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Frontier school district meets its school board candidates

HATS IN THE RING — Frontier School Board incumbent candidates, from left, Jack Chiappone (Board Member) and Janet Plarr (Board President), as well as newcomer candidate Davis Podkulski, far right, field questions during the district’s Meet the Candidates Night. The three candidates are battling for two board seats up for election. Photo by Steve Dlugosz.
HAMBURG — A pair of five-year board terms are up for grabs in the Frontier Central School District, with two incumbent board members looking to retain their seats against the challenge from youthful candidate Davis Podkulski, a 2012 graduate of Frontier High School.

Janet Macgregor Plarr, a 20-year board member, currently serves as board president. She and Jack Chiappone, a five-year member of the board, are seeking re-election in the annual May school board election and budget. The district voting will take place between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. on May 20, at the Hamburg Senior Community Center (formerly known as the Frontier Community Learning Center), located at 4540 Southwestern Blvd. in Hamburg. The district is presenting as Proposition 1 to taxpayers for 2014-15 an expenditure budget of $74,271,938, which represents a 1.44 percent increase from the 2013-14 total of $73,215,727. The tax rate for Hamburg residents would be $25.97 per $1,000 of assessed value, an increase of 79 cents from 2013-14, and Eden residents would pay $22.82 per $1,000, an increase of 69 cents from 2013-14. Both would increase by 3.15 percent, with an overall district tax levy of $36.22 million.

Proposition 2 includes spending $867,290 for district school buses.

The May 5 Meet the Candidates Night featured each candidate speaking about the need to eliminate the much-discussed Gap Elimination Adjustment in New York state, a mandate that has been stated as taking away needed funding from districts while forcing Frontier to allocate nearly all of its fund balance reserves, using more than $28 million, over the last five years. Exceeding the tax cap levy, the three candidates agreed, would probably be done as a last-gasp future measure, one that likely wouldn’t be popular among district taxpayers.

Plarr, said to be a “straight shooter” when discussing budget and other matters, serves in a myriad of school-related activities. Those include: Legislative Network Member, for the NYS School Boards Association; Executive Board Member, for the Erie County Association of School Boards; member of the Erie 1 BOCES Board of Education and member of Frontier High School PTSA. Other titles Plarr has held include president and delegate for the Blasdell PTA, Rotary Club member, Hamburg Industrial Development Agency member, Blasdell Youth Advisory Committee member and Blasdell 3-on-3 Tournament Chairperson. A 1982 graduate of Frontier High, Plarr is a Certified Municipal Clerk and Finance Manager (Blasdell).

“I’m motivated by a sincere desire to serve the children and community of Frontier,” said Plarr, a lifelong district resident whose two children graduated Frontier High. “I believe that all children deserve equal opportunity for educational excellence. I have proven that I have the leadership ability and the ambition to provide the necessary services to our children by continuing to make well-informed, cost-effective, educationally sound decisions for the Frontier District. It’s important to think of the effect of all involved. [An important part of] our job is to work collaboratively with the central office and unions, focusing on instruction and achievement.”

Chiappone, a graduate of Lake Shore High School, serves on Frontier’s Audit and Buildings and Grounds committees. He’s a Eucharistic Minister at St. Mary’s of the Lake Church and is a 37-year member of the local Lions Club. Chiappone’s wife taught locally for nearly four decades, while his daughter is an educator at Big Tree Elementary School. Chiappone recently had advocated for downsizing the school board from nine to seven members, as well as consolidating polling places from five to one, with both moves questioned by some school officials, but ultimately approved by voters. He additionally noted that savings were generated through polling consolidation, by lowering security and advertising costs.

“From the beginning [of my board tenure], I’ve been an advocate of the children come first,” said Chiappone, who added that student achievement and well-being has consumed his daily thoughts and actions.

Podkulski currently attends the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York and is pursuing a dual major in business administration and political science. He was also vocal about the district incorporating a student (ex-officio) representative to the board, while attending Frontier, and served as student government president as a sophomore and senior. Podkulski, who has three siblings who currently attend Frontier schools, said he believes his proximity in age to current students would bring a unique perspective to the board.

“I have a passion for the Frontier community and seek to bring this passion, along with my firsthand experience of being a student, to get our children the best education possible,” said Podkulski.

The college student added that he’s sought interest from the board in forming a coalition related to GEA petitions and elimination. Podkulski added that he is hoping to help point the board toward a more-visible sense in school-related events – noting high school cabinet meetings – while Chiappone and Plarr stated that district officials generally adopt a “come-when-invited” approach, while still being quite visible.

“Our payday is on graduation day, seeing kids walk across the stage,” said Plarr.

When asked about the possibility of future drug testing in the district, Chiappone and Podkulski stated that research into such a measure needs to be conducted, while Plarr noted that Frontier is already required to fingerprint all employees for criminal background checks and possible clearance, per New York State Education Department guidelines.

District officials had recently considered ending night athletic events for 2014-15, as a cost-saving measure before opting to not do so. Podkulski said saving crucial teaching positions – just under 10 layoffs were stated as part of the 25 position cuts as part of the fiscal crunch – takes priority, even when compared to hypothetically turning out the lights. Chiappone, who voted against the last two years’ budget proposals, believing revenues did not meet expenditures, said he was OK with keeping night athletic events, at least for another year. Plarr noted that it costs about $10,000 to keep the lights on, while more than 78 percent of Frontier’s budget is represented in mandated salaries and benefits.

“[That majority of the budget] is adults, not kids [costs],” noted Plarr.

New York State Senator Mark Grisanti recently broached the idea of the district advertising on school buses and athletic fields as a possible source of revenue. Plarr noted that past advertising on vending machines earned minimal revenues, while Podkulski said he’d be open to researching the idea, although noting bus advertising could become an issue.

When asked about board decisions in recent memory that could or should have been amended, Plarr suggested that the district should have implemented a 1 percent tax increase a few years back, when it held the line with no hike. She added that incrementally raising by 1 percent could have saved some fund balance allocations. Meanwhile, Chiappone said he wished that so much reserve monies hadn’t been used at once, to be allocated more slowly over time, to save some programs and positions.

Regarding the hypothetical consolidation of services with the Hamburg School District, Podkulski said it’s an idea that officials should pursue, if it generates savings. Chiappone noted that former district Superintendent James Bodziak had begun discussions with Hamburg officials, but that the initiative did not bring about a definitive answer. Plarr said the Board of Cooperative Education Services currently offers some shared programs that students of both districts participate in.

Measures that help in identifying cost savings were noted by Chiappone, including the possibility of holding workshops to review the budget line-by-line; while Plarr noted the importance of working with staff and the unions to establish a self-funded health care plan for some employees.

All three employees added that eliminating school taxers for senior citizens is probably out of the realm of possibility, until NYS takes on more or all educational funding costs.

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