Baldwin-Whitehall school dispute mobilizes parents

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A group of mobilized and motivated residents in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District has done something not often seen in other local school districts -- it got people to care.

"I think that's an extremely positive point," said Lou Rainaldi, 44, of Whitehall, who said that what started out as controversy involving school board member Martin Schmotzer has morphed into a positive group of residents who are involved in education and district politics. "The community has continued to stick together and show commitment to our district, which I think is great."

Residents in the district care deeply about an issue that has been dividing the district, so much so that they regularly attend board meetings, even those held during the holiday season, and take time away from their families to meet at local coffee shops on the weekends to organize and strategize.

Mr. Rainaldi, the parent of two school-aged children, works full time as a software engineer but still finds himself carving out several hours a day to devote to cleaning up what many residents see as a corrupt school board. He videotapes board meetings and posts them on the Internet.

They have created a group called "Baldwin-Whitehall Citizens for School Board Excellence," that has been flooded with views at www.bwaction.com.

"Our group's primary mission is accountability and transparency from the school board," said Mr. Rainaldi.

Parents such as Mr. Rainaldi and residents have been turning out by the hundreds since early December to rail against Mr. Schmotzer and the manner by which he was appointed to a high-paying job within the district.

The school board called a special meeting Nov. 19, where Mr. Schmotzer, 57, of Whitehall, resigned his board seat and was immediately hired as supervisor of projects for the school board and special assistant to the superintendent, at an annual salary of $120,000. The board hired him with no public discussion or input.

As word of the appointment spread, residents grew angry, writing letters to newspapers and even filing a lawsuit to prevent Mr. Schmotzer from accepting the job.

Tracy Macek, the only board member who voted against the hire, said the matter was never discussed in executive session or any other meeting.

With mounting public pressure, Mr. Schmotzer on Dec. 4 resigned the five-year position but was allowed to be sworn in to a new four-year term on the school board, a seat that he won in November. Residents objected, saying Mr. Schmotzer resigned and that should be the end of his involvement on the board.

They have since flooded several board meetings, usually shouting down Mr. Schmotzer when he or one of his supporters speaks.

The two sides are at an impasse now, as residents insist on seeing heads roll while Mr. Schmotzer and his supporters says they have no intention of stepping down. Some, such as school board President Larry Pantuso, don't regret their vote, though they have so far refused to explain what happened on Nov. 19.

Board members have said little in public, though the strain can be heard in Mr. Pantuso's voice as he threatens to remove his neighbors forcibly from board meetings when things get out of hand, which they often do.

At the board's most recent meeting Jan. 15, he asked police to remove a mother who refused to quit speaking about the issue when her allotted three minutes were up. Tempers flared as Mr. Pantuso repeatedly slammed the gavel down and shouted at audience members, warning that he would "clear the room if you can't stop."

The audience's mood was exacerbated by a board decision to hold meetings in the administration office, which seats 87. Due to fire safety limits, the overflow crowd was placed in the nearby Whitehall Elementary School cafeteria, which outraged several residents who said they felt like "second-class citizens."

"The people in the other room are being disrespected," said parent Jerry Pantone about those who were watching the meeting via a live feed into the cafeteria. "We should have the meeting in a room where we can all be. We have the right to look at you and judge your honesty."

One local school solicitor said he sees little that the public can do at this point to remove Mr. Schmotzer.

"As a practical matter there's probably nothing much they can do," said Bill Andrews, a solicitor for numerous local school districts.

Mr. Andrews, a lawyer for 41 years, said he's never seen school board members forced from office for unpopular actions. Residents could go to court and ask a judge to remove Mr. Schmotzer, but Mr. Andrews doubts that will happen.

"Generally speaking, judges don't want to overturn the rule of the people," Mr. Andrews said.

"The public still wants him to resign," Mr. Rainaldi said of Mr. Schmotzer. "But I'm realistic. He's not going to resign -- I know that. They're not going to talk -- I know that."

Residents may earn another ally in the form of the state auditor general, who is currently auditing the district.

Auditor General Eugene DiPasquale said the audit has nothing to do with the Schmotzer controversy, but is a routine audit that's completed every four years. He expects it to be completed within the next several weeks, and auditors will question the board's actions, Mr. DiPasquale said.

"This is something we're clearly going to look at to make sure they followed state law," he said of the controversy swirling around Mr. Schmotzer. "We're going to be reviewing the process and the contract."Mr. Rainaldi said if the citizen's group can't convince Mr. Schmotzer and his allies to resign, he at least hopes they will cooperate with the group's goals of more transparency and accountability.

"I don't think he has a chance at winning another election," Mr. Rainaldi said of Mr. Schmotzer.


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

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