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Independent shakes up Hempfield school race

| Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007

A majority of the seats on the Hempfield Area School Board are on the ballot this fall.

With three sitting directors choosing not to seek re-election and a fourth resigning in August, the district's nine-member body will continue a transitional period that began with the defeat of three incumbents in the spring 2005 primary.

Incumbents John B. Henry and Timothy P. Miller are the last two holdovers from 2 1/2 years ago, and both are stressing their opposition earlier this year to the five-year teachers' contract.

In May, Henry and Miller secured Democratic and Republican nominations, as did newcomers Randy Stoner, Gordon Scherff and William F. Shay.

All five were virtually assured of a spot on the board until Eric Nelson filed as an independent.

Nelson, appointed on an interim basis after David Higinbotham's resignation, is running for the remaining two years of Higinbotham's term.

Jeffrey Weber, a Democrat, and Rudy Fjellanger, a Republican, were chosen by their respective parties to seek the two-year seat.

Henry, 53, a one-term director, is the co-owner of JAS Construction and has been the board president for the past two years.

He has opposed recent budgets because he believes the administration's spending recommendations have been too high.

"That's the important thing, to be able to keep the taxes down while maintaining an excellent environment to educate our students," said Henry, the father of two children.

The 5-4 approval of the teachers' pact in April, Henry said, has put the district in a "tough position" because the contract will mean $1.5 million in additional expenses districtwide in the next budget, while Hempfield will be responsible for $800,000 in debt service.

Henry and Miller "fought tooth and nail, and (the board) shouldn't have approved it," Henry said of the contract.

Miller, 46, a father of three children in the district, says Hempfield has to reduce its debt. He served one term in the 1990s and returned to the board four years ago.

"I'm there for two people: the kids and the taxpayer," said Miller, who is employed by the Westmoreland County Blind Association. "Everybody else, forget about it."

Longtime directors Betty Valerio, Louis A. DePaul and Tony Bompiani decided not to run for new terms.

Stoner, Scherff, Shay and Nelson all say they want to rein in the district's expenses over the next four years.

Stoner, 48, serves on the Hempfield supervisor vacancy board and a committee reworking the township's comprehensive plan.

"First of all, I'm a dad, I'm not a politician, and I'll always be that," said Stoner, who has two children in the Hempfield system. "I have no further political ambitions."

Stoner said he believes the school board has to limit its spending. He's also been surprised at how the directors occasionally dwell on issues, saying he'd be quicker in making decisions.

Although he feels the district and teachers could have worked together better during last year's 10-day strike, Stoner is complimentary of Hempfield's education.

"I don't think that a kid could find a better education than what we have here," he said.

Scherff, 53, is lead auditor for the mail transportation portion of the Postal Service in the Cranberry area.

"We need to look at every dollar being spent and see if it's being spent properly, because the pockets of the taxpayers aren't as deep as they used to be," he said. "I just don't want to see people move out of the district because they can't afford to live here."

The West Hempfield resident also said he doesn't believe there's enough transparency on the administration side because he perceives there to be too many last-minute issues popping up before directors.

Although he doesn't have any children, Scherff says he is running to serve the community in which he's lived for almost 30 years.

Shay, 24, said too many candidates have personal agendas because they have children in the school system. He said he wouldn't be biased when talking with a parent or reviewing curriculum because he doesn't have children.

"I can go in there and I can sit and I can look at it objectively," said Shay, a Hempfield graduate who supervises a Staples store.

He's concerned about the board's spending priorities, noting the completion of a high school fieldhouse while some schools in the district are in need of renovation.

Shay has helped to organize the annual homecoming festivities since 2001.

Nelson, 38, is the founder of a safety consulting company that AmeriSafe bought in August. He's now senior vice president for AmeriSafe.

"Oftentimes, the decisions the district is making is more from an emotional basis than a business basis," he said.

An example, Nelson said, was the district's decision to stick with an architectural firm for a state-mandated feasibility study of the district's buildings, although the firm's financial estimates for a renovation project at Wendover Middle School were $7 million below the solicited bids.

"It's the issue of holding a company accountable for their decisions," he said.

Nelson's wife is on maternity leave from teaching at Stanwood Elementary School.

He said he's running for the seats to make sure the election does not resort to an appointment, particularly with the two-year seat for which party committees chose the candidates.

Fjellanger, 40, the father of two young children, said he feels too little of the board's focus was on renovations of the district's schools while directors pursued the field house.

Fjellanger is a nurse by profession. He said his goal is to find out where money is being wasted.

"My goal is to be physically rotating through the schools one day a week," Fjellanger said of the opportunity his job gives him to be off on some weekdays.

He also said he is concerned about the quality of his children's textbooks, noting that his 12-year-old daughter has geography and English books older than she is.

"Seriously, a hardcover book looks as worn and flimsy as a dime-store novel," Fjellanger said.

Weber, 53, is the advertising sales manager for Management Science Associates. The father of two grown daughters said he has no ax to grind with anyone in the district.

He suggested he could help the district save money on purchasing, particularly through product tracking to ensure Hempfield is buying what it needs when it's needed.

"I think we've got to find creative ways to get it done without too much of a bite on the taxpayers," he said.

Weber also said the district could work to keep taxes down by pursuing sponsorship of school activities.

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