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Tensions Run High at School Board Meeting

Residents, some school directors voice frustrations over contract process

By Siana Emery
The Tube City Almanac
September 28, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Tension was high at this month’s McKeesport Area School Board meeting, as citizens and board members alike aired their frustrations.

Several people, including resident Keith Murphy, voiced their concerns over the board’s decision in August to extend the contract of Assistant Superintendent Tia Wanzo.

“You did the equivalent of what Donald Trump did, with putting Kavanaugh and Barrett on the Supreme Court” before the 2020 presidential election, Murphy told the board.

In August, the board voted 5-4 to renew Wanzo’s contract. Board Member Mindy Sturgess pointed out that nearly two years were still left on Wanzo’s original contract, and that three new school board members will be taking their seats after the November election.

Sturgess said the new board members should have had the chance to vote on Wanzo’s new contract, and on a new contract awarded this summer to Superintendent Mark Holtzman Jr.

“We’re not trying to get rid of either one of you,” Sturgess said. “If your contract had been up, and up for renewal, I would have supported it.”

Holtzman defended Wanzo, noting she is the highest-ranking Black educator in the school district’s history and a McKeesport Area High School graduate, and has worked in the district for her entire professional career.

He expressed his dismay that “a multitude of statements were made by school board members kind of explaining why Dr. Wanzo didn’t deserve their vote for her new contract.”

Wanzo serves as a role model for McKeesport Area students, Holtzman said, and extending her contract adds to the stability of the district’s leadership.

“We’re talking about a district that needs to move forward with equity, inclusion, diversity, and the African-American assistant superintendent sat through a meeting last month where she didn't get the full support for the work that she's done here,” said Holtzman. “Her leadership and commitment to our community is second to none, and I don’t feel that we all are doing a good enough job to advocate for Dr. Tia Wanzo.

“We can’t advocate for and support our Black and brown families when it’s just convenient, and we can’t just support our Black school leadership when it’s convenient,” Holtzman said.

Murphy said the comments rang hollow when Black student achievement in the district is still lagging behind white student achievement.

“Black students either don’t matter in this school district, or you just don’t want to recognize doing something different,” he said. “I don’t care what color, I don’t care how much money people make here. What I care about is student achievement. Are we getting the best product of McKeesport out of this system? If we’re not, that means somebody is not doing their job. Leadership is needed.”

Board members who objected to the contract renewals said their concerns were with the process, not the people.

Other residents voiced complaints over the district’s ongoing struggles with its school bus provider, Pennsylvania Coach Lines. A shortage of bus drivers has forced the district to cancel some routes on short notice.

Volunteers, including McKeesport firefighters, have stepped in on several occasions to provide emergency rides to school for students left without buses.

One parent alleged that the cancelations seemed to affect lower-income neighborhoods in the district before wealthier neighborhoods.

Although the district has said it will excuse absences for students who lack transportation, she said her child received an unexcused absence when their bus failed to show up.

District officials said they are working on the problems and trying to alleviate the shortages.

The school board will reconvene on Oct. 20 for an open agenda meeting, and again on Oct. 27 for a regular meeting.

Siana Emery is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh’s South Hilltop. She has also written for The Mennonite World Review, Goshen College Communications and Marketing and The Goshen College Record. She may be reached at sianaemery@gmail.com.

Originally published September 28, 2021.

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