Jenny Wessels

T/E School Board Candidates Asked What’s Most Important Issue – Responses from Tredyffrin Democratic candidates & Easttown candidates, no Tredyffrin Republican candidate responses

We know that local elections are important and that the choices that you make on Election Day, Tuesday, November 8 will help determine the future of our community.  As a way to better understand the school board candidates and what they value as the most important issues facing the district, I sent a three-part question to all Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board candidates. Previously, I had received and posted the responses from Easttown school board candidates – Republican Pete Motel and Democrat Craig Lewis.

Following the League of Women Voters debate on October 25, I received responses to the question from Tredyffrin Democratic school board candidates.  However, the Tredyffrin Republican school board candidates declined to participate.

Below is the question and the responses from Tredyffrin’s Democratic school board candidates Karen Cruickshank, Jerry Henige, Scott Dorsey and Jenny Wessels.   Following their responses, I have reposted the responses from Easttown’s school board candidates Pete Motel (R) and Craig Lewis (D)

It’s a shame that the Republican school board candidates in Tredyffrin Twp declined to respond. One of two reasons — either the Republican school board candidates in Tredyffrin didn’t see any value in my question (and their answers) or they didn’t see value in Community Matters.  But then two of the Republican school board candidates (Tara LaFiura, Region 1 and Liz Mercogliano, Region 2) decided against participating in the League of Women Voters debate so perhaps I should not take their decision as personal.

Dear School Board Candidates:

Local elections are important.  In an attempt to inform voters for Election Day, as a candidate for the TE School Board, I hope you will participate in the following Q&A on Community Matters.

In 200 words or less, please respond to the following question. Incorporate all three parts of the question into your response and please be specific.  School board candidate responses will list on Community Matters in the order that they are received.

(1) In your opinion, what is the single most important issue facing the Tredyffrin Easttown School District?
(2) If you were elected, what would you do to help solve or improve this issue?
(3) The Tredyffrin Easttown School District needs problem-solvers; what in your background or job experience qualifies you to help solve this important issue?

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Karen Cruickshank
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Region 1

The most important issue facing the T/E School District is our fiscal outlook.

The School District faces a 5.5 million dollar budget gap for 2012 and increases to 17 million in 2015.

State controlled pension obligations will increase from 4.7 million in 2011 to 13.3 million in 2015. In 2001 state legislators gave themselves, state employees, and public school employees a big increase in pension pay outs. These increases were never OKd by local school districts or the public.

The second budget factor is a loss of 6.5 million in revenues since 2006 from commercial and residential real estate reassessments.

In response to fiscal issues the School District has cut 10 million dollars out of its budget. Our teacher’s union gave up half of their raises for this year and our non-teaching union gave up all of their raises.

If re-elected I will work with legislators, unions, administrators, and citizens to find solutions to fiscal issues. I will look for ways the District can become more efficient without hurting the quality of our schools.

A trained higher education professional, I understand the issues facing education. I am trained in conflict negotiation and am a proven consensus builder.

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Jerry Henige
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Tredyffrin Region 1

We have great schools that contribute to the wonderful quality of our neighborhoods. However, our great schools are facing serious financial challenges. For example, we are losing almost $3M a year due to property reassessments and this amount will continue to grow. And, based on bad decisions in Harrisburg, the amount the school district is being asked to pay into the pension funds will grow from $3M last year to $13.4M over the next 4 years.

At the same time Kevin Mahoney, the financial expert on the school board, is retiring leaving a critical skills gap. The financial challenges are too great to leave this gap unfilled. I believe that with my 30+ years of management and financial experience, I am the candidate that is best suited to fill this gap.

We need a school board that can work as a team to focus on potential solutions. We need to partner with parents and taxpayers, teachers and other school districts, our townships and employers to put pressure on Harrisburg to address the pension problem.

We need a school board that is prepared to work diligently to find common ground with all these constituencies. We need to be willing to try alternative approaches to education that may be more effective than what we are doing today. And we need to consider the plight of the retiree on fixed income, the family with a member who has lost a job.

I believe that I have the financial skills, temperament and energy to manage the serious financial challenges facing the school board.

