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February 2, 2013

Citizens group making a difference, founder says

JOHNSTOWN — A citizens group founded one year ago to combat annual tax increases in the Westmont Hilltop School District while protecting education has achieved a number of accomplishments, its founder says.

James Greco, who started Cost Effective Approaches Supporting Education (CEASE), said that one of the items that has improved CEASE’s relationship with the board and the community as a whole is that the board now gets bids and proposals on all contracts, even though the board is not legally required to do so.

One example is that the board chose new legal counsel that is experienced across the state in negotiating contracts with school employees and is knowledgeable about school matters in general, he said. That will be important now that the district is currently in negotiations, he said.

Greco said he would like to dispel the myth that CEASE does not like teachers.

“We don’t hate them, in fact I used to be a teacher,” he said.

CEASE’s concern with the teacher negotiations that are under way are pretty simple, he said.

CEASE wants teachers to be paid a competitive wage, but believes the starting salary is too high.

CEASE also believes that teachers should pay toward their health care benefits either through higher deductions or monthly contributions, he said.

“I personally, and CEASE in general, believe we have a good, high quality group of teachers, and we want to retain them and attract other high quality teachers,” he said.

Greco also said CEASE’s participation in a letter-writing campaign to coax lawmakers and the governor into changing the reimbursement formula for Westmont resulted in a change that netted the district an additional $300,000 in annual funding.

He said CEASE advertisements in The Tribune-Democrat also have brought attention to the financial issues in the school, and that he is constantly hearing from residents who appreciate what CEASE is doing.

CEASE is fielding a slate of five candidates for this year’s election, he said. They are Darin Marley, Lisa Drennen, Jeff Masterson, John Grumbling and John DeMarco.

CEASE started with about 100 members and now has about 400, he said.

“I don’t doubt that the board wants to provide a quality education for our children,” he said. “Things have gotten better. Cooperation has improved.”

School board President Diana Schroeder said it is important for everyone to realize that the West Hills is a single united community, and that a strong educational system should be the duty and the pride of the community.

“We, the board, and CEASE, have a common mission and that is reflected in their acronym,” she said. “The board has worked diligently to decrease costs without impacting the education of the students, and those efforts brought our spending to the lowest

2 percent in the state.

“The board also engaged a legislative effort to educate and inform our legislators of the unique financial plight of the district and that long-range plan has succeeded, thanks to the efforts of advocates in our community. We would not have succeeded without the voices of our voters and the beneficence of the legislators, which we gratefully acknowledge.”

The district is financially healthier now than it has been in the past decade, thanks to strong leadership by the board and with support from the administration, teachers and staff through the fiscal crisis, she said.

“As a result of this unified effort, there is a very strong chance that we will enjoy a second year in a row without a tax increase,” she said.

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