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School Board Meeting Marked By Heated Rhetoric

Superintendent laments example set for students: ‘Not a good situation’

By Adam Reinherz
The Tube City Almanac
September 28, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Related story: School Director, Resident Exchange Angry Words

A lengthy McKeesport Area School Board meeting on Tuesday was marked by contentious remarks and explosive rhetoric that was lamented by several participants.

The meeting was rescheduled from Sept. 20 after an accident that morning claimed the life of a student from Serra Catholic High School. Board members opened the meeting with a moment of silence for Samantha Kalkbrenner, 15, of Dravosburg, who died in that collision, which also injured three other students and two adults.

During the citizen’s comments portion of the meeting, several community members raised concerns about student safety and district accountability.

“I'm here to ask each of you, when it comes to safety of our children, to please put the politics aside and truly vote on what's in the best interest of our children’s safety,” McKeesport resident Sherry Swauger said.

McKeesport resident Jeffrey Anderson told the board about several bullying incidents at the school.

Anderson read a letter, written by a friend, which described the incidents.

“It is going to come to a point where one of these children are going to end up hurting themselves because of the bullying that's going on in the school district,” Anderson said.

But tension during the meeting itself soon escalated. Resident Billie May Vranka asked the board if it was true that one school board member had temporarily moved to Elizabeth — out of the school district.

“Why is it anybody’s business where she lives?” School Director James Brown retorted. “Stay the hell out of our relationship.”

The board by 9-0 vote approved refunds under the Homestead Tax Exclusion.

The board also accepted the resignation of district business manager R. Scott Domowicz, effective Nov. 3, 2023, and to advertise the position.

The board also authorized by a 5-4 vote Superintendent Tia Wanzo and Solicitor Gary Matta to negotiate an agreement to retain the accounting firm KPMG to review the school district’s finances for a term not to exceed 50 hours, and to be paid for with donated funds from the Dick’s Foundation, the charitable arm of Dick’s Sporting Goods.

KPMG is one of the four largest accounting firms in the world.

“Dick’s Sporting Goods offered to find us some assistance to assist in making sure that our financial house is in order,” Matta said.

The district is currently negotiating a new contract with its school teachers. The previous contract with McKeesport Area Education Association expired Aug. 31.

School Director Joseph Lopretto said, “50 hours isn't going to tell us that we have the money to give these teachers.”

School Director Matthew Holtzman decried the board’s inability to resolve its own difficulties.

“I didn't want to have to rely on Dick’s Sporting Goods to come save the day on everything that goes wrong here,” he said. “I'm embarrassed that we could not come to an agreement, between the nine of us, without having to call daddy for help.”

Holtzman and Lopretto joined board members David Donato and Diane Elias voting no.

A motion to approve live-streaming future school board meetings on the Internet failed, 5-4. Board members Dan Goughnour, James Brown, Latoya Wright, Mindy Lundberg and Steve Kondrosky voted no.

One member of the audience asked board members why some voted no.

Brown replied, “It’d be a sh-t show like it is now, today.”

Following the meeting, Wanzo addressed the volatility and rhetoric exhibited during the nearly two-hour long meeting.

“I don’t think that this is the way I think we should be conducting business,” she told Tube City Almanac. “I know we’ll have times where we disagree and we’re not on the same page, but I think that there’s always a way to handle ourselves even in those moments. I think anytime that we are getting too far away from the focus being on our students and our staff and our community, and it becomes personal, it makes things not a good situation.”

Regarding the bullying concerns, Wanzo said that the district would take them very seriously.

“We do thorough reports, we talk to students, we watch videos — if we have a video — we do not ever accept (bullying),” she said. “We’re never OK with it.”

Adam Reinherz is a freelance writer. He can be reached at adam.reinherz@gmail.com.

Originally published September 28, 2023.

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