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Transparency, spending are key issues for crowded Parkland School Board race

Parkland High School
Donna S. Fisher
For LehighValleyNews.com
Parkland High School is in South Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, Pa.. Picture made in January, 2023.

SOUTH WHITEHALL, Pa. — The race for the Parkland School Board is crowded, with 14 candidates vying for six seats.

Key issues in the race include transparency, spending and how the district should deal with projected overcrowding in its middle and high schools.

  • Fourteen candidates are running for Parkland School Board — five incumbents and nine challengers
  • Transparency, spending and projected overcrowding in the district’s middle and high schools have become key issues in the race
  • Candidates have formed two groups: one made up of mostly incumbents, and the other of Republican challengers 

The race features two opposing groups of candidates who are campaigning together and sharing resources. Voters can choose candidates individually and do not have to vote for the whole group.
Five four-year seats and one two-year seat are up for election. The two-year term was created by state Sen. Jarrett Coleman’s resignation from the board in December.

Five of the candidates are incumbents. Board Director Robert Bold, who was appointed to fill out Coleman's term until the election, is not seeking election.

The candidates

Board Directors Carol Facchiano, Patrick Foose, Lisa Roth and Marisa Ziegler are seeking re-election. Director Jay Rohatgi was appointed to the board last year and now is running to be elected.

Rohatgi and Ziegler are Democrats, and the other incumbents are Republicans.

The challengers are Republicans Mike Deering, Beth Finch, Natalie Janotka, Bobby Lanyon, Mike Millo, George Rivera and Laura Warmkessel, and Democrats Joanne Dillman and Chris Pirrotta.

All candidates except Dillman have cross-filed, meaning they will appear on both the Democratic and the Republican primary ballots. Dillman will only appear on the Democratic primary ballot.

Rohatgi, Facchiano, Roth and Millo are on the ballot for the two-year seat. The candidates with the most votes in each party will advance to November's general election.

All the candidates are seeking four-year seats, and the five who win each party's nomination will advance to the general election.

One of the candidate groups is made up of incumbents Facchiano, Rohatgi, Roth and Ziegler and newcomer Pirrotta. The other, called Elevate Education, is made up of Republican challengers Deering, Finch, Janotka, Lanyon, Millo and Rivera.

Elevate Education group

Parkland School Board race Elevate Education group
Contributed photos
Provided by candidates
Fourteen candidates are running for Parkland School Board in the May 16 primary. Six people make up the Elevate Education candidate group. They are (top row, left to right) Natalie Janotka, Beth Finch, Mike Deering. (Bottom row, left to right) Bobby Lanyon, Mike Millo and George Rivera.

The candidate group Elevate Education is made up of Republicans Deering, Finch, Janotka, Lanyon, Millo and Rivera.

Deering is a business owner of commercial real estate, Finch describes herself as a married professional, Janotka is a licensed professional counselor, Lanyon is the chief executive officer of AIG Safety, Millo is a former educator and Rivera is a manager at a major restaurant group.

The group's main priorities are reducing spending in the district, increasing transparency on the board and increasing parental involvement in education, according to its website.

The group has criticized the school board’s vote to increase the millage rate by 1.2% for this school year and has pledged to “elevate education not taxes.” It said on the website that it would “create a more fiscally responsible educational organization” to avoid tax increases.

The group also said in a statement that it is focused on ensuring the district “maintains and increases academic excellence for all levels of academia,” which it says requires increasing transparency about how budgets, policy and curriculum are decided and implemented.

Millo was the only candidate in the group who agreed to be interviewed by LehighValleyNews.com. He said he feels the board is not transparent enough about its financial decisions, citing as an example buying an $80,000 aquatic scoreboard rather than a $20,000 alternative.

“I want to be able to show responsible spending,” Millo said. “And that would be one of my initiatives on the board, is to show transparency and be accountable to the taxpayers for the spending of their hard-earned tax dollars.”

The board said at the time that the more expensive alternative could generate advertising revenue to offset the cost.

It is not in the purview of the school district to highlight one cultural background over another but rather, first and foremost, to be a community.
Written statement from candidate group Elevate Education

Finch went on the podcast Gunther Rewind to discuss the school board race. She said she thinks “tenets of CRT” are being taught in Parkland schools through social/emotional learning and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. 

CRT stands for Critical Race Theory, which has become the term used in debates across the country about how race and racism should be discussed in schools. 

The opposing candidate group says Critical Race Theory is not taught in Parkland and the curriculum is appropriate for the students. 

Finch said she is concerned there are books with “sexually explicit materials” in school libraries and thinks all the books in the libraries should be reviewed. She also said the group believes gender and sexuality should not be discussed in the classroom. 

“We are fully against it and need to get it out of the schools immediately,” Finch said.

In an emailed response to questions about whether those statements reflect the group’s position, the group said that the district’s cultural diversity should be celebrated, but “it is not in the purview of the school district to highlight one cultural background over another but rather, first and foremost, to be a community.”

The group’s website says parental involvement “includes controversial societal trends that are embedding themselves into school systems across the country,” but does not say anything specific about the issues.

Incumbent group

Parkland School Board candidates
Provided by candidates
Fourteen candidates are running for Parkland School Board in the May primary. Four incumbents and one new candidate are running in this group together. Left (top, bottom) are Carol Facchiano and Chris Pirrotta. In the center is Jay Rohatgi, and right (top, bottom) are Lisa Roth and Marisa Ziegler.

