The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Mt. Lebanon School District

UPDATE (5/9 at 9:50 p.m.): Newsweek magazine has released its survey of the 1,000 Best High Schools in America. The top public school in Western Pennsylvania? Quaker Valley, at number 523. Upper St. Clair moves up from 783 in 2003 to number 637 this time around. Taylor Allderdice slips in at number 1036. Mt. Lebanon? Ranked number 628 in 2003, in 2005 it failed to make the list.

The primary election for the Mt. Lebanon School Board comes up on May 17. Since I haven’t written much about goings-on in Lebo since last Fall’s Sablegate, here’s an update.

The budget:

“People of Earth, your attention, please. This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you. . . . There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now. . . . What do you mean you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light-years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams.”

--from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a movie version of which is now playing in theaters nationwide (it's an entertaining movie if you’ve read the books; a dreary movie if you haven’t).

In last week’s mail, taxpayers received a “Budget Report” from the district in anticipation of a “Budget Forum” (tonight, May 9, at 7:30 p.m.), a “Board Discussion Meeting” (May 16 at 7:30 p.m.), and a regular Board Meeting (May 23, at 7:30 p.m., where the final 2005-06 budget will be approved.) The “Budget Report” is characteristically opaque, but accompanying letters from the acting Superintendent (George Wilson) and the current Board president (Carol Walton) have Vogonic overtones.

From the Superintentendent’s letter:

“Following a recommendation from the School Board Budget Process Committee, we opened our process to the full scrutiny of the public. In addition to our monthly budget newsletters, we also posted all budget information on our website, distributed materials at our public meetings and televised all meetings on cable Channel 19. Although this move revealed to all just how complicated and controversial our budget development process can be, it also disclosed to the public each item under consideration for an increase or decrease. Our commitment to make the process open and interactive led to increased public comment and media coverage with each update. By engaging with the community in budget development, we gathered important feedback on what is valued. This feedback helped to guide our budget decisions.”

I guess we should be relieved that the Board decided to be so public about its process. But the Vogons went public, too, and the Vogons blasted Earth out of the galaxy anyway.

Note, therefore, that the complex budget process did not include efforts to reduce “budget accounts covering contractual obligations, including debt service.” (Quick question: Why not try to reduce debt service? Has the Mt. Lebanon School District fallen into the City of Pittsburgh trap, and issued non-callable bonds? Does the Schools Code prevent re-financing?) The largest “contractual obligation” is wages and benefits (roughly $45 million out of a $66 million budget), and the overwhelming portion of that $45 million is committed to the teacher’s contract – which can't be renegotiated at this point, but which was negotiated last Fall with no public input whatsoever. The District and Board incumbents promote this result as achieving "labor peace," a phrase that calls to mind nothing so much as "we were really scared of the big bad teachers' union." My family has lived through a teachers' strike. It's a horrible thing. But peace comes at a price. So much for “full scrutiny of the public.” And, of course, no one should forget the Board's failure to subject the buyout of the former Superintendent to public scrutiny.

Meanwhile, here are some interesting tidbits from the budget report:

According to the Board President, the Board has worked hard to cut the budget to save $450,000 in expenses. It may be only coincidental that this is approximately the amount that the District has committed to paying former Superintendent Margery Sable.

Among the cuts that the Report shows off with pride:

  • Charge high school students for parking -- $8,000 saved;
  • Reduction in athletic supplies -- $6,000 saved;
  • No increase in Aramark (food service) contract -- $25,000 saved;
  • and (my favorite): use Dashboard (web-based student/teacher data system, which the teachers detest) instead of the U.S. Postal Service to deliver notifications to students and parents – $5,000 saved, in postage.

    In other words, cut $10,000 here and $10,000 there, and someday, eventually, you’re talking real money. Would Everett Dirksen be proud?

    The problem, of course, as has been widely noted and reported, is that the Board is crunching details and missing the big picture. And what’s worse, the letters that I quoted above make it sound like the Board is trying to pass responsibility for budget issues back to the taxpayers. Don’t like the budget, the report seems to say, then fine: you’re responsible, since you had every chance to complain ahead of time.

    Transparency is a good thing, but it's no substitute for the hard work of governing. Why, after all, did we elect you people in the first place? When the Board says, "you had your chance to criticize the budget," this is Vogon-speak for: watch for the hyperspatial express route coming soon to your neighborhood. It would be unfair to criticize the Budget Report for its resemblance to Vogon poetry. But it is tempting.

    The board election:

    That brings me to the election, which is where the big picture is, or should be, on the line.

    By Pennsylvania tradition, it is extremely difficult to get meaningful information about candidates for local office, unless the candidates themselves go out of their way to get that information to you. Curiously, few do so. (I contrast this with California, where by state law every voter gets a state-funded voter’s guide to every election, with basic information about each candidate and ballot measure.)

    Of the current candidates for the Mt. Lebanon School Board, only two have distributed enough information for me to make any kind of judgment:

    Jo Posti, a challenger, has put in place an easily-accessible and modern method of finding out who she is and what she proposes to do. She has a website. That's good. Jo runs her own company and is a professional in the communications business.

    Ron Hoffman, a long-serving member of the Board who is running for election to a third term, has distributed mailers. The mailers say that Ron has a great deal of experience in business (which he does -- he retired as an Executive Vice President of Alcoa) and as a community volunteer (ditto), that he helped to negotiate the recent teachers’ contract that brings “labor peace,” and that he has experience on the Board, which the community should value. The mailers don't say much about his plans for the future of the School District.

