Dear LiB: Frustrations with Northgate School Board

LiB exists to promote awareness and involvement of all community members in the ongoing work of local government. Dear LiB letters may not represent the views of all LiB members, but are published for the purpose of encouraging further discussion and engagement.

______________________________

Dear LiB:

I am writing this letter because I am very concerned about the events that took place on Monday January 14, 2013 at the Northgate School District board meeting. Last week rumors started circulating Bellevue and Avalon that superintendent Dr. Joseph Pasquerilla was going to propose cutting 20% of Northgate’s teachers, as well as reduce classes offered, increase class sizes, lower graduation requirements, cut classroom aides, and shuffle kids between elementary schools based on class size instead of which borough they live in. As I prepared for the board meeting, I tried to find out what I could regarding the proposed cuts. The only written sources of information I could find was a pamphlet from the Northgate Education Association that listed some of the proposed cuts and raised some questions about what it could mean for the community and an article in The Citizen dated 1/11/2013. While Dr. Pasquerilla did answer some questions at an Avalon PTO meeting four days ago, neither he nor the school board made any attempt to provide adequate proof of the need for such drastic cuts. The agenda for the board meeting wasn’t even posted until the day of the board meeting, giving the community little time to organize and prepare.

Not only am I sad to report that all of Dr. Pasquerilla’s proposals were passed but I am also angered in the manner in which they were passed. Not one school board member or administration official has shown sufficient proof that the cuts are needed. In fact all along they have maintained that it is not a budget issue but simply a decision based on enrollment. Dr. Pasquerilla only provided enrollment numbers for 1995, 2002, and 2012. The vice president of the school board, Dr. Timothy Makatura, is a neighbor of mine and voted in favor of each of the superintendent’s proposals. I thought since we were neighbors, I could approach him for more details on what prompted the school board to make such cuts. He told me that it was something that he had personally been thinking about for a long time and that it was needed. When I asked him why the community, including teachers that work in the district, hadn’t heard about the proposals until last week, he couldn’t provide an explanation.

The timing of these events isn’t the only thing that angers me. When I asked Dr. Makatura about the need for such cuts, he echoed comments by Dr. Pasquerilla, saying that it was simply due to declining enrollment. However when I pressed him further, asking for figures proving that the declining enrollment warrants such drastic cuts, he tried comparing it to a business that sells less product than it used to, and so there would not be a need to keep as many employees. When I pressed even further, stating that the school district is not a business that sells widgets and should not only be concerned about the bottom line, he looked me straight in the eye and said because they can’t legally furlough teachers due to a poor economy. So there you have it, a board member finally admitting that Dr. Pasquerilla and the Northgate school board have been lying because they can’t legally get rid of teachers for the reasons they want.

It was amazing to see how the school board could listen to over three hours of citizen outrage at Dr. Pasquerilla’s proposals, only to have their minds already made up. No one cared to discuss the issue further even though it was only officially proposed minutes before they were to vote. However, when Dr. Pasquerilla asked the board members to decide how frequently to publish the school newsletter, The Torch, either 0, 1 or 2 times a year, the board members decided to table that item for the future because they needed time to think about it.

One board member, Shirl Reinhart, even got up and left in the middle of community testimony, never to return to the meeting.
I am further angered by the fact that Dr. Pasquerilla says that he has the best interests in the community at heart, when he does not live in the community, has only been with the district for less than a year, and further research reveals that he has been linked to a ‘diploma mill’ scandal where he was paid for recruiting teachers to take classes that he taught, earning them a useless master’s degree that would not be recognized in the state of PA.

Below are the names of the school board members that were present at tonight’s meeting. I would urge that any members of the community that find their behavior unethical and not in the best interest of the community write to them and voice their displeasure. They are elected officials and need to know that they represent the interests of the community, not those of the superintendent. Finally I would like thank school board member Dr. Shannon Smithey, as she was the only one to go against the superintendent and vote to save Northgate School District.

Daniel O’Keefe, President, dokeefe@northgate.k12.pa.us

Dr. Timothy Makatura, Vice President, tmakatura@northgate.k12.pa.us

Gary Paladin, Treasurer, gpaladin@northgate.k12.pa.us

Brigitte Jackson, bjackson@northgate.k12.pa.us

Daniel Klicker, dklicker@northgate.k12.pa.us

Anthony Barbarino, abarbarino@northgate.k12.pa.us

Shirl Reinhart, sreinhart@northgate.k12.pa.us

Marita Bartholomew, mbartholomew@northgate.k12.pa.us

Dr. Shannon Smithey, ssmithey@northgate.k12.pa.us

Sincerely,
Bryan Johnston

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10 Responses to “Dear LiB: Frustrations with Northgate School Board”

  1. Brian: Maybe you should take the time to look at the PSSA scores and the rankings for Northgate at the Pennsylvania Department of Education website. Northgate is a failing school district, the problems you are concerned about, (declining enrolment) are only the tip of the iceberg with this school district. This population loss in the North Boroughs has been going on for decades. People are moving out, so how do you compensate for that? Keep teachers and staff on the payroll when there is no justification? Business or government, it would be foolish to do such a thing.
    All that being said, there are ways to rectify these problems. School choice is one of them. Yes, Charters, Parochial schools. Example; it costs a parent $3,000 a year to educate a child at Assumption School, that same student costs over $10,000 in the Northgate School District and does not get the education that the child does at Assumption. Do some research on this matter, it’s an eye opener.