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Scott Dorsey
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Tredyffrin Region 2

Today our district is facing a financial storm that threatens the excellence that we have come to expect from our schools.   $6.5 million in lost property tax revenues because of reassessments, and other revenue shortfalls will devastate programs that are vital to many average students.  Co-curricular and extra-curricular programs are also in danger. I have proven track record as a non- profit Administrator who is fiscally responsible, and I am personally opposed to the Earned Income Tax.

My background as an educator and community leader has inspired my passion for investing in children’s success. In response to TESD’s budget challenges, I propose to:

  • Collaborate with the public and private sector for solutions that combine best educational and business practices that will benefit every child
  • Fight to hold the line in the upcoming teachers’ contract
  • Find creative solutions to keep sports and other after-school activities from being cut
  • Work with the Unions to lobby the state legislature to fix the pension system
  • Work with the Township to build grant-funded sidewalks that could reduce transportation costs

I have deep experience as an administrator who has helped lead multi-million dollar non- profit organizations from the red to sound fiscal footing.   I am a skilled consensus builder.  I am the only school board candidate who has not sought union endorsement because I believe full transparency is required in the upcoming contract negotiations. I will lead with integrity, fiscal responsibility, and a dedication to investing in our children’s success.

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Jennifer Lightman Wessels
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Tredyffrin Region 2

The most important issue facing our school board is managing our limited financial resources while minimizing the impact on our educational program.  I will be a voice on the board committed to protecting our outstanding educational program.

To lessen the financial strain on our district, I will lobby Harrisburg for legislative reform.  I will use my training as a labor attorney to achieve a successful result during contract negotiations with the teachers’ union in 2012.  I will be open to innovative ideas, such as pursuing new income streams from advertising and private funding.  I will not, however, support the implementation of new taxes such as the Earned Income Tax (EIT) and I would oppose any move to enact an EIT in Tredyffrin Township.

As a parent of two young children in our school district and having served as the President of the PTO at New Eagle Elementary School for two years, I understand and care deeply about the issues facing our school district.  As a taxpayer, I understand the importance of balancing these concerns with fiscal restraint and responsibility.

Among all the school board candidates, I am unique in that I will bring both a parent’s perspective and a lawyer’s skill to this job.  I look forward to the opportunity to serve.

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Pete Motel
Republican Candidate for School Board Director, Easttown Township

The biggest challenge facing the T/E School District is maintaining the quality of education it delivers during the current economic downturn.

District revenue is down by millions of dollars primarily due to two reasons:

  1. Property tax assessment appeals resulting in decreased real estate tax collection;
  2. Decreased home sales resulting in decreased real estate transfer tax.  This is coupled with steep increases in the state required contribution to the state pension system – now millions above the contribution required last year.

Great efforts have been made by the Board to balance the District’s budgets without significantly effecting educational opportunities. The Board has implemented cost containment through administrative salary freezes, implementation of self-insured health insurance and more efficient scheduling of staff time.

With the economic recovery projected to take another several years, T/E Boards need to continue to cut expenses without reducing core educational programs.  Success will require detailed knowledge of District operations and proven leadership skills.

My experience on the T/E Board as Committee Chairs and past Board president, coupled with my professional experience as a small business owner, demonstrate that I have the proven skills to help guide the District through the next few years of difficult budgets.

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Craig Lewis
Democratic Candidate for School Director, Easttown Township

TE’s biggest issue is irresponsible budgeting.

My opponent, republican Dr. Motel, has mandated 5 study halls per week in Conestoga High (12% instruction reduction) AND a 20% increase in students per teacher.  TE was the 4th best high school in Pennsylvania.  Losing this rank will result in a 10% home price decline, reduced college acceptance, scholarships and earning potential.

  • My opponent diverted education money to purchase, tear-down and build non-educational facilities wasting millions of dollars.

TE’s projection shows out-of-control budget shortfalls.  Starting with the current year they are:

-$777,000
-$3,909,000
-$7,925,241
-$11,862,000
-$15,450,000

My fiscally conservative priorities to prevent this catastrophe are:
Stop wasteful spending

  • Halt all construction and real-estate acquisitions.
  • The teacher pay was cut and workload increased 20%.  Aggressive cost reduction has to look at all other areas.
  • Halt no-bid contracting

Preserve our premier school ranking

  • Repeal the 5 study-hall mandate.
  • Respect our staff; balance their workloads.
  • Initiate summer enrichment programs for profit.

Retirees deserve school tax relief – My opponent never did this, I will.

