4 challengers face 3 incumbents in Greater Latrobe School Board primary

·6 min read

May 8—Seven cross-filed candidates are vying for four seats on the Greater Latrobe School Board.

Among those seeking nominations in the May 18 primary are incumbents Bill Palmer, Heidi Kozar and Cathy Sarraf. Steven LoCascio is not pursuing a second term.

The field of challengers includes Ryan Scarton, Andrew Repko, Tom Gockel and Merle D. Musick, who is the son of school board member Merle L. Musick.

Scarton, Repko and Gockel said they would like to see increased emphasis on vocational programs for students at Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center. Greater Latrobe is sharing the burden with two other participating districts — Derry Area and Ligonier Valley — to finance a major renovation of the center.

Scarton, 45, of Unity works as a Westinghouse engineer. He said he wants to provide a "fresh voice" on the board and to take a more active role in the education his three children and other students receive.

He said he wants to ensure the district maintains faculty and staff that are of high quality while giving them the tools needed for success in the classroom. Prevention of bullying should be a priority, as well as providing on-site security and covid-19 mitigation at schools, he said.

The district should live within its budget, without increasing taxes, he said.

Scarton has leadership roles with local youth baseball and basketball organizations and supports community service and extracurricular activities for students.

"Our children gain leadership and confidence while learning valuable social skills through participating in organized activities," he said.

Repko, 58, of Unity is a district bus driver. He retired as major of the guard at a state prison.

He said the school board should have increased public discussion of its agenda items. He also is concerned about recent school tax increases.

"There are always places where you can tighten your belt," he said, indicating his leadership role in the prison system provided him with experience in budgeting and labor relations.

He supports a greater focus on school arts programs and said students should get help with job-hunting skills: "how to interview, how to present themselves, how to build a resume."

Gockel, 47, of Unity is a district bus driver and a residential program worker for a group home. His 8-year-old daughter is a district student.

He also cited a desire to end the burden of tax increases, suggesting he would "think outside the box to see where other money can come from and, if needed, freeze wages for administration."

He called for a more open discussion of issues before the board and said he would plan to keep the public informed about school matters through his Facebook page.

"I speak to the parents and kids everyday that are on my bus, and it helps to know what they need from the board," he said.

Merle D. Musick, 19, is a 2020 district graduate. He lives in his family's home in Unity while studying political science at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg, where he participates in the Army ROTC program.

Musick said he is running for office to bring a youthful viewpoint to the board. He said the district "does a phenomenal job" preparing students for the working world, but he noted more can always be done to enhance their communication skills.

A fan of 3D printing, Musick would like to see the district invest more in the technology. "It's more than just hitting a button and seeing it print out," he said. "You have to think like an engineer. It involves critical thinking and problem solving."

Musick said the board should use a balanced approach to budgeting so "taxpayers are happy and students are receiving the highest quality education they can."

Palmer, 64, of Unity has served on the school board for 12 years. He is the general manager of a construction firm.

Palmer said the district has worked "to modify all our programs to make our kids ready to go into the work force or college or the armed forces."

The recently constructed Latrobe Elementary School was designed for future growth, and now the board must focus on updating the career and technology center's 1970s infrastructure, said Palmer, who serves on the center's joint operating committee.

Palmer noted the school board has been able to limit recent property tax increases to no more than 1 mill per year. He pointed out Greater Latrobe faces recovering from the covid-19 pandemic while meeting financial obligations to the state teacher retirement system and encouraging students to enroll in the district's own online instructional programs instead of independent cyber charter schools.

Kozar, 62, of Unity is the retired grandmother of two district students.

In her 16th year as a school director, she has a background in public policy and also is concerned about the impact cyber charter schools have on Greater Latrobe. She said she will press for changes in the charter school funding formula that has the district paying "almost 4 mills in tuition to send students to a school that consists of a laptop and some software" — a cost of $1.3 million in the latest audited year.

"There is no way to account for how that money is spent," she said.

Kozar also serves on the technology center operating committee, whose members she said "listen very closely to what industry is telling us they need from their future workers."

Greater Latrobe, she said, has done its part by encouraging students at a young age to focus on career pathways that interest them. But, she said, "there is always more that can be done."

Sarraf, 61, of Unity works as an administrative assistant. She is the mother of three district graduates and served as a volunteer when they were involved in school activities.

She fell short of gaining election to the school board in 2019 but was later appointed to fill a vacant seat. She chairs the board's policy committee and has joined its education and planning committee.

Sarraf said the success of the district and its students hinges on having the best teachers and administrative staff. "We must continue to pay competitive wages for our teachers and provide them a supportive environment," she said.

She said the district should "continue our opportunities for cooperative learning for college-bound students, maintain our strong relationship with the career and technology center, and communicate with employers to receive input about what skills they are looking for in our grads."

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, jhimler@triblive.com or via Twitter .