Liz Mercogliano

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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