I have twenty years of experience in setting goals, developing strategies, creating and managing budgets, both departmental and enterprise wide.  This required creative approaches, engaging individuals from different departments to drive successful outcomes.

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Why Must the Campaign Season be ‘Politics as Usual’ . . . Please, Can it be the Truth?

Truth allows you to live with integrity. Everything you do and say shows the world who you really are. Let it be the Truth. ~ Oprah Winfrey

Is it ‘all in the name of politics’ these days that candidates seeking public office can simply fabricate information and then claim it as a truth? Is that OK or just what we have come to expect during campaign season?

Depending on where you live, as a Tredyffrin Township resident, you may have a received a negative political mailer today from the Tredyffrin Township Republican school board candidates. This mailer immediately took me back to two years ago, when as a supervisor candidate and new to politics, my fellow supervisor candidates, Eamon Brazunas and Sean Moir and I were the target of a similar negative mailer.

I will never forget the feeling of distress at reading misleading and false information contained in that 2009 campaign mailer about myself. And it is for that reason that I must use this forum to speak out on today’s Republican school board candidate mailer.

The words on the mailer from the Tredyffrin Republicans state . . . “Tredyffrin’s Democrat School Board team wants to implement an income tax” and  “. . . the Democrat Team for School Board has begun the process of creating a new tax – an earned income tax”. These words are not only misleading, they simply are not accurate and hurtful.

Previously I have written about my disappointment at the yellow ‘No EIT’ Republican signs.  I believed that the school district’s tax study group should present their ‘pros and cons’ of an earned income tax at next week’s public meeting without premature judging from a political party.  OK, I get the idea behind the signs – they present an effective way to make it look like the Democrat candidates are ‘for’ an EIT without having to actually say it. Although we did hear all supervisor candidates state, at Monday’s League of Women Voters debate, they were opposed to an earned income tax (and that included the Democrat candidates).

So, as I read the words on the Republican school board candidate mailer, I ask where did any of them read or ever hear a Democratic school board candidate say that he or she wants to implement an earned income tax.  It is one thing to imply something cleverly on a political sign, but stating a falsehood as the truth is something different.  It is particularly disheartening that this is a mailer for the ‘school’ board election . . . don’t we want to set the right example for our children?

I support the value of giving voice to the community but not for those who choose to further divide us.  Shouldn’t we want better for our community? Tredyffrin Township and its residents deserve the truth. I know several of the Republican school board candidates personally — and I believe that they are better than this mailer represents.

Community Matters did not exist two years ago so I did not have many options to ‘balance the scale’ after I was the targeted with misleading and false information during the campaign.  Because of my experience, I am giving the four Democratic school board candidates – Karen Cruickshank, Jerry Henige, Scott Dorsey and Jenny Wessels an opportunity to respond to the Republican mailer on Community Matters.  If they choose to respond, I will post their comments.

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Campaign Mailer side 1

Campaign Mailer side 2

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T/E School Board Candidate Debate . . . Missing Two Republican Candidates and No EIT Question!

The T/E School Board candidate debate was held last night.  The League of Women Voters used the same format as the night before at the Tredyffrin Township supervisor candidate debate.  Each of the eight candidates gave a 2-minute self-introduction, followed by answers submitted by audience members.  Answers by the candidates were limited to 1-1/2 min. and the evening ended with 2-minute closing remarks.  Each school board candidate was asked the same question with the initial question rotating through the candidates.

There were two empty seats on the dais for the debate – the candidates names Tara LaFiura (R) and Liz Mercogliano (R) were listed but no candidates. In the moderator’s opening remarks, she explained that the League of Women Voters had found out last-minute (the day before) that these two candidates would not be participating.  LaFuira is a candidate for Region 1 and Mercogliano is hoping to represent Region 2 on the school board. Hope that they both candidates are OK, but the empty seats with their names was somewhat strange.

The school board candidates who participated last night from Tredyffrin included incumbent Jim Bruce (R) Region 1; incumbent Karen Cruickshank (D) Region 1; Scott Dorsey (D) Region 2; Kris Graham (R) Region 2; Jerry Henige (D) Region 1 and Jenny Wessels (D) Region 2.  Easttown school board candidates were incumbent Pete Motel (R) and Craig Lewis (D).

