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Election: Q&A with Norwin School Board candidates

Joe Napsha
| Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, 1:24 p.m.
Becky Gediminskas
Becky Gediminskas
Raymond Kocak
Raymond Kocak
Donald Rhodes
Donald Rhodes
Barbara Viola
Barbara Viola

Five candidates are seeking open four seats on Norwin School Board to oversee a district that likely will face the same financial challenges the board faced this spring — how to cover a budget deficit and avoid teacher layoffs and program cuts without hurting the quality of education.

Three are incumbents, ensuring that at least one new person will be on the board.

Two incumbent directors — Donald Rhodes and Barbara Viola — won the nominations of both Republican and Democratic parties in the spring primary. They are joined on the Democratic ticket by Raymond Kocak, a former school director, and Rebecca Gediminskas, a current director.

On the Republican side, Rhodes and Viola share the ticket with Kocak and Brian Carlton.

Rhodes did not respond to a request to provide answers to the following questions.

QUESTION: Why are you running for school board?

Carlton: “I am running for the school board to ensure that my child along with all children within the Norwin School District have the opportunity to participate in a well-rounded educational experience. I want to make sure the programs are all there and the class sizes are reasonable.”

Gediminskas: “I believe public education transforms lives. It changed mine, and I want that opportunity for all children. My mother believed that education was my ticket to a better life. Every child should have that opportunity, regardless of their socioeconomics. A robust public education gives everyone a chance for a better life. Good schools make a good community. They are the heart of Norwin.

Kocak: “I want to give back to the school district that gave me so much.”

Viola: “ Having served as an educator for 35 years in the public school system, I have gained a deep respect and greater understanding of the important role Norwin School District plays in our community. Ultimately, I feel it both a duty and an honor to serve in a capacity where I can have a positive impact on the future of Norwin students as well as our community. I firmly believe in the slogan, ‘Good Schools Make Good Communities' and am committed to supporting the communities in the Norwin area.”

QUESTION: What are the biggest challenges?

Carlton: “The budget. I think you need to look at the administrative expenses before you affect the students.”

Gediminskas: “ School safety, shrinking state and federal reimbursement, unfunded mandates, high pension costs due to state mismanagement, academic requirements, technology needs, resource management, and opiates in the community are the short list of hurdles that school director must handle. I have gained experience to manage these critical areas over my 16 years on the board. Academic standards are high on the list of why people move here. Balancing all the challenges requires commitment and rational decision-making.

Kocak: “Hunting for the small ways to cut waste or cost. All the easy fruit, as they say, has been picked. Now we must look for a lot of small ones to save us from the hard cuts. We must listen to the taxpayers, and they want taxes to stop going up.”

Rhodes: “ The district's greatest challenge is and will continue to be creating pathways to provide the highest quality education while maintaining fiscal responsibility and prudent stewardship of available resources. We have made significant budget reduction and will continue to seek additional efficiencies while keeping a steady focus on quality and consequences.

“We are going to have to create unconventional ways to strike this balance. Toward this end, I have introduced the idea of establishing GoFundMe accounts to provide a pathway for self-directed funding. This could permit interested individuals and companies across the district line, both inside and outside of the tax base, to become more involved in the revenue process. Consequently, this would provide a tool for the board to measure the community interest in specific areas.

“We need to look at every facet of the budget and be prepared to exercise unconventional ideas.”

Viola: “ Providing the best educational opportunities possible for students within the financial constraints of the community remains the biggest challenge facing any school district today. Norwin remains as one of the top schools in Westmoreland County and is the only district in the county to enjoy increased enrollment numbers on a yearly basis. The growth not only brings in additional revenue to the district and the community at large but also contributes to an increase in operating costs for the district as well. Consequently, striking a balance will remain the ultimate challenge.”

QUESTION: Should the Norwin School District institute “pay to play” fees for students participating in sports and activities?

Carlton: “I do not want to have to institute a pay-for-participation fee for athletics and extracurricular activities. I would like to explore other options such as giving businesses the opportunity to sponsor these program to absorb some of the costs.”

Gediminskas: “Absolutely not! Pay for play presents a barrier for our students to participate in clubs and athletics. It places an unnecessary burden on families with limited funds and multiple children and taxpaying parents. They already pay to play. School activities allow students to feel engaged with their peers, stay physically fit, make lifelong friends, earn scholarships, and stay busy.”

Kocak: “ No. Parent groups already raise money for their child's activities. I believe the parents should decide how to raise money and what to spend it on. Some parents may feel they have paid enough and not fundraise, which would be worst for athletics and extracurricular activities.”

Rhodes: “ I do not favor ‘pay to participate' as a source of funding for the school district. Extracurricular activities should be for all students — despite family resources — to grow minds, touch hearts and build bodies, to develop skills and to amass experiences and friendships that a classroom cannot provide.

“As we note a growth in substance abuse in our community, I believe these opportunities in some way work to combat these destructive behaviors. And lastly, extracurricular experiences contribute to building the whole student which is meaningful to the adult community they join and on resumes, interviews, higher education/job applications and socialization skills.”

Viola: “ I do not support instituting a pay-for-participation fee for any student. Several years ago, I served on the committee that addressed this issue. Rather than establishing a pay-for-play system, the committee instituted student parking fees for all students. In addition, parents of athletes began to pay for entrance into the games to watch their children to compete. Both of these changes provided additional monies for athletics and extracurricular activities. Instituting an additional fee for participation at this point amounts to double dipping and places an unfair burden on families.”

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