Concerns about transparency, finances and performance at the Woodland Hills School District drove a contentious primary election that could bring a majority-new board — and maybe the changes that some parents and community members want to see.

The district faces plunging test scores, steadily declining student enrollment and rising charter school costs, and has responded with furloughs and an operating budget deficit that has left some deeply dissatisfied with the administration.

Many parents have expressed discontent with the district’s degree of transparency in its decisions, an issue that was central in the primary election for the school board.

The district has six board seats on the ballot. Incumbents Carlton Scott and Robert Clanagan-Bey lost their primaries. Incumbents Terri Lawson and Laura Arthrell survived. New candidates Tamara Allen-Thomas, superintendent of Clairton City School District; Doneika Griffin, a district parent; and Melanie Timbers, a behavioral health therapist, won primaries.

Timothy Reed, a district parent and a web applications engineer, and incumbent Michael Rensland, who both cross-filed as Republicans, will also run in the general election in November. All board members serve four-year terms. Following the resignation of board member Marilyn Scott, a write-in candidate will be on the ballot for an open seat for a two-year term.

Overall, that means five of the nine board seats could be held by someone new come January 2024.

The five public schools in the district serve about 3,170 students. In recent years, the district has seen a steady drop in student enrollment. The state Department of Education predicts that Woodland Hills could lose about 500 students by 2032.

Coming turnover on its board follows a recent tax cut and teacher furloughs, as parents continue to ask for more public input from the district administration.

An increasingly opaque administration

The Woodland Hills School District, composed of 12 municipalities, was born as a result of a controversial court ruling in 1981, aimed at achieving racial desegregation. The ruling mandated the merger of the General Braddock district with the school districts of Churchill, Edgewood, Swissvale and Turtle Creek.

In 2019, the board voted in favor of a realignment plan to restructure the school buildings. Some parents did not agree with the changes, but they were able to participate in multiple public discussions.

Many parents, 10 of whom spoke to Rtvsrece, noted a lack of transparency over the last year, after the board scrapped public committee meetings. Distrust between some in the community and the Woodland Hills administration started in January 2022.

That’s when the board voted to hire Daniel Castagna as the interim superintendent. A month prior to that, the board had fired former superintendent James Harris without cause.

Castagna, the former superintendent of the West Mifflin Area School District, was at the center of controversies that included being fired from his post following driving-related criminal charges. He eventually won a lawsuit against the district, which was ordered to pay nearly $3 million. The district’s appeal is ongoing.

A year ago, the Woodland Hills board voted to hire Castagna as the superintendent with a five-year contract. Several parents spoke out during public comment at that meeting against the hiring. In the previous meeting, board President Carlton Scott had committed to a thorough search for a new superintendent, but the board hired Castagna without any apparent search.

Rtvsrece made multiple attempts to contact Castagna but he refused to respond. Scott also refused to answer questions.

Most victors in the primary election, including Griffin, Reed, Allen-Thomas and Lawson said they would prioritize open communication and transparency if elected to the board next year.

If elected, Griffin said her first priority would be to bring back committee meetings. She said the meetings served as an open dialogue without the two-minute time constraint on public comments of an agenda-setting or legislative meeting.

“Everything's always tagged as [non-public] executive session or you hear about it during the legislative meeting, but it's only five minutes of a topic. So for you to get more details, you have to go and research report documents or Google,” she said. “So it's a lot more work for community people to try and figure out what's happening.”

Some parents said the board’s numerous, private executive sessions may be violating the state Sunshine Act, and matters should be open for public discussion. Tim Madle, who has two children in the district, said there is no public discussion for most issues.

The Sunshine Act requires agencies to deliberate and take official action on agency business in an open and public meeting. It requires that meetings have prior notice and that the public can attend, participate and comment before an agency takes that official action.

Madle said the school board conducts much of its business in executive sessions, stating they are discussing personnel matters — one of the seven topics excepted from the act’s open meetings rules.