Similar to the supervisor candidate debate, many responses from the school board members contained a repetitive theme; often showing little differences between the Republican and Democratic candidates, with one glaring exception.

It was obvious that the first time candidates had done their homework and could hold their own against the incumbents.  As a current PTO president, Jenny Wessels spoke of her relationship working with parents, teachers and staff at New Eagle Elementary.  Wessels is a labor and employment attorney and believes that her legal training, talents and collaborative spirit can be an asset to the school district during the upcoming teacher negotiations.

Candidate Kris Graham recently retired from the Radnor School District after 40 years of teaching. It is Graham’s belief that her unique background working with teachers and school administrators could prove  an asset with teacher contract negotiations locally and in Harrisburg.  Incumbent Pete Motel from Easttown has served on the school board for several years.  As a small business owner (a physician with 15 employees), Motel spoke of understanding hard work and offered that he will continue to work tirelessly to make the school district, “a better place one day at a time”. Motel commented that Conestoga High School is a very successful high school, placing third in the state on a state-wide test.  He reported that CHS is one of the top math/science high schools in America and that only Masterman in Philadelphia scored above Conestoga in the math/science high school rankings.

Incumbent Jim Bruce has served as a school board director since 2002 and has a strong desire to continue to be the voice for the people that he represents.  He and his wife have lived in the district for 41 years, their children went through the TESD and now he has two grandchildren in the school district. Current school board president Karen Cruickshank is passionate about education and community service.  As an incumbent, she spoke of understanding educational trends and the depth of financial commitment of the school district.  Scott Dorsey spoke of his experience as a successful administrator; taking nonprofit organizations operating in the red and making them profitable.  He stated that he will work diligently to bring people together and will work collaboratively with the unions.  Dorsey cited his work as a Baptist minister as an example of his dedication to service.

With the serious financial challenges facing the school district and the departure of Kevin Mahoney from the school board, candidate Jerry Henige believes that he can fill that gap, citing that he will be a financial steward.  Jerry believes that his financial skills, temperament and energy will make for a good school board director.

Easttown candidate Craig Lewis claims that the T/E school district is “going the wrong way”.  From his opening remarks, responses to questions and in his closing remarks, Lewis was the only candidate who appeared on a mission . . . to discredit the current school board and their past actions.  Lewis repeatedly made personal jabs at his opponent Pete Motel.  It did not seem to matter what the question was, all roads for Lewis seemed to lead back to Motel, and what he viewed as the many mistakes of the school board in recent years.  Lewis cited statistics throughout the debate but I was not able to distinguish their accuracies.  (As an aside, I received an email from Kevin Grewell, former school board member who attended the debate . . . his comments follow this article and address some of the statistics cited by Lewis.)

There was an interesting mix of questions from audience members.  One question asked the candidates their feelings about arts, music and physical education and what would they do to preserve these ‘extras’.  Graham pointed out that these extras are often the first things that come under scrutiny and spoke of TEMPO members that came out in defense of the fine arts programs and why it is needed.  Several candidates spoke of the annual musical at Conestoga high school and how with parent and community support, the play is self-sustaining each year.

On the topic of ‘extras’, Wessels was particularly passionate and disappointed about the ‘cutting of the foreign language program’ in the elementary schools and will not see that happen to art, music and phys ed.  Henige cited the need for the district to continue to foster students imagination and creativity and these programs need to be preserved.  As a school board member for 10 years, Bruce has been committed to protecting the arts.  He mentioned that TESD is one of the few schools in the system that has a social/emotional curriculum.

On the question of outsourcing of custodial services — Appreciating that many of the custodial staff are members of the community and understanding that there are tough decisions ahead; all the candidates support finding solutions that will keep the custodial services in-house.

The question that received the most passionate responses was on the subject of school vouchers and Gov. Corbett’s public education plans.  Not one candidate was in favor of the school voucher program.  Candidates did not believe that the school voucher program would bring strength to public schools, just the contrary – that vouchers will dismantle the public school system. Cruickshank went as far as suggesting Gov. Corbett visit TESD and see for himself the great teachers, administration and services.  She proposed using TESD as a ‘model’ for other school districts . . . not a bad idea.

