Baldwin-Whitehall residents complain of treatment during school board meetings

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Residents in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District on Wednesday said they are tired of being treated like "second-class citizens" and objected to being placed away from a school board meeting due to overcrowding.

The board last week announced that if more than 87 residents attended future board meetings, the overflow crowd would be placed in the nearby Whitehall Elementary School cafeteria with a live television feed of the public proceedings.

Board members said the move was necessary to avoid a safety crisis, because the administration office board room where meetings are generally held has a fire safety limit of 87 people. At the time, several board members and residents objected.

Board members said such an arrangement can't continue forever and the administration office has special outlets for members' laptops and other media.

Residents, who have been turning out in droves of more than 100 to public meetings since December, said they aren't going away until they receive answers about why the board voted Nov. 19 to accept the resignation of member Martin Schmotzer, 57, of Whitehall, only to hire him minutes later to a $120,000 position as supervisor of projects for the school board and special assistant to the superintendent.

They did so at a special meeting with no public discussion or input, outraging residents who say the district can't afford such a position, especially one that was never advertised or placed on an agenda. Member Tracy Macek was the lone dissention.

Amid the public furor and a lawsuit that resulted, Mr. Schmotzer resigned the position on Dec. 4 and was sworn into a new, four-year term on the board, over the objections of residents, some of whom were removed by police from the swearing-in ceremony. The lawsuit has since been suspended.

Residents were no less animated Wednesday, saying they feel the board's latest move is a violation of the state's Sunshine Law, which allows members of the public to speak during public meetings, to witness meetings, and to object during a meeting if they feel something is amiss.

While board members were allowing the people in the cafeteria to speak, they had to sign up to do so and walk to the administration office.

"Given the totality of that night ... it indicates to me a serious flaw in your judgement and ability to govern," said resident Tom Beganti, who told board members the public would continue to hound them until they agree to explain themselves. "I have no confidence in this body and its credibility."

Resident Jean Sadler said the board is making residents look bad by their actions.

"I'm appalled by all the bad press Baldwin-Whitehall is receiving," Ms. Sadler said. "You should be focusing on our children. We shouldn't have to babysit the Baldwin-Whitehall school board."

Board members recognized each other for board appreciation month, though parent Jerry Pantone said he thought it was "tacky."

"This is something that occurs each and every Janauary," Superintendent Randal Lutz said. "School board members are volunteers. They work during the day and volunteer 16 to 20 hours each month."

New board member Karen Brown, who was not on the board during the controversy, questioned whether it was necessary to spend $1,000 in December for security guards at board meetings.

"I'm not sure we need that," Ms. Brown said to the applause of audience members.

Residents said the district has security officers at meetings for their own protection, but none at the district schools and said the salary set aside for Mr. Schmotzer's job could be better used to hire officers.

Members also groaned and expressed disbelief at a two-month bill submitted for payment from district Solicitor Bruce Dice for $25,800.

Members were able to agree on some items, including hiring Heather Hibner as assistant principal at Baldwin High School with an annual salary of $74,000. She replaces former assistant Principal Janeen Peretin, who was promoted to the director of information and instructional technology in December.

Mr. Schmotzer was the only board member who didn't vote to approve a referendum to cap a potential property tax increase this year at the state-determined index limit of 2.8 percent, or about 2.5 mills. The current millage rate is 19.6 mills.

The vote doesn't mean the district will raise taxes at all, but directors must apply for exception in February if they want to raise millage rates higher than the index cap.

Janice Crompton: or 412-263-1159. First Published January 15, 2014 9:18 PM

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