The other candidate group is made up of incumbents Facchiano, Rohatgi, Roth and Ziegler, as well as newcomer Pirrotta.

Facchiano is the Parkland Aquatic Club office administrator and the president of the board, Pirrotta has been vice president of marketing at Sideshow, Rohatgi is the Vice President of Product Management at Infor, Roth is Project Coordinator at Air Products and Ziegler is a public school teacher and the vice president of the board.

Rohatgi is the board’s first Asian-American member and Ziegler its first openly LGBTQ+ board director.

The group does not have a website with an official platform, but Facchiano said the group decided to campaign together because all are focused on the district's future, specifically on figuring out how to address student population growth.

The district’s middle and high schools are projected to reach capacity in the next five years, according to a district feasibility study. The district now is debating several options to address that, including building a new middle school and a new school for eighth- and ninth-graders.

Regarding transparency, the group agrees that the board has been transparent. Rohatgi said he thinks opposing candidates have tried to make transparency more of an issue than it really is.

“Transparency is extremely important to me, but I also feel that Parkland is extremely transparent,” Rohatgi said.

Ziegler agreed, saying the public can attend the committee and board meetings, as well as make public comments.

“And even if we're not able to respond right there [at] the moment, [Superintendent] Dr. [Mark] Madson always gets back to them,” Ziegler said.

We don’t arbitrarily raise taxes to cover costs. As long as I’ve been on the board, that’s not the process.
Carol Facchiano, President of the Parkland School Board

Facchiano said in a previous interview that the 1.2% millage rate increase for this school year was necessary to balance the budget.

She also said the district had not raised taxes in the previous two years and currently has the lowest taxes of any school district in Lehigh County.

“We don’t arbitrarily raise taxes to cover costs,” Facchiano said. “As long as I’ve been on the board, that’s not the process.”

Roth said in an email that the district also should advocate at the state level to address this issue, since state-mandated costs for school districts, such as cyber charter school payments, pension costs and special education, have risen while state funding for schools has stayed low.

“School board members have all that cost-specific data available to them, and we should be using this to constantly advocate with our state reps to lift the burden off of local taxpayers to fill the gap,” Roth wrote.

Regarding whether the district should review the books in the libraries for inappropriate material, Facchiano said there are policies and procedures in place to review the books before and after they are on the shelves.

The candidate group said it is not concerned about how the current curriculum addresses gender and sexuality or race and racism. Pirrotta said he thinks teachers know what is appropriate for each age level.

“My view is we should listen to the experts,” Pirrotta said.

Other candidates

Parkland School Board candidates
Photos from candidates
Fourteen candidates are running for Parkland School Board in the May 16 primary. From left to right are Patrick Foose, Joanne Dillman and Laura Warmkessel, who are running independently and not part of other groups of candidates.

Dillman, Foose and Warmkessel are not part of a candidate group.

Dillman is a former Allentown School District German teacher. She said her priorities are keeping taxes low and educational standards high as well as promoting social/emotional learning.

Dillman now works for the German American Chamber of Commerce, where she helps get students into apprenticeship programs. She said she is running because employers have told her that many high school graduates do not have the skills needed to start their careers.

"I think Parkland is on the right track," Dillman said. "But hopefully they're not going to be distracted from that by other issues that people want to talk about. I think the focus should be on turning out students that are career-ready and also productive and informed citizens of this country."

Dillman said she also thinks the board should focus on the growing student body and the paths forward to address it. She said the board should make sure to choose an option that will be beneficial to the district in the long term, not just the cheapest option.

Foose was elected to the board in November 2019. He said he is the first member of the school board who openly has a learning disability — he is autistic and has ADHD.

Foose recently has clashed with other board directors and has been the lone dissenting vote on several issues related to transparency on the board and spending, including the appointment of Bold and the purchase of an aquatic scoreboard.

“I feel that while I made some great groundwork with what I wanted to achieve, there's still more to be done in the realm of transparency, accountability and this fiscal conservatism when it comes to the board's spending,” Foose said in a previous interview.

Foose said that if he’s re-elected, he wants meeting agendas to be published at least 72 hours in advance and change the current committee structure of the board.

He also said he would like the board to hold town halls so people could give feedback beyond public comment at the meetings.

Foose said he thinks the district’s curriculum is appropriate, though he said he thinks teachers should always be “very cautious” about how they approach sex education. He said there should be parental involvement regarding which library materials students can access.

Warmkessel also said she doesn't think the current board is transparent enough and particularly wants the board to do more to inform community members who do not have children in the district.

Warmkessel said she is concerned the district has lowered its academic standards in recent years and is instead “pushing this gender ideology.”

"We're more concerned with kids' pronouns, and their feelings, and 'everybody gets a trophy' than curriculum," Warmkessel said in a previous interview.

"And curriculum — reading, writing, arithmetic, science — is where kids are going to succeed."

Warmkessel also said she thinks certain books that are available in the Parkland High School library are “questionable,” including “LGBTQ+ Athletes Claim the Field: Striving for Equality” by Kirstin Cronn-Mills, “Date Rape” by Christine Watkins and “The Black Experience in America: from Civil Rights to the Present” by Jeff Wallenfeldt.

A previous version of this article gave an incorrect job title to Jay Rohatgi. He is the Vice President of Product Management at Infor.