Author Archives: bryanpjohnston

Northgate School District: May Update

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything and so I thought now was a good time to take a few minutes and give an update on what I think are the important issues facing the school district.


The final budget is due in June. It’s been three years since taxes were increased and it looks like there will be a tax increase this year. While noone wants to increase taxes, it appears to be a necessary evil at this time. If taxes were not increased, then according to the 2014-04-28-General Fund Budget Presentation presented at the budget forum a few weeks ago, the General Fund would be almost wiped out by the end of next school year. That may not be completely accurate as the budget is generally conservative and our expenses will most likely be less than what gets budgeted, but it is still a cause for concern. There are many factors that influence the budget, but the biggest problems continue to be increasing pension costs and insufficient state funding. If the current proposed final budget passes as it stands now, taxes will increase a little over 1 mil. To put it into perspective, if your house is valued at $100,000, your property taxes are likely to increase a little over $100.

Class Size

I feel that class size is an issue, particularly in the elementary schools. Many of us kindergarten parents successfully lobbied for a fifth kindergarten class last year, citing safety and educational concerns with class sizes in the high 20’s. For the 2014-2015 school year, the school board has made the decision to go back to four kindergarten classes, and keep first grade at four classes. This means that next year first grade will see a dramatic increase in class sizes. As of last week, there are 108 students going into first grade, 55 at Bellevue and 53 at Avalon, meaning one can expect class sizes of 28 and 27 at Bellevue and 27 and 26 at Avalon. As I understand it, first grade typically grows in number from the previous year’s kindergarten, so those numbers may grow slightly. I feel that these class sizes are significantly too high, and that first grade should not have some of the largest class sizes in the district. Unfortunately with the budget looking the way it does, I don’t see the board approving adding an additional teacher (unless the parents voice there concerns stronger and louder than last time…and even so it would be tough).

Elementary School Musical Chairs

At the beginning of last year, there were several kindergarten students who lived in Bellevue but were told they needed to attend Avalon (due to class size). Weeks into the school year, those same students where moved back to Bellevue when a kindergarten class was added. Recently, some of the same students were notified that they must attend Avalon next year. Shuffling students back and forth between elementary schools isn’t good for anyone and I feel horrible when I hear parents talk about how this affects their kids. One solution to this problem is to adequately staff the schools so that class sizes aren’t maxed out, but that is not going to be the case for next year’s first grade class. I feel that if we are going to continue to face these challenges for the foreseeable future, then we need to start looking at moving away from two separate elementary schools, and splitting our two elementary buildings where one is for K-2 students and the other is 3-6. This isn’t something that is possible for the 2014-2015 school year, but I think we need to look at getting the ball rolling to make it happen for 2015-2016. There will be challenges with regards to implementation, but I feel the benefits far outweigh costs. I’m not going into details at the moment because there aren’t any. This is an idea that has been tossed around from time to time, and I think it is something we need to move on.

May 2014 Primary Election

The biggest issues we face (in my opinion) all stem from our budget. Pension costs and lack of state funding are hurting Northgate just as they are hurting every other district in Pennsylvania. At the Stand Up For Education event that I attended, the state legislators (that showed up) acknowledged these issues but all agreed that nothing would happen in the near future to help remedy them. We need people in office that care about education and have a good understanding of the issues. Being an election year, we have an opportunity to put someone in office that will fight to solve issues that are threatening to destroy our schools. To put it bluntly, if you care about education then VOTE FOR TOM MICHALOW for state representative. Not only is he a teacher in the district but he has actively served his community and he has a deep understanding of the issues affecting our schools.

Stand Up For Education

This evening I attended an event consisting of school board members and administrators from all over Allegheny County where several state legislators spoke regarding education and fielded questions from the audience. It was a great learning experience but a bit disheartening as well. The event was recorded and can be viewed online here. If you are concerned about education PLEASE take the time to watch the full video. They talked about the biggest issues concerning education, although basically said not much is happening to address the issues.

On my drive home from the event, I was thinking about playing the political game. I believe that partisan politics hurts our country and was proud to be elected to school board as someone who is unaffiliated with any particular party. I’ve never been a huge fan of politics and don’t consider myself a politician. That said, with the direction our schools are headed, and after seeing which legislators showed up to the event and listening to all of them speak, it may be time to soften my stance and switch to being a Democrat. If it means I can have more influence on the current state of education then it will be worth it.

Concerned About Your Property Taxes?

Did that get your attention? Good. Well I have some bad news but I also have some good news. Before I explain how you can influence your property taxes (the good news), let me first give some general background information that may help.

Note: While in this post I speak about the Northgate School District and residents of Avalon and Bellevue, this post can apply to all school districts and neighborhoods in Pennsylvania.

Continue reading

Board Breakdown

Below is a list of Northgate School Board members, their email addresses, and the committees to which they belong. I was told it has been past practice to have new board members sit on the Finance committee for 6 months before moving to their actual committee. Therefore, Finance members Bryan Johnston and Amy Joy Robinson will switch with Student Affairs members Jennifer McWilliams and Lisa Saylor half way through the year. This list does not include ad-hoc committees that may be formed throughout the year on an as-needed basis, for purposes such as contract negotiations or superintendent review.

Mr. Daniel O’Keefe
Committees: PSBA Liason, Legislative

Dr. Timothy Makatura
Vice President
Committees: Building and Grounds, Finance, Food Service, Personnel, Transportation

Mr. Gary Paladin
Committees: Finance, Beattie, Communications, Intergovernmental

Mrs. Brigitte Jackson
Committees: Building and Grounds, Athletic, Chamber of Commerce Rep, Intergovernmental

Mr. Bryan Johnston
Committees: Finance, Food Service, Transportation, Technology

Mrs. Jennifer McWilliams
Committees: Student Affairs, Athletic, Personnel, Transportation

Mrs. Amy Joy Robinson
Committees: Finance, Athletic, Communications, Technology

Mrs. Lisa Saylor
Committees: Student Affairs, Beattie, Fine Arts, Communications

Dr. Shannon Smithey
Committees: Student Affairs, Food Service, Personnel

Big Changes to the Northgate School Board

The unofficial results for the 2013 general election are in:

Barring any drastic changes to the total vote counts, there will be four new members on Northgate School Board:

  • Lisa Saylor
  • Amy Joy Robinson
  • Jennifer McWIlliams
  • Bryan Johnston

Hopefully these new members will place education as the top priority in the district and put in the necessary effort to bring a positive change to the district and community.

I plan to continue to use this blog to help bring information to the community and give my perspective on issues as a school board member.

What change can we expect to see in our school district and community

First, thanks to Liberty In Bellevue, the League of Women Voters and the North Suburban Chamber of Commerce for hosting another candidate forum on Monday, Oct. 28th. If you weren’t able to attend, you can watch the video online. I was hoping the moderator was going to ask the school board candidates about their vision of the future, similar to the final questions she presented to the council and mayoral candidates. I wanted to briefly touch on how the school district will affect the community, but since we did not get to the question and only had limited time to respond to other questions, I will touch on it now.

I do not believe that you will see a drastic change (improvement or decline) in a school district from year to year but rather small incremental changes over many years that ultimately have a substantial impact on a community. Not only will a school district influence whether or not families move into or out of a community based on its reputation, but a large percentage of graduates will remain in the community, take local jobs, and possibly take leadership positions within the community. It may not seem like much, but if we fight for education and it prevents  a couple students from falling through the cracks, and less students get held back, and maybe one more student gets the opportunity to go to college, and perhaps there is one less teen pregnancy than there would have been, and one less family leaves the district in favor of another school, then the long term benefits will far outweigh the immediate financial savings of cramming 30 kids into a classroom.

To that end we need school leaders that are willing to fight for education. We cannot afford drastic teacher furloughs while awarding our superintendent a raise. We cannot afford to reduce graduation requirements because the school is not appropriately staffed.  We cannot remain silent when people in positions above us make decisions that negatively impact the potential of our children. We simply cannot afford to just say “there is nothing we can do about it”.  We cannot afford to have leaders that refuse to ask questions and do not think for themselves.

I think a little common sense with a bit of passion could give Northgate, Bellevue and Avalon the boost needed to start to turn the tide. Hopefully there are enough other people out there that feel the same way. One way to influence change in your community will be November 5th. Don’t forget to get out and vote!

A Step In The Right Direction

The Northgate School District took a step in the right direction at their board meeting on Monday, September 16, 2013 when they voted to recall a teacher and add a fifth kindergarten class to the district. At recent board meetings there have been a large number of concerned parents that have spoken regarding the large kindergarten class sizes, citing not only research regarding the benefits of smaller class sizes, but various safety and educational concerns that they had personally witnessed while volunteering in the classrooms. It was surely a difficult decision for the school board to make, but fortunately for our kindergarten students they voted in favor of education, going against superintendent Joseph Pasquerilla’s recommendation of adding two aides to assist in four already overcrowded classrooms. School board members Timothy Makatura, Daniel Klicker, Shannon Smithey, Gary Paladin and Dan O’Keefe all voted in favor of adding a fifth kindergarten classroom. Board members Brigitte Jackson and Marita Bartholomew voted against it. Board members Tony Barbarino and Shirl Reinhart were absent as usual.

Although this was a step in the right direction, recent furloughs have the school district currently understaffed. Northgate teacher Tom Michalow presented to the board his class size analysis at the middle school / high school level, stating that the Math and Social Studies departments have been hit the hardest. Below are some of the “highlights” of his analysis.

Department % of students in classes of 25 or more Largest class size
English 25% 30
Science 20% 31
Math 37% 31
Social Studies 43% 34
Computers 67% 29

Mr. Michalow also pointed out that these numbers won’t mean much to you if you think that 25 or more students in a class is appropriate. I haven’t heard any teacher, administrator or board member say that 25 is an appropriate number for class size, however I have heard a couple board members say things such as

“Back when I was in school, I had XX amount of kids in my class”


“My child had large class sizes and turned out ok”.

As a parent it’s frustrating to hear that type of response, because as Mr. Michalow puts it, “this isn’t 1985”. The classroom environment is different today. All students are expected to learn and the stakes are higher.

To continue moving in the right direction, our school district must place education as its top priority and our parents need to make sure they follow through and help them when\where possible. We need to stay informed with what is happening in our district, and also with what is happening at the state and national levels. Here are a few places to start: