Some Woodland Hills directors unhappy with election rules

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When the voting districts for seats on the Woodland Hills school board were overhauled in 2010, community members who pushed for the change hoped more people would step up and run for office.

That happened: In 2011, 11 contenders vied for five open positions. But because candidates were permitted to run for more than one seat, two incumbent board members won two seats each. Subsequently, Tara Reis was appointed to an at-large seat won by incumbent board member Bob Tomasic, and Jeff Hanchett was appointed to a Region 2 seat won by incumbent Marilyn Messina.

And come December, as many as three seats could be filled by the six elected members.

Prior to 2010, one school board member came from each of nine districts. Now, the school district is split into three "regions," with two board members from each region. The remaining three "at-large" seats allow for anyone in the district to run for one of those seats, making it possible for a single candidate to run for as many as four or five seats in any election.

In the April primary, Forest Hills Councilman Mike Belmonte won both the Republican and Democratic nominations for a Region 3 seat and an at-large seat on the Woodland Hills board, both with four-year terms. Incumbent board member Fred Kuhn won both the Republican and Democratic nominations for an at-large seat with a two-year term and a Region 2 seat with a four-year term. He won the Democratic nomination for a Region 2 seat with a two-year term.

Ms. Reis ran unopposed for the Republican and Democratic nomination in Region 1, effectively securing her spot on the board. Mr. Hanchett ran as a Democrat for both open at-large seats and both seats in his region. He lost all four to Mr. Kuhn or Mr. Belmonte.

Mr. Hanchett said he plans to file papers for the board to consider reappointing him to a seat.

"It'd be nice if everybody was just elected," he said. "I don't know why we changed it."

Mr. Tomasic, who opposed the change to the voting districts from the beginning, said the change is unfair.

"Right now, [the board membership] can all be concentrated in one or two communities that have the biggest population," he said.

Mr. Belmonte, who was part of a group of citizens that advocated for changing the regions, said he thinks the system needs to be tweaked, but he doesn't think it should go back to how it was: "so fragmented."

He said some voters didn't know which of the nine districts they were in because most of the 12 communities that make up the district were split in two. Now, Region 1 is made up of Churchill, Wilkins, Chalfant and Turtle Creek. Region 2 is Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale and Edgewood. Region 3 is Forest Hills, Braddock Hills, North Braddock and East Pittsburgh.

"If you run at-large, it doesn't matter where you live," he said.

Ms. Reis said she likes the current setup but says allowing candidates to run for multiple seats "lends itself to too much confusion" and creates a negative perception of board members.

"I don't like that the perception is not about representation, but 'I can run for multiple seats to stay on this board,' " she said.

Board member Robert Clanagan ran as the Democratic candidate the Region 2 seat with a four-year term. He lost to Mr. Kuhn by fewer than 50 votes.

"As it stands right now, I, being the only African-American on the school board, lost the election," he said. "I'm hoping that the end result won't be a school board with no African-American participation."

Student enrollment in Woodland Hills School District is 65.3 percent black, according to B.J. Fialkovich, the district's Pennsylvania Information Management System coordinator.

Board President Regis Driscoll said he was in favor of the change in 2010, but "it's not working out the way everyone thought.

"It's taking the vote out of the public's hands," he said.

Mr. Driscoll said he doesn't know how the board will fix it, but he said the method for electing board members needs to be changed.

"We've been through two election cycles now, and I don't think this way is working for the people," he said.

Mr. Kuhn was also in favor of the change in 2010, but said the possibility of having no black board members and no board members from smaller communities such as Braddock, Rankin and East Pittsburgh troubles him.

"I hope that the board is going to go to our attorneys to try to get it changed back to the way it was, or a different idea, because I don't think it's a good idea to appoint three people to every board," he said.

"I hope we change it," he said. "I'm going to advocate for it. I'm going to talk about it."

Ms. Messina and board members Brian Estocin and Colleen Filiak could not be reached.

education - neigh_east - electionsmunicipal

Annie Siebert: asiebert@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert.


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