Baldwin-Whitehall residents seek more than resignation
Residents pressing for change on the Baldwin-Whitehall School Board might have to wait until an election, though the recent controversial hiring of a board member to a highly paid administrative post could have a ripple effect, a specialist in educational leadership says.
“When board members act like this, it's bad for the kids, it's bad for the school,” said Thomas Alsbury, professor of educational leadership at Seattle Pacific University.
Board members took oaths on Dec. 4 over chants from nearly 300 residents outraged by the swearing-in of Martin Michael Schmotzer, who was re-elected to a four-year term in the Nov. 5 election.
Residents said they planned to attend the school board's meeting again Wednesday to voice their dissatisfaction with the board's 7-1 decision to appoint Schmotzer, 57, of Whitehall, to a new $120,000-a-year position as supervisor of projects for the school board and special assistant to the superintendent. Just before accepting his new job on Nov. 19, Schmotzer resigned from the school board. Board member Tracy Macek was the dissenting vote among the eight members.
Under pressure from residents who petitioned seeking his removal, Schmotzer resigned on Dec. 4, two weeks into the job.
The Baldwin-Whitehall School District has invoked a 30-day extension, allowed under the state's Right to Know Act, to give the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review a copy of Schmotzer's contract.
“A timely response to the request cannot be accomplished due to staffing limitations,” business manager Mark Cherpak wrote in a response to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Friday.
Last week, Schmotzer listed nearly 25 projects that he said he completed, including hanging pictures and updating the South Hills district's website.
“I suggest they learn how to run for office and propose some ideas,” Schmotzer said of his critics.
Some residents want to remove the seven board members who hired Schmotzer, said Jerry Pantone, 49, of Baldwin Borough.
“We're not done. It's time for us to say, ‘Enough is enough.' The community is angry. They've been embarrassed for the last time,” Pantone said.
School board President Larry Pantuso said, “The residents were heard.”
“I'm not going to step down,” Pantuso said. “I was elected to serve, and my term is up in two years.”
Pennsylvania School Code allows residents to petition to seek the removal of an entire board if “it fails to organize or refuses to perform its statutory duties,” said Steve Robinson, senior director of communications for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
A decision that residents don't like “doesn't really fall under that category,” he said.
Election season is the time for people to exert influence to make changes, Robinson said. The next school-board election is in 2015.
“There are ways to change things, and it's through the election process,” he said.
Research shows that when a school board crosses a “magical line of dissatisfaction,” residents start paying attention to its actions, Alsbury said.
“You've sort of awakened the sleeping giant, and in the next election cycle, you see the community moving forward to correct that wrong that they think occurred,” said Alsbury, co-director for the University Council for Educational Administration's Center for Research on the Superintendency and District Governance.
In many cases, though, a board shake-up results in administrative changes, then a shift in principals and ultimately, teachers, Alsbury said. Parents might become dissatisfied and send students to private or other schools.
Board members could work to remedy the situation, the professor said.
Residents say they're enraged by the board's actions and will continue to press the matter. They say they want to see those appointed to vacant school-board seats that were not advertised to the public and for which resumes were not accepted removed.
“The seven of you that voted on Nov. 19 broke the trust,” said Pantone, calling the board members ‘arrogant.' “I cannot just forgive and forget. Your actions show who you truly are.”
The board's actions already have trickled down into the schools, Baldwin High School senior Jill McDonnell, 18, said.
“Throughout the last couple of weeks, there has been a lot of discussion in the high school about what is going on,” said McDonnell. “It's because a group of 14- to 18-year-old kids understands (that) what a group of adults is doing is wrong.”
“I know students who are counting down the days to graduation because they can't wait to leave this district,” McDonnell said.
Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or email@example.com.