Lawsuit filed over Baldwin-Whitehall school official's hiring

Board member's resignation called a ‘willful violation’ of state laws

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The appointment of a former school board member to a new, high-paying job in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District just minutes after his resignation was improper and a "willful violation" of state laws, according to a lawsuit filed by a resident Tuesday.

"There is a real uproar about this," said lawyer Alan T. Shuckrow, who is representing Marion M. Shannon of Baldwin Borough. "This makes the whole system look bad."

At issue are the actions of seven Baldwin-Whitehall school board members who called a special meeting Nov. 19 where they accepted the resignation of board member Martin Schmotzer, 57, of Whitehall. Minutes later, and with no public discussion or input, the lawsuit states, the board voted 7-1 to create a new $120,000-a-year position and appoint Mr. Schmotzer to fill 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 was to begin at the first board meeting in December.

"People are very upset about what's going on," said parent Lou Rainaldi of Whitehall, who began a petition on change.org to remove Mr. Schmotzer from his new job. In two days, it garnered 779 signatures.

"It was like an orchestrated skit, the way everything happened," he said of the meeting. "It was behind the scenes -- the board is corrupt."

In the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court, Mr. Shuckrow said the board's actions are a violation of the Pennsylvania School Code and the Sunshine Act.

"I would find it unfathomable that these board members didn't know that they were going to create a $120,000-a-year position and give it to one of their colleagues," said Mr. Shuckrow, a school board member for the North Allegheny School District for six years. "There must have been deliberations."

The state Department of Education also weighed in on the issue.

"Based on the information I've gathered, it appears there could be a violation of the school code," said Tim Eller, spokesman for the Education Department.

Along with violations of the school code -- which prohibit board members from being employed by a district during their term in office -- Mr. Eller said the contention of Mr. Shuckrow that the Sunshine Act also has been violated may be correct as well.

"Obviously, the department is concerned," he said. "The department doesn't have the authority to take action. But the residents do."

And Mr. Rainaldi said they are. About 45 residents turned out Sunday evening to discuss the issue, he said, along with what next steps the public should take to remove eight board members from office. He said the group of residents would present the petition to the board at its meeting next Wednesday.

The lone board member to vote against the appointment was Tracy Macek.

The new, five-year position is called "supervisor for projects for the board of school directors and special assistant to the superintendent," Mr. Shuckrow said, and Mr. Schmotzer's employment began the next day, Nov. 20.

Mr. Schmotzer served a brief stint as a state representative in 2012 in the 22nd Legislative District, filling out the term of Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner. He ran unsuccessfully for the permanent seat.

In 1997, Mr. Schmotzer was charged with stealing $50,000 from the Allegheny County clerk of courts office, but the charges were later dismissed on a technicality.


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159.

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