Quaker Valley board candidates name new high school as big issue

Tuesday, May 7, 2019 | 6:00 AM

Sewickley Borough residents will have a choice May 21 of who they want to see represent them on the Quaker Valley School Board.

Three candidates are vying for a party nomination to fill two open four-year seats in the district’s Region II, which encompasses Sewickley. Elections for Region I and III are uncontested, according to unofficial records from the Allegheny County Department of Elections.

In Region II, school board newcomers Richard Kain, Geoff Barnes and Chesney Soderstrom will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots.

Candidates say a big issue this election is the possible construction of a new Quaker Valley High School, the district’s finances and the education of students, but each has their own focus heading into the May 21 primary.

Kain, 47, a software executive, points to what he calls a “slow-motion debt crisis” in the district, where Quaker Valley, in February 2018, was reported to have approximately $62 million in debt.

He compares that to the financially struggling Penn Hills and says he’s aware there are differences, yet nearly all new high school projects in the region have come in at or above $100 million. Quaker Valley has not released an estimate of what a new high school would cost.

He cites positions in the district that have been consolidated through attrition and raises concerns about “pressing performance issues,” that he says can be documented through PSSA scores.

“Debt is at the core of all of this,” he said. “It’s time for us to make some tough decisions, given the underlying reality of our finances.”

The Quaker Valley dad of three said “we’d like to see Quaker Valley do better.”

Barnes, 46, a designer at Google, has a long background of unique educational experience and a history of public service that he would bring to the role.

From attending Cistercian Preparatory School in Dallas, Texas, to teaching at Savannah College of Art and Design and Robert Morris University, his background in education is extensive, he said. At Robert Morris, he co-designed a new degree program in web design and now serves on the board at Pittsburgh Technical College and mentors startups at AlphaLab.

Barnes said his interest in education is rooted in curriculum.

Barnes served for more than a year on Emsworth council in 2014-15. He wants to continue serving the public through a role on school board.

In terms of the new high school, the Quaker Valley dad of four is in favor of a new school, but he wants to ensure that spending is sensible, and that from having a new school there will be positive outcomes that can be seen in education.

“I want to be pragmatic,” he said.

Soderstrom, 39, a former school psychologist in Tulsa, Okla., also has a unique background in education. In her role as a school psychologist, she worked collaboratively between teachers and administrators and closely with parents and special education students.

Now she’s a stay-at-home mom of four kids in the Quaker Valley school system.

“I’m passionate about public education,” she said. “I think I would bring something unique to the board.”

The PTA/HSA volunteer wants to ensure all students “have the best quality education” and that teachers and administrators are supported with what they need to get the job done, she said.

In regard to building a new high school, she supports it.

“The current high school is not reflective of the quality of education that we want our children to have,” she said. But, she too, wants to see the project be done in a fiscally responsible way.

“We’re invested in Sewickley and the community,” she said of her family.

Two incumbents, David Pusateri and board Vice President Robert Riker, both who represent Region II, are not seeking re-election.

“The Quaker Valley Schools are a critical pillar in this community, even with all the recognition and accolades they get I think the value of their focus on evidence-based methodologies to maximize each student’s ability to learn goes well beyond standardized test scores, and will come to light increasingly in the years to come,” Riker said in an email. “It’s been a privilege to be associated with them.”

Pusateri said it has been an honor to serve on the board for the last 12 years.

“How refreshing it has been to be a member of such a collegial board where our students always came first,” he said.

In Region I, which covers Bell Acres, Leet Township and Leetsdale, incumbent Gianni Floro is the lone candidate on the ballot seeking a party nomination for one open two-year seat. He will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballot.

In Region III, which includes Aleppo, Edgeworth, Glenfield, Haysville, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Heights and Sewickley Hills, incumbents Marna Karcher Blackmer and Jeffrey M. Watters are seeking party nominations for two open four-year seats. They will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballot.