6 Seek 1 of 5 Northgate board seats

Voters will make important choices in the May 21 primary election, when six candidates will seek the nominations for five seats on the Northgate School Board.

All of the candidates have cross-filed, meaning their names will appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballots. The top five vote-getters on each ballot will move on to the primary election in November.

The candidates are a mix of incumbents and newcomers, with at least two of the first-time candidates guaranteed a seat on the board.The incumbents are Daniel O’Keefe, Michael Rajakovic and Dr. Shannon Smithey. The newcomers are Lanae Lumsden, Tom Stokes and Cindy West. O’Keefe, Rajakovic and Lumsden reside in Avalon. Smithey, Stokes and West reside in Bellevue.

The Citizen provided each candidate with identical questionnaires. The candidates’unedited responses appear below in alphabetical order.

How long have you resided in the Northgate School District?
Lumsden: 6 years
O’Keefe: I have been a resident of the Northgate School District since 1992. I am a native of the North Boroughs area of Pittsburgh, having lived in West View and Ross prior to moving to Avalon, so I have life-long knowledge of the communities.
Rajakovic: I’ve lived in Bellevue and Avalon for the past twenty years with my wife and now our two daughters. Over that time there have been many discussions about how to grow our community back into the prosperous housing and business district it once was. At times, attempts were made at new businesses and restaurants, some of them quite amazing. But each of those attempts at growth were held back by varying issues. I remember the voices of concerned citizens battling over what was responsible for the lack of growth. But if you look around you’ll start to notice something happening. The school is on an amazing path forward with academics and test scores on the rise. The business district is growing, including new restaurants. Housing prices have risen moderately and buyers are finding themselves in bidding wars with only days on the real estate market. These are signs that our community has the value we all knew was here. The little affordable community with the short commute to Pittsburgh and walkable business district is becoming a destination.
Smithey: We’ve lived in Bellevue since 1996.
Stokes: I have been a resident of Bellevue for 6 1/2.
West: I have lived in the district for 30 years.

What is your educational background?
Lumsden: When my older children were younger I would take off summers and work as a Summer Camp instruction teaching classes as well as supervising activities. I also was an assistant teacher at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic Academy in Wilkinsburg.
O’Keefe: I hold a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and I am also a graduate of A. W. Beattie Vocational – Technical School (now A. W. Beattie Career Center) in Architectural Design.
Rajakovic: I started college in music education and graduated from Duquesne University with a Music Performance and Recording Arts & Sciences degree.
Smithey: I have a B.S. in Political Science and a B.A. in History from Southern Methodist University, and I have an M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science from the Ohio State University.
Stokes: I have a Bachelors of Science from Point Park University in Information Technology.
West: I earned a BA in English from Barry College in Miami, FL and a certificate in Gifted Education from Carlow.

What is your professional background?
Lumsden: I have a Bachelor's Degree in Business Management from Point Park University. I have worked in Financial services and insurance full or part-time for the past 18 years. I currently manage the Pittsburgh location of my family's Insurance agency.
O’Keefe: I am employed as a Project Manager at a consulting engineering firm in the Pittsburgh area and have over 25 years of experience in project management positions. Earlier in my career, I was directly involved in detailed engineering design. In addition, I have also worked in telecommunication and retail customer service.
Rajakovic: During high school and college, I worked in construction and the electrical contracting business.
After college, I was a Recording Engineer and Audio Post Production Mixer and Sound Designer for twenty years. I’m now an IT Manager at a Pittsburgh advertising agency. I’m also an Adjunct Professor at Robert Morris University, where I’ve been teaching for the past ten years. Oh, and I repair cars, and houses, and all kinds of things.
Smithey: I have been a professor of Political Science and Criminal Justice at Westminster College for 16 years. I have been Coordinator of the Westminster First Year Program for three years. I was promoted to full professor in 2017. Prior to working at Westminster, I taught at Kent State and University of Pittsburgh.
Stokes: I have over 15 years of IT experience, mostly based in Financial Application.
West: I have taught grades 2, 5, and 6-12. My middle school and high school career has been focused on teaching the Literary Arts, including but not limited to American Literature, Public Speaking, and Creative Writing.

Community service?
Lumsden: Community service is very important to me. I run a cloth diaper advocacy group and a diaper bank that provides free cloth diapers and classes for families in need. Last summer I sponsored a diversity in ready program here in our community.
O’Keefe: I have extensively invested my time in service to the community. In the 1980s, I was involved in the tutoring program and one-on-one companion programs with the children at Holy Family Institute. Additionally, I was a member of the Board of Governors of the North Hills Arts Festival, serving for two years as President, producing an annual event for the northern area communities.
I was a founding parent of the Avalon Elementary Drama Club and a consulting advisor to the founding parent group of the Bellevue Elementary Drama Club, in the 1990s, before the programs were merged. I also served four years with the Band Boosters as a student chaperone and photographer and as the publisher of the Marching Band Festival Program.
I am in my sixth year supporting the 500 school boards across the commonwealth, as Western PA elected representative to the Governing Board of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association which provides advocacy, policy and support service levels not maintainable by singular districts. This work provides an opportunity for a broad perspective and interactive statewide sharing of issues and solutions, which benefits my Northgate Board service.
Rajakovic: Most of my free time is now focused on my Northgate duties. If anyone is looking to volunteer their time for a good cause this is the place to do it. I’m currently Vice President of the board, Buildings & Grounds Committee Chair, member of the Finance, Public Relations, and Technology Committees. I also serve on the A.W. Beattie Joint Operating Committee. My family is a longtime member of the North Boroughs YMCA where my wife is also a board member, and we, along with our kids, volunteer for various school and community organizations throughout the year.
Smithey: My primary community service has been serving on the Northgate School Board for the last twelve years. I served as Northgate’s representative on the Beattie Career Center Board for three of those years.
I have given a series of educational talks to a variety of public groups (such as the League of Women Voters) on topic ranging from Criminal Probation, to the History of Pittsburgh Obituaries, to the Effects of Gerrymandering on American Politics. In the fall of 2017, I gave a talk about the Electoral College for the Live.Learn.Grow Committee in Bellevue.
I’ve been volunteering at Bellevue Elementary since my oldest was in kindergarten in 2003. I have been a reading and writing lab volunteer once a week at Bellevue with Sue Emery’s first grade class for the past twelve years. I’ve been a guest reader at both elementary schools—sometimes wearing my Cat in the Hat costume--and I’ve given educational talks at Bellevue, Avalon and the High School. I’ve helped with holiday parties, field days, the Santa Shop and special celebrations such as helping the students throw baby showers for Mrs. Scheponik and Mrs. Hunt and organizing the Halloween Dance fundraiser for the 6th Grade Trip.
I’ve also worked the concession stand for the band and been in charge of the bake sale at the Band Festival for several years, even though none of my kids have been in band for the last four years. I coached pee wee and youth soccer at the Y and in Brighton Heights. I’ve participated in community events with the Girls Scouts.
Stokes: I have been involved with several volunteer opportunities around the area, including but not limited to WizardVue.
West: Currently I serve as the secretary of Bona Fide Bellevue— Bellevue’s community development corporation, and I was chair of the Main Street Committee from which several wonderful and in some cases, continuing initiatives were begun. You might remember the Point of Vue window displays that were in vacant storefronts -- Pre-Cyclops, there was The Pittsburghese Window; Pre-Mariposa, there was the Bellevue-Where Do You See Yourself Window; and in Classic Chevrolet’s storage storefront, you can still enjoy the Shop Local Window.
The Community Herb Garden is a Main Street Committee initiative as are the Live Learn Grow classes. I have been privileged to work with people who have a vision and aren’t afraid of hard work to make that vision a reality.
I have been involved with Assumption Theatre Guild for 25 years in all capacities – actor, producer, set building, and props. Community theater is truly a community effort!

Prior local government experience?
Lumsden: I have participated in several campaigns for candidates throughout the county
O’Keefe: I am in my 17th year as a member of the Northgate Board of School Directors. I am President of the Joint Committee of A. W. Beattie Career Center and have represented the Northgate School District on that board for over 10 combined years. I served for 3 years as a member of the Board of Directors of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit No. 3.
Rajakovic: I was a first-time candidate just a year and a half ago, when I won the remaining two years of an open seat on the Northgate School Board in November of 2017. It’s been a challenging, yet rewarding experience and I feel my work is just getting started. I look forward to the opportunity to continue to serve our community.
Smithey: I have been on the Board for 12 years. I have also consulted with the Lawrence County courts and probation department. I have volunteered with several local political campaigns.
Stokes: I do not have previous local government experience.
West: I served one year as the Chair of the Bellevue Zoning Hearing Board when it was re-established in 2016.

Why are you running for a position on the Northgate School Board? What skills/qualities do you possess that will allow you to contribute to the school district?
Lumsden: First and foremost I have 4 children attending Northgate Schools. I have had nothing but positive experiences and I want to see our district continue to grow and flourish. I want to be a voice for those traditionally not represented on the board and bring their concerns and compliments to the district. I am a good listener and advocate. I have the perspective as a parent and as a mother of special needs children. I am open to hearing all the voices in the community and I promise to make them heard.
O’Keefe: Education is an essential function of our society in supporting the future. I have served and will continue to serve because we must do our best to prepare our children. I also am fighting to keep the schools under the control of our community and avoid state control.
People will try to minimize the service as a school director to attendance at two meetings per month; however, to be effective requires much more time. You need to dive into the core of the position or you are truly not giving your best representation to your constituents. Devotion to expanding knowledge of the regional and state issues; attendance at seminars and engaging in self-education; widening your involvement in every aspect of becoming an effective school director; and giving of your personal free time to continued learning and growing is part of the job.
I have shown myself willing to take these steps. I have involved myself in education at the local, area, regional and state levels. I have given of my time to become an effective school director.
Rajakovic: I believe in our community, and my family is fully invested in many aspects; parents of two children in the district, homeowner, and volunteers for many local causes. I’ve been able to view Bellevue and Avalon from many different perspectives. I’ll continue to welcome the opinions of others when considering ways to move our school and community forward. My experience in technology, and building construction & maintenance have all been put to good use with the new technology upgrades, facility updates and repairs happening over the past year, and continuing into the next.
Smithey: My primary focus is on the quality of the education we’re providing to our children. I want to make sure we provide enriching and exciting opportunities to every child, so that they can all be excited about learning and they can all fulfill their potential. Education is not just about a test score. It’s about opening up the world for children so they become well-rounded human beings and engaged members of the community.
My experience as a college professor comes in handy when we are considering new curriculum. I’ve got a lot of experience in instruction and in evaluating the effectiveness of instruction. I teach Statistics and use statistical data in my research. This helps me evaluate the significant amount of data that we need to understand when considering things like enrollment projections, tax revenues and standardized tests scores. My background as a social scientist contributes to my ability to make reasoned and data-driven decisions.
Stokes: My wife and I have both had a strong sense of pride for Northgate since my daughter started in the district two years ago. We have a great respect for the teachers and the job they are doing with our children. Like so many, we love the sense of community that a district like ours allows students to experience. My wife is heavily involved with the PTO and I attend the majority of the school board meetings. I have many years of IT experience and understand the importance of technology and STEM programs in our schools.
West: I am proud to be a parent, teacher, resident, homeowner, and almost senior citizen. Being part of so many sub-groups of stakeholders allows me various perspectives. Our seniors should live without the stress of added property taxes burdening their already fixed incomes. Our current students as well as those students who will enter the system in the coming years should receive a quality education. Our district should be inviting to new residents and homeowners and comfortable for existing residents and homeowners whether they have children or not.
We should explore and implement creative ideas to solve our issues whether it is funding, test scores, or the perception that our school district is failing our students. I can bring creative ideas and resources to the table.
For me, being a member of the school board means that I seek opinions, ideas, and solutions from community members so I can represent our community authentically. It’s important to me that everyone who wants to be heard is heard.
It’s time for unprecedented vision. I am confident enough to know I have something to offer and humble enough to know that I can’t do it alone.

What do you consider to be the most important issue(s) facing the district, and do you have any ideas on how to address those issues?
Lumsden: I have been listening to local parents and community members. A few issues stand out as frequent topics of discussion. Bullying/ Student safety: I feel one way to help improve this is to make sure we have open and honest communication between students and parents so that we understand what is going on in our schools and educate students on the emotional and physical effects of unsafe behaviors. I also want to make sure our district has an equitable and accessible education for all students. Often times the solution to this problem can be simple hands on outreach to make sure all students are aware of the amazing opportunities our district offers.
O’Keefe: The most important issue facing Northgate is the same issues facing all the districts of the Commonwealth – Finances. The school districts are in a crisis situation where the funding from the Commonwealth is out of touch with the mandates and the needs of the education system. This results in an undue burden on the local taxpayer.
While it may seem a short answer, advocacy is essential to the ongoing efforts to address this issue. An educated and experienced school board is the best advocate for our students and our community. As a member of the PSBA board, I am able to support this effort from the highest level. As a local board member, continued education of the community and encouragement to join the fight is essential.
Striking a balance in this delicate situation will require tough decisions both educationally and financially and simplistic answers will not be sufficient. It will take the insight of those that have been at the many meetings involved in discussing the issue, to bring change.
Rajakovic: Funding is the most crucial aspect of the board’s work. Everything depends on finding creative ways to change the current trajectory of rising costs and stagnant or falling revenue. I wish I could say this can be solved by simply cutting costs, but a school district is not a business. The final product is an educated student, not a bottom line profit. A long term solution requires the state to take aggressive action in the next couple of years to fully fund public education. The status quo is not sustainable for more than half of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and the rest are not far behind. Filling the funding gap with local tax hikes is also not sustainable. This is why I’ve been working to grow a grassroots network of parents and concerned residents that are willing to take the time to research information and respond to our state representatives and senators to make sure they’re fully aware of the school funding crisis and the urgency of taking action. Please join us on Facebook at Northgate Advocacy Group.
Smithey: We need to continue to improve the quality of the education we offer our children. Some of the earlier cuts disrupted our ability to provide the education they deserve. We’ve made significant changes recently that have led to real improvements. We’re providing a “fully enriched curriculum” to all the kids in the high school. We’ve invested in better literacy and math programs in the elementary schools. The College in High School program, developed in cooperation with CCAC, makes it possible for Northgate students to graduate high school with an Associates degree.
We are facing some significant financial challenges. We need to make careful choices about how to spend our money, while continuing to improve the quality of the education we provide to our kids. This will require some creativity on our part. We’ve applied for and been awarded grants and foundation support to defray the costs of many of our new programs. We are also considering how we might be able to reduce property taxes.
Stokes: Like so many others, I am frustrated with lack of funding and overall lack of interest that our state is showing to our school districts. No matter how the community feels, any improvement are very hard to achieve without more state involvement.
West: Funding. Money. Revenue. Whatever label we assign the budget, our school board needs to be responsible stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars.
Even with an increase in taxes, we will not close the gap between expenditures and revenue. In my mind, that gives us two choices: 1. Leave the future of our children’s education in the hands of the state. Or 2. Get creative in rectifying this issue. I have a number of ideas, some of which are below, and others which are still percolating.
1. Take the problem to the people and give them ample opportunity to help find the solution. We have brilliant, wise people in our district. Maybe they have not come forward with their solutions because they haven’t been asked.
2. Make sacrifices. Maybe we don’t have to do away with programs and services, but we should explore the idea of budget cuts. How can we creatively cut a percentage from each budget. What can we do to make up that percentage. Ideas from the stakeholders may just offer us the solution.
3. Creative solutions. Before we allot funding from our limited resources, we should reach out to sources that can help us, e.g., grants, multiple bids and negotiating those bids. We live in an instantaneous society. Everything happens in a hurry, and our abilities to sacrifice and be patient have been compromised.
4. There are some things the school board does not have control over. In that case, we must figure out a way to go around the obstacles that block our children’s path. Test scores are an issue. Our scores don’t look good, but as we work to improve them, I think we need to take an additional approach and “Tell the Rest of the Story.” I propose an all out effort to show the successes of our Northgate graduates/students – past and present. You’ve seen the banners affixed to main street light poles in other towns. They usually honor that community’s veterans with pictures and rank. I propose that we do the same, only we show our students. Do you know that our district has students who work on Broadway, in television, who own successful businesses, who have their PhDs, who are published authors? I propose we Tell the Rest of the Northgate Story!

Any other statement you’d like to make:
Lumsden: No answer.
O’Keefe: Throughout my service to our community, I have continued to do more than is required to assure I am giving the best of myself. In addition to involving myself in local, regional and state educations, I have sought out personal growth opportunities graduating from Leadership Pittsburgh in 2018 and the FBI Citizens Academy in 2017. I also achieved the distinction of selections as a PSBA Master School Director.
I am the person that is there for Northgate and that will continue to be there for Northgate as an ongoing member of the Northgate Board of School Directors
Rajakovic:Public Education is the most important issue we face as a community, a state, and a country. The fair, equitable, and quality education of our young people will have an effect on generations of people. I chose to dedicate countless hours to this cause so that everyone can experience the chance to advance and enrich their lives. I don’t believe in a system that picks and chooses the lucky ones by a zip code. A successful public education system should be the very best we have and made available to all students in all communities. There is no more important issue, and no more critical time to act. I appreciate your continued support and your vote on Tuesday, May 21.
Smithey: I hope I can continue to serve the students and families of Northgate.
Stokes: No answer.
West: No answer.