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Parents, Taxpayers Voice Frustrations at Forum

MASD residents call for unity, focus on district’s issues

By Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim
The Tube City Almanac
October 09, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Parents and taxpayers called for a unified approach to challenges facing the McKeesport Area School District, including safety issues in the schools and a series of administrative problems.

At a forum held Saturday evening at White Oak Athletic Association, speakers addressed a series of concerns, but several returned to the theme of “unity” that was invoked at the beginning of the meeting by the Rev. Earlene Coleman, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church for the last 20 years.

“We have to (become) unified,” she said. “Everything will fall apart if we continue to stay divided.”

Most of the concerns that were raised centered around two main issues — late tax refunds owed to homeowners after property tax exclusions under the Homestead-Farmstead Act were miscalculated, and the state of safety inside school buildings.

Parents raised concerns about students fighting who they said have gone unpunished, lax and unprofessional security, and a lack of repercussions for violent behavior by students.

One parent claimed her daughter was being bullied at the school and the administration did nothing to help until the conflict culminated in a fight. She expressed anger towards a school faculty member who she said was ineffective and perhaps even unmotivated towards solving the problem.

Another parent, Tracy Antonelli, claimed that she was attacked at the school by the parent of another student.

“I’m ready to pull my son,” said a third parent, Jeff Winowitch. “I can’t take it (any) more. The stories that I hear come out of their mouths when they come home, and tell me, on a day-to-day basis, what happens in that school — the teachers’ morale is at an all-time low.”

School Director Joe Lopretto, a retired police officer, said, “The discipline that’s going on in the schools is outrageous.”

He expressed some irritation at the disagreements between him and some of the other board members. Lopretto endorsed the school board candidacy of Dave Seropian, who is running for a seat in the Nov. 7 election.

Seropian, who was the business manager at the McKeesport Area School District from 1990 to 2018, clarified some facts about the Homestead-Farmstead Exclusion Act. He said that the school district receives money from the state called Property Tax Reduction Allocation, which is to be given to the taxpayers in the form of property tax relief. “And the way that’s done is through the Homestead Exclusion.”

When he asked how many people receive the Homestead Exclusion, most of the hands in the room went up. Seropian said that the error was not in the current year’s taxes but in the previous year’s taxes.

The amount that homeowners receive is calculated based on how much money the school district receives and the number of people that are eligible, he said.

“Last year, the school district received a little over $3 million in property tax relief,” Seropian said. “And there were 6,590 of us eligible for the reduction. Long story short, the reduction in the Homestead Exclusion was miscalculated.” He then went on to say that those eligible for the exclusion are due for a refund worth between $115 and $120.

The refund was expected to arrive sometime in July or August, but as of Oct. 7, the eligible homeowners said they have yet to receive it. Residents speculated at the reasons for the delay. Josh Lefcowitz, a McKeesport alumnus and certified public accountant who attended the meeting Saturday, said that processing such tax refunds could take hundreds of hours of labor on the accounting end.

Last month, the school board approved an agreement to hire the Big Four accounting firm KPMG to perform 50 hours of work reviewing the district’s finances. The cost is being paid for by the charitable arm of Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Lefcowitz expressed displeasure that the district was dependent on free work.

Another issue people raised Saturday were comments allegedly made by School Director James Brown following the last school board meeting. Several people have accused Brown of using a slur toward a member of the audience during an argument.

Brown and other school directors have apologized for the incident. Brown is running for re-election next month.

Rosie Norgren, one of the organizers for the meeting, said the forum left people “energized” about working to tackle the district’s problems. She said people are already asking, “When is the next meeting?”

“I’ve been getting a lot of feedback through text, through social media, through email, from people that couldn’t be there that want to be at the next one,” Norgren said. “I think it even went beyond what we were hoping for.”

Yousuf Lachhab Ibrahim is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh and a recent Penn State University graduate. He won a Golden Quill award for his work at the Penn State Greater Allegheny Gazette.

Originally published October 09, 2023.

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