Yesterday, the League of Women Voters held the TE School Board candidate debate and the Tredyffrin Township Board of Supervisors candidate debate. I attended both debates. Although the debates were not shown live, they will be available for viewing (Comcast 2 and Verizon 24 channels) sometime after Monday’s Board of Supervisors Meeting. My guess is that there will be separate schedules for the two debates – check the township website for details.
Unfortunately, due to the lateness of scheduling, the school board debate was limited to a 1-hour format versus the 2-hour supervisor debate format. In speaking with the League of Women Voters representative, Mary Lou Dondero, before the debate, I learned more about their scheduling process. Ms. Dondero was none too pleased about the lateness of which the school board candidates debate was scheduled. When asked who was responsible for debate scheduling, it was interesting to learn that it not the local political party leaders that should ask but rather the candidates themselves who should contact the LWV. This is good information to know going forward.
Six of the eight school board candidates participated (due to prior commitments, Easttown Democrats Maryann Piccioni and Jean Kim were unable to attend). After each candidate presented a 2-minute opening personal statement, the moderator read questions, which audience members had anonymously submitted. Each question was answered by all candidates with the moderator giving each candidate the opportunity to be first to answer. Following the questions, each candidate had an opportunity for a 2-minute closing statement.
The LWV debate is not the traditional format that many of us recall from our high school/college days, but rather a Q&A forum. The downside of the LWV debate style is it does not allow for rebuttal by candidate. Case in point, the LWV repeatedly asked the candidates (both school board and supervisors) to respond to the specific question yet several candidates answered the LWV questions with accusations against their opponents. Due to the LWV format, it made it difficult for the candidates to defend the accusations.
Everyone that follows Community Matters knows that I fought for a school board candidate debate. Important school district issues surfaced this year, making for a contentious situation for all involved — the Board, administration, employees and the public. For my efforts in moving the school board debate forward, some questioned my agenda. If I had an agenda, it was simple – voters need to ‘know’ the candidates and candidates need to have the opportunity to deliver their views on issues, before Election Day. Hindsight being 20/20, I’m actually glad that I had nothing to do with the school board debate other than to attend. I cannot be accused of unfairness or a bias in the organization of the debate – candidates were not coerced; they own their words.
For those of us who regularly attend and/or watch the school board meetings, there was little surprise in most of the audience questions. As a result of contentious school board meetings this year, many of the questions related to communication, trust, transparency and morale issues, — asking what would the candidates do to ‘improve’ the current situation, if elected.
Five of the six candidates spoke of the need to improve communication and several of them mentioned morale issues. School board director Rich Brake (R), who is seeking re-election, accepted that there have been communication issues between the Board and the residents and spoke of the need to improve the dialogue, suggesting town hall meetings. Brake believes that the negativity issues need to be handled directly and wants to bring people together. It was refreshing to have a current elected official acknowledge the problems, accept responsibility and suggest ways for improvement.
With a similar response, Brake’s opponent Scott Dorsey (D) supports greater transparency and open dialogue between the public and the Board, suggesting a public advisory board. Dorsey spoke out against the Board’s use of the consent agenda and suggested its use should be reconsidered. The consent agenda is designed for routine items, such as meetings minutes. However, as Dorsey explained, the consent agenda takes away the public’s right to question an issue. The consent agenda can bury an item that the Board does not want publically discussed. In my opinion, in 2013 we saw the misuse of the consent agenda by the school board for the hiring of Andy Chambers and the inclusion of administrator raises and bonuses. If the hiring of the former police chief as the District’s security expert or giving raises to the administrators was such a good idea, why not openly discuss them in a public school board meeting, than than buried in a consent agenda. Dorsey was the only candidate to address the consent agenda issue.
Easttown Republicans Doug Carlson and Virginia Lastner spoke favorably on the topic of communication, wanting to see greater resident participation and awareness of District issues. Lastner wants the employees to feel that they can speak candidly and not risk their jobs by speaking out. Referring to her background and prior elected positions in Connecticut, Lastner is a proponent of the “listen and learn” concept.
Tredyffrin school board candidate Pete Connors (R) remarks on this topic included “morale starts with leadership”. Connors believes that there exists a trust issue in the community and proposed an advisory citizens group. He specifically cited the threat of outsourcing and the proposed demolition of the tennis courts where the Board was forced to reverse their decisions due to the public. Concerned about the Board’s lack of transparency that has decisions being made in private, Connors promoted a greater sharing of information with the public.
The consistent theme from Brake, Dorsey, Connors, Lastner and Carlson was the need for the school board to provide greater communication opportunities for the public. Dorsey, Brake and Connors took it a step further and spoke of changing the negative tone, improving trust and respectfulness and supporting the creation of some type of citizen advisory group.
As president of the school board, Kevin Buraks (D) was center front to the confrontational monthly and committee school board meetings of 2013 yet did not agree with the other candidates on District morale or communication issues. Unmistakably Buraks is disconnected to the important issues raised by his fellow school board director Rich Brake and by Democrat Scott Dorsey. At times, it was hard to believe that Buraks and Brake are both on the same school board or that Buraks and Dorsey are representing the same local political party.
Responding to a question, Buraks stated clearly that there are no morale issues in the District. He further commented that if there were moral issues in the District, the employees would leave. On the issue of communication, his stance is that the school board already provides an open forum, is transparent and that through emails, website, etc. all District information is available. He pointed out that the Board listened to the public about the demolition of the tennis courts and the outsourcing of the aides and paras and reversed their decision. In other words, according to school board president Kevin Buraks, there is no trust, respect or communication issues in the school district. He backed these assertions by continuously pointing to T/E school district’s rankings as his proof.
So overall, was there any new ‘news’ or any surprises learned from the school board candidate debate for me? Yes and no. Because I regularly attend the school board meetings and understand most of the issues, some of the information was not new. However, I did not know the background and views of Easttown residents Virginia Lastner and Doug Carlson, so appreciated the opportunity to learn more about them. I know candidates Pete Connors and Scott Dorsey and both have previously spoken out about the District’s communication and transparency issues, so was not surprised by their responses.
The surprise was in the school board incumbents performances. Perhaps it is because Kevin Buraks is an attorney, but his stance during the debate was not to back down or take responsibility for any of the public’s perceived ‘miss-steps’ of the school board or of his term as the president. I guess as an attorney, you make a calculation and then stand by your decision, using the mantra of no ‘do-overs’ allowed. Taking the approach that because the TE School District is highly ranked, Buraks wants the voters to believe it is a result of his leadership. Other the other hand, incumbent Rich Brake took a completely different approach and surprised me with his candor. Portraying himself as somewhat of a school board outsider, Brake acknowledged that there needs to be greater dialogue with the public and more openness. Whereas Buraks would have the public believe that everything is cohesive and agreeable among the school board directors, Brake paints a very different picture.
These are my personal observations from the school board debate, I welcome others who attended to contribute their opinion. If you did not attend the debate, I would encourage you to watch in on online when it is available.