Lawson said as a board member she was not aware of any Sunshine Act violations, but thinks there should be more meetings and decisions outside of executive sessions.

Community members told Rtvsrece they are frustrated that:

  • Many items are added to the agenda within 24 hours of the meeting and voted on without much discussion.
  • Some parents said the administration told them they will not be invited to parent engagement meetings if they are critical of the district on social media.
  • Some parents allege they have been blocked on the district’s social media handles for pointing out mistakes.

Woodland Hills School District Superintendent Daniel Castagna (left) and school board President Carlton Scott at the Woodland Hills School Board meeting on May 17. (Photos by Alexis Wary/Rtvsrece)

An underachieving district

The district is also struggling with achievement scores. In 2022-23, three schools in the district ranked in the lowest 15% of schools in the state based on math and reading scores from annual assessments. As students choose other options, the district is seeing increasing charter school payments every year, and is now paying nearly $25 million in charter school tuition annually.

Allen-Thomas attributed low reading and math scores to the effects of the pandemic and said the district should look at its resources and come up with strategies to improve achievement scores. She also suggested improving pre-K programs and early support to ensure student success in the future.

In April, the district proposed to cut 38 staff members of which 16 positions were furloughs. The others were teachers who accepted early retirement.

In April’s agenda-setting meeting, Castagna said furloughs were necessary because the district was overstaffed following a decline in enrollment and was also running out of funding received during the pandemic.

Sara Raszewski, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Edgewood Elementary School, which her child attends, said the furloughs were unnecessary. “There is not a spare body in that building. When there's one teacher that is out, it is a huge scramble. It's very hard to get substitutes,” she said.

Board member Darnika Reed, who is not related to Timothy Reed, said she thought the process for furloughs lacked transparency as many staff members were not given clarity about the process and she did not feel she was fully informed as a board member.

Griffin said the district needs to improve its curriculum and not furlough staff, many of whom are reading specialists and special education teachers.

Financial decisions and impacts

In April, the board voted to lower taxes by half a mil, a move that many parents described as politically motivated to boost incumbent candidates before the primary election.

Madle said high taxes can discourage people from moving into the district, but they were not the reason for low enrollment at Woodland Hills. With a half-mil tax decrease, many residents with affordable homes will save less than $100, he added.

Arthrell, who voted in favor of the tax reduction, said she thinks it was a fiscally responsible decision because of the high tax rates in the region. “We have a lot of elderly people, and they need to be able to afford to keep their home,” she said.

At April’s agenda-setting meeting, Castagna said the district was able to lower taxes because they were right-sizing with furloughs in places where they were overstaffed. He added that even as student enrollment was declining, the district’s staff was increasing every year.

In May, though, after the furloughs, the board voted to create five staffing positions paying between $60,000 and $118,000.

Parents also said the district was contracting for services that were unnecessary or too costly. Some cited a forensic audit that the district had hired a firm to conduct but then changed firms, without discussion, at more than double the cost — using $140,000 of the district’s budget. The audit has not been completed.

In April’s budget presentation, Castagna said the district contracted many new services, including a robotics program and videography, to make use of the pandemic relief funds that will expire in 2024.

Timothy Reed said the district has also been unclear on the use of state-issued pandemic relief funds. “[With] previous boards, we would always identify the funds where money was coming from to pay for things,” he said, but he knows of no disclosure regarding the pandemic funds since August.

Darnika Reed, who called for the financial audit, said she wanted to ensure the district finances were in order as a new board member (she joined in 2021). She said community members had asked for an audit in the past, and she wanted to be proactive to make sure the district had money.

Natalie Kost Watson, a district parent, said she was happy the election results were not impacted by the tax reductions.

“The current board has shown disdain for the community,” she said. “And I think it's important for board members to remember that they are representatives of their neighbors and it's their job to better the community and the community's children.”

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at Rtvsrece. She can be reached at lajja@rtvsrece.com.

This story was fact-checked by Lucas Dufalla.

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a gift!

Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.

However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.

Your donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.

Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at Rtvsrece. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...