Baldwin-Whitehall residents turn out at meeting furious over board member's reinstatement
December 4, 2013 11:10 PM
Martin Schmotzer, 2012
By Mary Niederberger and Janice Crompton / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
About 400 residents turned out for an emotionally charged Baldwin-Whitehall school board meeting Wednesday night furious over the re-instating of a school board member who gave up his seat to take a high-paying position with the district under controversial circumstances last month, only to resign earlier Wednesday under community pressure.
“Thanks for having that private, backdoor meeting,” resident Steve Donatelli told the school board. “It made us stronger. We will remember.”
Many residents were shouting as Martin Schmotzer was sworn-in to a four-year term on the school board. At least one person had to be escorted from the meeting room.
The standing-room-only crowd was so large that Whitehall police Chief Donald Dolfi ordered everyone to leave the district’s Administrative Building on Curry Hollow Road citing safety concerns and moved the meeting to the Whitehall Elementary School gymnasium nearby.
Mr. Donatelli, like many others who attended, repeatedly called for Mr. Schmotzer’s permanent resignation from the board.
But by the end of the meeting Mr. Schmotzer, 57, of Whitehall did not give up his seat.
Mr. Schmotzer had resigned from the school board at a Nov. 19 board meeting, just moments before seven fellow board members voted to create a new, $120,000-per-year position and to have Mr. Schmotzer fill it.
Mr. Schmotzer was appointed supervisor of projects for the board of school directors and special assistant to the superintendent at that special meeting of the board.
The new administrative position with the district was not advertised and there was no public discussion by the board before it voted to hire Mr. Schmotzer and give him a five-year contract.
The hiring prompted much public outcry and a lawsuit by a resident who claimed the action was “a willful violation” of state laws.
In her lawsuit, resident Marion M. Shannon claimed the board had no public comment or any discussion before taking the vote to appoint Mr. Schmotzer to the position. She also cited a part of the state Code which prohibits school board members from being employed by a district during their term in office.
The state Department of Education appeared to agree with the contention in the lawsuit with spokesman Tim Eller saying that the state school code prohibits school board members from being employed by a district during their term of office.
The lawsuit had urged the court to overturn the board’s decision, but Mr. Schmotzer did that himself Wednesday afternoon, announcing his resignation due to “political and personal attacks” on himself and his family.
But during Wednesday’s reorganization meeting of the school board, Mr. Schmotzer reclaimed his board seat, to the dismay of residents, who called for his resignation.
High school student Jill McDonald was crying as she addressed the board.
“A group of 14- to 18-year-olds understands that what a group of adults is doing is wrong,” she said.
Resident Jennifer Tulenko said Mr. Schmotzer’ s resignation from the administrative position was a good first step.
“It’s only one of many that is still needed to regain the trust of us, the taxpayers,” she told the board. “We’re educated and we vote, and believe me when I tell you it will matter next time.”
As Mr. Schmotzer began to speak to the crowd, residents drowned him out with shouts before getting up and leaving en masse.
“You have children here. I think you should be an example to them,” he said.
“Let me explain to each and every one of you. Obviously you don’t like the way my appointment happened. I get it.”
Mr. Schmotzer had previously served 10 years on the board before resigning several years ago. He was appointed in December 2012 to fill the unexpired term of his brother John Schmotzer, who resigned. This year, Martin Schmotzer sought and was elected to a full, four-year term that began at Wednesday’s board meeting.
Mr. Schmotzer was in the news in the late 1990s when he was accused of stealing $50,000 in public funds while he worked in the county clerk of courts office. He was fired in April 1997 and charged with multiple counts of theft by deception, but he repaid the money. The records in the case were expunged, according to court documents.
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