Pension obligations are set to increase by $9 million over the next 4 years – the question to the candidates was what cuts would you make to balance the budget?  With the exception of Lewis, I think every candidate pointed the finger to the state capital as the mea culpa for the statewide pension problems. Several of the candidates mentioned that the financial crisis facing the local school districts requires more involvement with legislators in Harrisburg and that it will require the efforts of school board members, residents and teachers for changes to occur.  Lewis did not exactly share these sentiments.  It is his viewpoint that it is not fair to say that Harrisburg will ‘fix it’ – that the problem needs to be fixed locally.

It was unbelievable but there was no debate question on the Earned Income Tax (EIT) topic. Not one question, although it was my understanding from the League of Women Voters that had time permitted, the next debate question would have been an EIT question.

Here’s the comment received from Kevin Grewell following last night’s school board candidate debate:

I just attended the League of Women Voters school board candidates forum. I was not going to weigh in on this topic, as Pete Motel is my brother-in-law and I served with him on the TE school board from 1999 -2007, but I have to correct some serious factual errors in Mr. Lewis’ comments. (The comments made by Mr. Lewis at the forum closely followed his comments on this blog). Here are my comments:

1) TE’s biggest problem is not “irresponsible budgeting” or “wasteful spending” as Mr. Lewis claims. In fact, TE is one of the best run districts in Pennsylvania. Here are the facts:

* On a list of all 501 school districts in Pennsylvania, where #1 has the highest school property taxes and #501 has the lowest, TE ranks 467. There are only 34 districts with lower taxes than TE. Great Valley ranks 436, Radnor ranks 395, and Lower Merion ranks 392.
(PA Dept. of Education Equalized mills 2009-10, the latest year available)

* In FY 2011 per student spending in TE is $15,992. Great Valley is $17,803, Radnor $21,281, and Lower Merion is $28,141.

* TE’s debt for all of that allegedly wasteful construction is approximately $58 million. Percentage of millage to service that debt is currently 6.27%. Twelve years ago it was 6.15%. The PA Dept. of Education’s latest figures for debt are for 2009-10. The total debt at the end of that fiscal year for our competitive districts was:

T/E $53,829,669
Great Valley $89,667,632
Radnor $109,349,189
Lower Merion $321,962,624
(PA Dept. of Education website)

2) There is not any “no-bid contracting” as Lewis claims. State law mandates all contracts over $10,000 must be competitively bid. For small contracts, there are vendors/services vetted through a state consortium.

3) The Pennsylvania constitution prohibits treating one class of taxpayers differently than any other. Lewis is clearly not informed on this issue. The state legislature has been working on this for many years with very limited success, beginning with Act 50 in 1998, Act 72 in 2004 and finally Act 1 of 2006. The only thing the legislature could come up with is a complex scheme of funding “Homestead Exemptions” with gambling revenue. The TE school board has no legal authority to tax seniors or retirees differently than other taxpayers.

4) Budget deficits are caused by the state created and state controlled pension system and the economic downturn, not by irresponsible spending by the TE board. In his forum comments tonight, Lewis himself admitted that school districts all across the state are in the red. Exactly . . . . .

It is fine to run for office, but there is no excuse for going negative with such blatant disregard for the facts.

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Countdown to Primary Election May 17 – T/E School Board Candidates Resumes

The Pennsylvania Primary Election is 3 weeks from tomorrow — Tuesday, May 17, 2011. As I previously announced on April 11, I will provide all the candidates resumes on Community Matters. I hope that by providing in-depth information on local candidates will encourage increased voter turnout for the Pennsylvania Primary Election. Historically, voter turnout in Tredyffrin Township has been low for the Primary Election, (particularly in a non-presidential year) — here’s hoping that trend will change on May 17. 

Currently serving School Board members Karen Cruickshank, Jim Bruce and Pete Motel are seeking re-election. Two of the current school board members, Debbie Bookstaber and Kevin Mahoney have decided not to see re-election.

The School Board candidates for the Primary Election are listed below.  (Click on candidates names to read their resumes). It is my understanding that all school board candidates have cross-filed as both Republican and Democratic candidates. Easttown candidate Craig Lewis was contacted and invited to supply his resume but he failed to respond. If Mr. Lewis would like to have his resume included with the other candidate resumes, I would be happy to add it.

Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board Candidates:

  • Easttown, Region 3: Peter Motel (R) **
  • Easttown, Region 3: Craig Lewis (D) No Response from Candidate

**  Incumbent

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