Bill Brasco is dedicated to his family, friends -- and to generations of students in the Jeannette City School District.
Earlier this month, Mr. Brasco, 76, was elected to his 11th term as a member of the Jeannette school board. He is the longest active school board member in Pennsylvania, which has 500 school districts and 4,500 school board members.
But this term could be his last, at least according to his wife, Rita.
"If I have anything to say about it, this is it," Mrs. Brasco said with a laugh. "I didn't even sign his nomination petition this time."
A Jeannette native and 1956 graduate of its high school, Mr. Brasco was first elected to the board in 1969 at age 32. He served two six-year terms before state law limited director terms to four years.
"If you would have asked me back then, I would have never guessed that I'd be on the board this long," he said of the past 44 years. "But, at this point, I don't know what else I'd do with myself."
When he was first elected, the city was a thriving community of more than 15,000. Today, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, the population is slightly more than 9,000.
As the city's population dropped, so did the student rolls in the school district. Today's student count in grades K-12 is slightly under 1,200.
"We've dropped dramatically," Mr. Brasco acknowledged. "But I can assure you, we're not going anywhere."
Mr. Brasco was referring to rumors over the past few years -- as the graduating class dropped below 100 -- that the district would merge with a neighboring one, such as Penn-Trafford or Hempfield.
He also noted that while the city itself is going through financial difficulties -- facing possible bankruptcy -- the school district is fiscally sound. Mr. Brasco said it still provides students with the best education available while maintaining a top-notch athletic program. Terrelle Pryor, quarterback for the Oakland Raiders, graduated from Jeannette in 2008.
Earlier this month, Mr. Brasco voted against changing the district's PIAA status for all athletic teams from Class AA to Class A for smaller schools because of declining enrollment. The board voted 6-3 on Nov. 11 in favor of the change, which will take effect next fall.
Mr. Brasco said he remains "extremely proud of what we have accomplished" in both sports and education.
He acknowledged that earlier this year the district was placed on warning status by the state Department of Education after finishing in the lower 15 percent in combined math and reading scores on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests. The status means the school did not meet average yearly academic targets.
Eighteen percent of Jeannette high school students fell below basic proficiency in math. Thirty-six percent were rated proficient, and 23 percent were rated advanced, according to the state. In reading, 17 percent of students tested below basic proficiency.
The district, he said, has been addressing the matter. Last summer it revised its attendance policy to limit student absences to 20 days per school year instead of 30. A new rule, known as "sanctions," enables students with 20 or more absences to make up "in seat" time from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. Each Saturday session removes one absence from a student's record. Instructional time and regular classes are not held on Saturdays, but students are required to accumulate work throughout the week and finish it during the Saturday session.
"I don't believe there is any other district that does this," Mr. Brasco said.
"I have praise for the administration; we're doing everything possible to keep the district going and ensure a good education."
The district currently operates on a $17.3 million budget. Property taxes are 82.78 mills, with each mill bringing in $54,000. The district is one of Westmoreland County's poorest school districts, with most of its students coming from low- and moderate-income families, the U.S. Census shows.
Mr. Brasco said he "is and always has been proud" of the district and its accomplishments, such as the construction of a new elementary/middle school, renovations to the high school and football stadium, and implementation of a student uniform policy.
"Putting in uniforms was perhaps the greatest thing we have done," he said.
Under the code, all district students must wear khaki pants or skirts, polo shirts, turtlenecks, sweaters or dress shirts. Colors are limited to solid red or navy, the school colors of its Jayhawks teams.
The small district may have physically changed over the more than four decades that Mr. Brasco has been in office, but he said the emphasis remained the same: quality education.
"I really don't see a big difference" between when I started and now, other than the decrease in population," he said. "Jeannette is still Jeannette -- there is something special about the district."
Mr. Brasco admits that he's a big sports fan and that at one point he had considered a professional football career after receiving several scholarship offers.
One of seven children, Mr. Brasco left the city briefly after his high school graduation to play football for Northeast Louisiana University. "But it was just too hot there," he said.
He returned to work for Westmoreland Glass Co. before he began selling furniture at the former GeeBee Furniture Center in Greensburg. He became manager of the store, which changed ownerships several times, until his retirement in 2000.
The Brascos have five children and 10 grandchildren. "I thank God every day for my family," he said.
Mr. Brasco, who serves as the school board's representative to the Central Westmoreland Career and Technology Center, said this probably will be his last term in office, but he is certain he will remain active in the community.
"I'm proud to say I'm from Jeannette," he said.
Linda Metz, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.