Primary 2013/South: Seven vie for four seats on Peters Township school board

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There is stiff competition this year in the race for Peters Township school board, with seven candidates vying for four available seats on the nine-member board.

Running for re-election are current board members Lori Cuervo, Cynthia Golembiewski, David Hvizdos and Sue Smith. Each has crossfiled to run as both a Republican and a Democrat in the May 21 primary.

The challengers are Lisa Anderson, a lawyer; Rebecca Bowman, a civil engineer and lawyer; and Jamison Hardy, a pastor at Peace Lutheran Church. All the challengers, except Mr. Hardy, also crossfiled. Mr. Hardy will run on the GOP ticket.

Both parties will select one candidate for each seat to face off in the Nov. 5 general election.

At a candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Washington County Tuesday, candidates got their first chance to address voters.

Candidates were asked questions from the audience of several dozen residents at the middle school, including questions about what they thought the most important issue facing the board would be in five years.

In a word, the top issue is "funding," according to Ms. Cuervo, Mr. Hvizdos and Ms. Golembiewski, who pointed to a drastic reduction in state funding in recent years. Due to creative financial planning by the board, the district was one of the few in the area that was able to avoid teacher layoffs, they said.

But, issues that have continued to fester--such as increases in pension costs -- will need to be addressed by the Legislature.

"Until the state fixes the pension problem, we will always have that burden," Mr. Hvizdos said.

Ms. Golembiewski said the district is paying 72 percent more this year for pension costs than it did two years ago.

But, Mr. Hardy said he doesn't approve of deficit spending and said he would work to rein in costs.

Ms. Bowman also was critical of the board, saying disadvantaged children are not receiving the attention they need.

Ms. Smith cited building and facility upgrades, and an upcoming decision on a new superintendent, as other big issues.

Ms. Anderson agreed that hiring a new superintendent to replace former superintendent Nina Zetty, who resigned late last year, was a big issue.

"I think we can't develop a great plan without a leader," she said.

Recently, development forecasts have indicated the district may have to make room for 2,000 additional students as new homes are built. Current board members said they have been constantly adjusting buildings and programs to fit the upswing in enrollment.

They are now considering what to do with the high school, built in 1969 when enrollment was 623 in grades 9-12. Now, enrollment is at 1,496 and is expected to surpass 1,500 --the building's capacity --by 2015.

With about 22,000 residents, Peters is the most populous municipality in Washington County and has seen population increases of 21 percent in recent years.

Building new schools takes a major commitment of time and money, the board pointed out.

"That's an issue we really need to deal with," said Ms. Smith.

"We have to be prepared for whatever happens," Ms. Golembiewski said. "These are things we can't control."

Mr. Hardy said no matter what enrollment is, the district should never spend more than revenues allow.

"I'm direly opposed to any philosophy that says we need to spend more money than we take in," he said.

Board members pointed out that 72 percent of the district's spending is tied to salary and benefits, which are determined by contract. Only about 5 percent of spending is discretionary, Ms. Smith said.

"Schools have much less flexibility than businesses," she said.

Ms. Cuervo said the district is also hamstrung by the federal government and the state government, which limits debt levels and tax increases.

"Sometimes you find that you need to spend more money than you bring in," Ms. Golembiewski said, defending recent deficit spending by the board.

Restructuring debt and providing retirement incentives have been some of the more creative ways the district has cushioned the major impact of decreased state funding.

"Two years ago, when we were strapped for cash, we didn't lay off teachers," Mr. Hvizdos said.

Instead, Mr. Hvizdos said, the district saved costs by delaying curriculum writing and putting off certain purchases.

"We need to be creative with our money right now," Ms. Golembiewski said.

Ms. Anderson said the district should determine the difference between needs and wants and prioritize accordingly.

Ms. Bowman agreed, saying the district should look to the community for innovative ideas on how to work with what they have.

Ms. Cuervo said the district doesn't deficit-spend every year and that it did so last year to avoid a tax increase.

"We plan for deficit years," she said.

Other issues that were discussed revolved around keeping class sizes low, improving standardized test scores and how to promote STEM -- science, technology, engineering and math -- curriculum.

"We have to provide our teachers with the best environment to teach," Ms. Anderson said.

"Creativity is the hallmark of innovation," Mr. Hardy said.

"We can't create courses if we don't have the students to take them," said Ms. Golembiewski about new curriculum.

She and the other board members said the district has been responsive to students' needs, creating a new organic chemistry class when it was requested by students and experimenting with college-level classes through distance learning opportunities.

Mr. Hvizdos said he would love to eventually purchase a three-dimensional printer for students who are interested in STEM curriculum.

Involving students in exciting math and science programs earlier in their education is also a goal of Ms. Smith.

"This is the key to us moving forward," she said.

Mr. Hardy said test scores aren't always an indicator of how a student will perform in life.

"Scores are important, but they don't tell the whole story," he said. "Get out of the way and let the teachers teach. I don't think board members can do a better job."

Ms. Bowman said scores should be given appropriate weight and not overblown.

"It should not drive decision-making in the district," she said. "It's just an indicator."

All of the candidates agreed that hiring a new superintendent should be a priority for the board.

"That person sets the tone for the district," Ms. Anderson said.

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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