Incumbent School Board candidate Roberta Marcus likes to share "The Blueberry Story" to underscore what she sees as the value of public education.
It goes like this: Jamie Robert Vollmer, an executive at an ice cream company that became famous in the 1980s for its blueberry flavor, once spoke to a gathering of educators, telling them they needed to run their schools more like businesses.
But Vollmer, she said, got an earful from a teacher who reminded him that public schools, unlike the ice cream business, can’t only choose the best blueberries.
“We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude and brilliant,” the teacher said. “We take them with attention deficit disorder, junior rheumatoid arthritis, and English as their second language.”
Marcus, 58, of South Whitehall, lights up as she tells this story because public education is her passion.
A Republican, she is seeking her fifth term on the Parkland School Board in the May 17 primary. She has cross-filed, which means she will be on both the Democratic and Republican ballots.
Marcus' public involvement began when a neighbor circulated a petition calling on the school board to stop transferring students. Up to that point, the district regularly transferred students between school buildings to avoid increasing budget costs and raising taxes. She said students were missing out on having neighborhood schools and consistency in their education.
She attended the school board meeting when the petition was presented. "It was a pivotal moment," Marcus said. “I started going to all the school board meetings. I got hooked. I started to learn about public education.”
As her son and daughter grew, Marcus became involved in the Parent-Teacher-Organization and the Parkland Community Advisory Council -- parents attend meetings to learn about the district -- and went to school board meetings for 10 years before deciding to first seek a board seat in 1995.
When Richard Sniscak becomes Parkland’s superintendent on July 1, she will have served with four superintendents during her time on the board.
Marcus was president of the board in 1998, 2001 and 2003. She also served as president of Pennsylvania School Boards Association in 2010, after holding other association positions from 2007-2009. She is one of only 19 master school board members, a special accreditation earned from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
Marcus holds a bachelor's from Queens College of the City University of New York. She majored in political science and minored in elementary education. She has served on the boards of various community organizations, and is involved with Renew Lehigh Valley and the Children’s Coalition of the Lehigh Valley.
“I have a very supportive family that’s given me the opportunity to serve the community,” she said, adding, “It’s about the kids ... It’s a passion that I’ve given a great deal of commitment to. For me, this is where I’ve decided to put my experience and my strength.”
But serving on a school board in current budgetary times is not easy. The Parkland School District is facing a nearly $1 million budget gap for the 2011-2012 school year under Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed state budget. School officials had anticipated cuts to basic education funding but were blind-sided by other cuts to charter school reimbursements and Social Security subsidies.
“They’ve taken the money away from children,” Marcus said. “This speaks to the fact that public education isn’t valued as it should be.”
Parkland’s management team already is “extremely conservative,” Marcus said, so it is difficult to find areas to cut in the budget.
However, she said, “Everything is on the table” in deliberations about where to find cuts in the local school budget, including staff attrition, fuel and electricity costs, paper usage and water coolers – “nickels and dimes.”
The district is only allowed by law to raise taxes by 1.4 percent, but it received permission, or special exceptions, from the state that would allow it to raise taxes 3.88 percent.
Marcus supported the request for exceptions to raise taxes above the index. The economy has affected revenues, she said, adding that there were triple the number of residential and commercial reassessments last year in the district that affected the amount of property taxes that Parkland collects.
On other issues:
-- Merit Pay
Gov. Tom Corbett has spoken in favor of merit pay, based on performance, for public school teachers.
Marcus doesn’t believe merit pay is a viable issue.
“We offer a fair salary, optimum working conditions” in Parkland, she said. “I don’t know how you can correlate a test score with a teacher’s performance,” adding that there are too many variables.
Gov. Corbett supports the use of vouchers, using the per-pupil subsidy for public education so that a student can instead attend a different public, private or religious school.
Marcus said the state should not be taking money away from public education.
Instead, she said, the state should be focused on helping “the poorest of the poor” in districts throughout Pennsylvania. “We are not addressing poverty in this country,” she said. “That’s the issue.”
Parkland School District is challenged by the fact that its demographics are changing, Marcus said. There is an increasing number of socioeconomically disadvantaged students, she said, demonstrated by the number of free and reduced school lunches.
Nevertheless, she said, Parkland must serve “all the blueberries” in its district. “We do it willingly and hopefully.”