  2. Mr. Purcell, we finally agree! While I don’t believe school choice is the best solution to Northgate’s challenges (nor has it been proven to fix district finances), I believe the district leadership (volunteer and professional) MUST get creative with ways to reverse the negative trend of student performance and stagnant tax base. This can begin by partnering with the leadership of Bellevue and Avalon on ways to increase property investment and property values to not only increase district revenue but also decrease the property tax burden. With the third-highest millage in Allegheny County, few will decide on our community if they don’t already have personal ties to the area. The district also needs to open up the faculty contracts to find significant cost savings while still offering a competitive compensation package. Pennsylvania produces THOUSANDS more certified teachers each year than there are open jobs – there is enough certified teacher supply that the positions will be filled with qualified candidates. Northgate won’t fix its financial challenges by using less paper clips or cutting the musical. If the board is unwilling to tackle these challenges head-on then they should probably start drafting merger proposals to send to Avonworth and North Hills.

  3. Perhaps the overpaid, over benefitted and over pensioned union members would agree to a pay and benefits cut substantial enough to remedy the budget shortfalls. This way more teachers could remain employed and teaching, class sizes could stay small, learning resources would be plentiful and all students would benefit. Yeah, that’s gonna happen! It looks like maybe the union’s chickens have come home to roost!

  4. I just think it’s really simple. The North Boroughs are losing population and there is no way the school district can continue to keep the staff it has if the children are not there. If you owned any business could you keep employees if your business was declining? I think it’s always easy to blame the teachers but that’s unfair, I think on the whole they really do care and do the best they can, sometimes under trying circumstances

  5. Mark, the teachers here are victims of unrealistic expectations. The teachers unions are a huge problem. Public sector unions distort the value of labor to the point that overall public fiscal responsibility and efficiency are compromised. These drastic cuts were eventually going to have to be made. And in addition to losing population, as you noted, the population here is aging and the EIT distributions earmarked for the schools are dwindling.

  6. Bill – Seriously? Teachers unions are the problem? Wow. What world do you live in? When was the last time you decided to accept pay and benefit reductions yourself?

    Teachers are way underpaid for what they have to do and put up with. But, then again, since teachers are so underpaid for their services it’s no wonder that test scores are declining, etc. You are not attracting and keeping the really great teachers. You can’t pretend that a union is a problem. The skill and knowledge of a teacher is the basic part of teaching. We live in a world where we pay sports players millions (and value sports way more than academics) and expect teachers to take even more pay and benefit cuts in an already paltry pay scale – and then we wonder why our education system is failing us.

  7. I cannot believe that someone would use failing PSSA scores as a justification for cutting teachers. Also, if anyone thinks the teachers are overpaid and have too many benefits, please name those teachers. I would love to hear exactly who you are talking about…or do you think all teachers are overpaid? Also I agree that school leadership needs to be creative to figure out budget issues, but they should not do it illegally, nor should they try to do it secretly. As elected officials, they owe it to the community to provide answers.

  8. Ro, go to any state where there are no teacher unions, or collective bargaining,
    and compare pay scales. And don’t even say the kids in non union states don’t receive an education equal to union teacher states because that is complete nonsense. Just look at private schools and Catholic schools in Pennsylvania. They live within their budgets and when they can’t they close down. What makes unionized public schools different is they can squeeze the taxpayers for more money. The money is simply no longer there. And more significantly, the unions don’t give a crap about the children. All they care about is keeping their members working and paying dues.

  9. You’re not going to break the unions. Not in this state.

    The only issue with the unions is they protect seniority rather than performance. Its difficult as it is to measure performance, but in this case Northgate will have to lay off the younger, less expensive, and more recently trained teachers rather than the older, more expensive, and more likely to be burnt out teachers. Everyone gets a raise if they survive the school year regardless of performance. The raises are not just regardless of performance but also economy, cost of living, and enrollment.

  10. Our local population is declining while the population of Pittsburgh as a whole is increasing: http://www.imaginepittsburghnow.com/forbes-comeback-city-pittsburgh/11106/

    The way to entice people to move to our region is certainly not to make the schools worse, or create a perception that they are. Young people make decisions about what home to buy based on the quality of the school district.

    One of the parents at the school board meeting mentioned that we need PR. This is certainly not the kind of press we need.

    This isn’t just hurting our children, it’s going to hurt the community as a whole.

    Why was there no plan B? Was was plan A jammed down our throats? If the district is being compared to a business, it’s a terribly run business. In my line of work, if a client is pushing back on one of my “brilliant” ideas, my response is not to force them to go with it, but to come up with alternate ideas. I just don’t understand the board’s “process”. I totally agree with Bryan.

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