    Of the other candidates, I know this:

  • Rodney Shepherd, the other incumbent running for re-election, voted both against the teachers’ contract extension, and against the buyout of former Superintendent Margery Sable. He's a dissenter. That’s good. But he has been curiously silent, publicly, about his disagreement with the current direction of the School Board.

  • Mark Hart is the CFO for the Steelers (which carry a $100 million payroll) and therefore has some relevant business and management experience. That’s good. That experience comes, however, in a large family business that is as tied to tradition as any business in this region.

  • Daniel Remely is a commercial real estate developer who should know a thing or two about construction. In a District facing a major overhaul of its high school facilities, and dealing with the fallout of disastrous Board oversight of the elementary school renovations, that’s good. But two-thirds of the District’s operating budget goes to salaries and benefits. He knows relatively little about personnel issues.

  • Alan Silhol is an in-house real estate lawyer for American Eagle Outfitters. It's not clear how he would help the Board.

  • Faith Ann Stipanovich is a payroll manager for Allegheny County and has a background in HR. It's not clear how she would help the Board.

    The League of Women Voters stepped in to host a candidates’ forum and to publish a voters’ guide. The forum was held last week; Channel 19 17 will air a broadcast at 3:00 and 10:00 PM on May 6 - 8 and again on May 13 - 15. The voters’ guide isn't particularly informative, but a condensed version appears in today’s Post-Gazette. The full version, with information about the School Board candidates, is available at the League of Women Voters website.

    Media coverage in other places has been greater than it usually is for a school board election, for obvious reasons.

  • Here is a month-old Post-Gazette piece on the election.

  • Last week, the Tribune-Review ran this useful Q&A with the candidates.

  • From last Friday's Tribune-Review, in its roundup of Laurels and Lances:
    "On the 'Watch List' II: Mt. Lebanon taxpayers. Their school board race likely is the most-watched this year. A series of tax increases and a payout shrouded in secrecy to get rid of a superintendent gone sour has some of the community in tar-and-feathers mode. Whether that ire translates onto ballots remains to be seen. If it doesn't, we can only assume that 'the Lebo spirit' is an empty moniker."

  • The Letters page of the Post-Gazette South has carried an exchange between Marc Field, strongly defending Ron Hoffman ("Things appear well with schools"), and Joe Wertheim, criticizing him ("Hoffman is more than a poster boy").

    I’m not here to endorse candidates. But I do think that this little election is interesting not only as a barometer of the state of Mt. Lebanon, but also as one example of the kinds of choices that the region faces.

    On the one hand, there is a sizable constituency in Mt. Lebanon that supports the status quo. There are two, related arguments here. One focuses on Mt. Lebanon's "traditions" and "culture" and endorses some version of the following: "Mt. Lebanon is a special place, and everything has been going fine, and if you leave things in our hands, things will continue to go fine and Mt. Lebanon will continue to go fine. Honor, loyalty, and trust count for a lot in this world. So, trust us." Tradition, in short, is its own reward. A second argument focuses on experience, and endorses some version of this: "Mt. Lebanon is a complex place, and it needs people with training and experience to handle things. We have that training and experience. So, trust us." Hierarchy, in short, is its own reward. At the end of the day, the two arguments converge on a single point: We should trust the people in power.

    On the other hand, there is a sizable constituency here – though we will see shortly whether it’s larger than the first – that sees the need for change. Not incremental “let’s renovate the building” change, but meaningful “let’s change the way the District does business” change. To this constituency, "tradition" and "culture" and "experience" may be code words for the preciousness about Mt. Lebanon that offends so many in the Pittsburgh region and that many more recent arrivals reject. This group sees that Mt. Lebanon can’t rely on "tradition" and "culture" and deference to "experience" without running into financial disaster. Mt. Lebanon is a nice place to live, but it isn’t so special. It’s a place where people enjoy a nice sense of community but where they also (increasingly) value fiscal discipline and accountability. The vast bulk of Mt. Lebanon residents aren't rich, and they have to work hard to pay their taxes. They expect that the Board will monitor $66 million in tax dollars both closely and publicly – just as the directors and managers of any $66 million public business should be expected to monitor that business closely, and publicly. No shareholder of a public $66 million company should have to tolerate a “trust me” argument from the Board. Critical thinking matters more than experience.

    “Change” doesn’t mean throwing out current Board members just for the sake of installing new ones. Not all challengers are necessarily progressive. Not all incumbents are necessarily anti-change. Given the information that we have, look carefully at your choices to see whether a given candidate is the kind of person who is likely to help create a new future for Mt. Lebanon. Tradition, experience, and trust may not be enough. What this community needs, and what any community in this region needs, is insight, accountability, and renewal.

    The effort to impeach all of the existing School Board members is apparently continuing. The anger behind that effort is understandable. The energy is misapplied. If you don't like the performance of your elected representatives, use the gifts of democracy to replace them. Remember that no one has to vote for the maximum number of School Board candidates. If you see only one or two people who you like, you may vote for only those candidates. One way or another, VOTE on May 17, and make sure that your friends and neighbors vote, too.

    Don't Panic. We may yet avoid construction of a hyperspatial express route.
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