2. All are cross-filed.
In addition to Cohen, board member Michael Masarik is not on the primary ballot for Region 1, and member Jeff Mundy is not on the ballot for Region 2. They also did not respond to requests for comment.
A Highlands graduate, Peters has a son and a daughter attending the high school. She’s been on the board a little over a year.
During that time, Mawhinney, who was hired as an assistant superintendent, served as substitute superintendent in place of Michael Bjalobok. The school board chose to keep her for the job permanently, beginning April 1, the same date Bjalobok retired.
Peters said Mawhinney and Business Manager Lori Byron have been working to better the district and develop short- and long-term plans.
“There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done,” Peters said. “Dr. Mawhinney has great vision. We need to be able to communicate that with our community.”
Concern about the lack of focus on curriculum was one of the reasons Peters wanted to be on the board, and she says Mawhinney has a focus on it.
“I don’t need to micromanage the superintendent. That’s not my job,” she said. “I’m not an educator.”
Butler’s assessment of the district is not as upbeat. A native of North Huntingdon, she lived in Sunnyvale, Calif., for almost 30 years before coming back to Pennsylvania seven years ago. She has lived in Harrison for about four years and has three granddaughters in Highlands schools, the youngest in first grade.
Talking with her daughter about the goings-on in the district piqued her interest, and she began attending school board meetings.
Butler said Mawhinney “needs to find another job.”
“You need a superintendent that’s a leader,” she said. “You can’t be a leader if you don’t have followers. I don’t see her as a leader.”
Calling for greater transparency, Butler said she wants a financial oversight committee formed that would include parents, business owners, board members, teachers and local elected officials.
“You can’t have these nine people and one superintendent making the decisions for the whole community,” she said.
In the district for 14 years, Babinsack, a Mars Area graduate, has remained involved since the oldest of her five sons, Austin, was the victim of a hazing incident in 2014 in which he was duct-taped to a soccer goalpost. Her other four sons are still in school, ranging from a senior to fourth grade.
“I really see the need to get some fresh blood on (the board) and get some new ideas,” she said. “I feel like there’s some people who have served for far too long. There’s a lot of things that need to be addressed that aren’t being addressed.
“We need to dive in and make some changes,” she said. “I can’t just sit back and watch this continue. We have to get in there and do some things.”
Babinsack said she’s still “on the fence” with Mawhinney.
“Sometimes when she speaks, I think it’s going to be all right. Other times, I really can’t read her,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’m not day-to-day with her yet to really get to know her well enough.
“She doesn’t seem to have a good rapport with the community,” Babinsack said. “I want to believe she has the best intentions. It’s too early to tell, I guess.”
Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter .