Election to decide Northgate seat

A resignation last spring by a member of the Northgate School Board created a situation fairly unique in the North Boroughs. Because the vacancy occurred too late for candidates to run in the primary election in May, the Allegheny County elections department turned to the two major political parties to nominate someone for the general election ballot.

The combined Democratic committees from Avalon and Bellevue nominated Michael Rajakovic of Avalon. The Allegheny County Republican Committee nominated Mark Helbling of Bellevue. Voters will choose between the two for a two-year seat on the Northgate School Board.

The Citizen posed several questions to both candidates. Their unedited responses are printed here:

Employment/Education

Helbling: Graduate Bellevue High School- 1975. U S Navy Seabees / Construction Battalion - 4 yrs. / Community College - 2yrs - Assoc Degree in Bus Management / Self Employed Contractor - Helbling Remodeling - 33yrs.

Rajakovic: I'm a Duquesne University School of Music Graduate. I'm the IT Manager at Smith Brothers Agency in Pittsburgh and an Adjunct Professor in the Media Arts Department at Robert Morris University.

Community Service

Helbling: Bellevue Boro Council - 14 yrs. Pres- Chamber of Commerce - 2 years

Rajakovic: I fully understand that a small district like ours with limited funding cannot succeed without the help of the community. My wife and I are very active volunteers in the schools. We've been chaperones for various school activities, picnics, and trips, as well as designing and helping to build a Maker Space project at Avalon Elementary with Principal Joseph Peacock. Our daughters also continue to get involved in Drama Club, Design and Build, Maker Faire Pittsburgh, Forensics Team, Strong Women Strong Girls, Chorus, Band, Cheerleading Clinic, and Girls on the Run. We are also members of the North Boroughs YMCA.

What do you see as the single greatest challenge facing the Northgate School District?

Helbling: Improving the ratings, academics and perception of the school by raising the expectations of our students and the entire staff and by adopting the standard mindset that failure to do so is unacceptable. With support all children are capable of reaching the higher academic standards that we must establish and those wishing to attend college should be college ready without exception.

We have to raise the bar without raising taxes, which will in turn promote more families to invest here therefor raising property values and increasing the school tax revenue without a tax increase.

Rajakovic: Money. The biggest issue for our district is continuing to fund the school with the current revenue base. This district has the most talented and dedicated teachers and staff that any district could dream of having. The individual student experience at Northgate rivals many of the most wealthy schools in the Pittsburgh region and may even surpass them in certain areas. But it all comes down to rankings and test scores and that's where we fall short. As a teacher, you don't get a “Most Improved Student Award” for bringing someone from an F to a C. The district doesn't get extra funding to compensate for our lowest performing kids. In order to succeed, we need to raise the standardized test scores and school ranking and that's a brutal fact. I'm committed to doing everything in my power to support the teachers and maintain a roof over their heads. This means making very careful decisions for every budget item from books to light bulbs to staffing to the plumbing. We don't have a cent to waste.

The ultimate solution to increasing revenue needs a long term outlook. Tax increases can't be the only answer. Now is the time to capitalize on Pittsburgh's recent and continuing job growth. Bellevue and Avalon are ideal communities for young families. We have a walkable business district, a walking school district, beautiful and affordable old houses, access to transportation, and a twelve-minute commute to downtown Pittsburgh. Not to mention, all located outside the city limits and the high city taxes. I will work toward a community wide effort to encourage investment in retail businesses and home renovations. I will propose a plan for promoting the boroughs and establishing communication with organizations related to new incoming residents and our region's realtors. The first thing home buyers ask is, “How's the school district?” even if they don't have children. When the school's reputation is good, so is the resale value of a home. This is directly related to the financial success of our schools. We need more families earning incomes, improving houses, and paying taxes. When that happens, tax revenues increase and our tax rates decrease.

How are you qualified to serve on the Northgate School Board?

Helbling: Invested lifelong resident with 5 children in the schools. Previous experience on council and Chamber and abilities to work with others to achieve the best results. Also extensive experience in the construction field which I will hope to be helpful with important upcoming decisions regarding many potential Facility upgrades

Rajakovic: I'm a first time candidate. I consider myself a regular guy. A husband and a Dad. Those are my most important roles. I'm not a seasoned politician. And I believe that's what makes me qualified. I bring fresh ideas with no agenda other than to do what's best for the whole district. I have worked in many fields over my career including, Commercial and Residential Electrician, Audio-Visual Installation, Recording Engineer, Film Post Production, Performing Musician, Information Technology Support, University Instructor, and as a hobby, I repair cars. Even the ones with “those computers.” These jobs have prepared me to be well rounded and knowledgeable in education, music and the arts, and facility maintenance, along with managing resources and budgets.
Why are you running for office?

Helbling: I'm running for office because of my love and dedication to our boroughs and my children who are in the schools and I welcome the opportunity to help contribute in any way I can to continue the ongoing goal of improving the schools.

Rajakovic: One of the biggest motivators for my candidacy came from watching my friends and neighbors move their kids out of our district. They kept hearing negative things about the district and they left. My wife and I stayed. We've been in living in this district for 18 years now. And you know what? Those folks who moved away missed out on a great district. I'm glad that we listened to the positive stories too. Because Northgate didn't just meet our expectations--it exceeded them. We found the teachers here are dedicated to connecting with each student. There are so many advantages to our small walking district. As parents, we are able to talk to the teachers and Principal almost daily. In fact, they were approaching us to talk about their exciting day with our kids. And best of all, our daughters are thriving. I'm a champion of this district. And I want to help get parents to stay and bring new families in so they can experience the unique and special qualities Northgate offers.

My family has had an amazing experience with the schools so far and I would like to help to make it even better now, and for the students that follow. My love for our communities combined with a passion for education has led me to the decision to get involved and get to work. As we all know, there's a lot to be proud of here and still much more work needed to continue to improve.

Any other statement you'd like to make?

Helbling: There are a lot of Good people at Northgate and I'm grateful to the teachers and staff who have taught and helped my children so far. If elected I will be pleased to work with all the current good people on the board to continue their good work with the goal to make Northgate all that it should be.

Rajakovic: I would like to thank the parents, teachers, and my potential administration colleagues that have shown such amazing support for me. So many of you have offered encouragement and the willingness to discuss in detail the current issues facing our district.

I'm committed to ensuring that Northgate becomes a destination for young families buying homes. We have an amazing opportunity to keep everything we love about our community and our school district by carefully taking the right next steps forward. Change will happen, and we want to have a voice and a clear plan in place to change for the better. A small district needs to spend every dollar carefully. I will find creative ways to fund facility maintenance and the improvements we so desperately need. I will stay focused on improving communication to our parents. I will do my best to serve the interests of our students, teachers, and parents so that all our youngest citizens may have an opportunity for the best possible start to their education. I'd appreciate your vote Tuesday, November 7th for Northgate School Director.