Come December, the winners of next week’s general election for Pennridge School Board will weigh the need to repair fractured relationships among board members, and between the board, students and community.
During the last few years, board meetings have been roiled by controversy over transparency, curriculum, race and gender, and library resources. Most important decisions fall along the same 5-4 divide with the board’s more conservative members having the advantage.
There are 10 candidates running for five seats on the board. On one side is the Pennridge Community Alliance, made up of five registered Democrats. On the other side is Protect Pennridge, a slate endorsed by the Pennridge Area GOP.
Regardless of who wins, there will be at least three new faces on the board next year. Incumbents Joan Cullen and Megan Banis-Clemens chose not to run for reelection, while board President David Reiss fell short in the primary. Incumbents Jonathan Russell and Ron Wurz, the only Democrat currently on the board, are seeking to retain their seats.
The Pennridge Community Alliance includes Carolyn Sciarrino, who has worked in foster care; Leah Foster Rash, a statistical analyst in the pharmaceutical industry; Chris Kauffman, a union electrician; Bradley Merkl-Gump, a middle school social studies teacher; and Wurz, a local business owner.
Merkl-Gump said the key to fixing the district’s relationships is improving communication and returning to a focus on student academics “as the center of everything we do.” The two sides have much in common, he said, “when we put our children and community first.”
Running-mate Rash said defining the common goal first “shows people how much they have in common, and helps reduce competition, politics, and feelings of being ‘attacked.”’
Proposed solutions are measured against the agreed-upon goal and the solutions make sense to the team and the people impacted, she said.
Rebuilding what has been destroyed will not be easy or quick, Sciarrino said.
“To start, we must elect leaders who will stop this tug-of-war, pitting one half of the community against the other while our kids suffer the consequences,” she said.
Wurz said he will make a commitment to improve communication with the community and board members “as this has been completely lacking over the last year. Our constituents and fellow board members deserve regular feedback and transparency, as silence only brings contempt.”
Kauffman said the divide has been caused by directors who “weaponize their personal ideologies.” To repair the fracture between board members and the community, Kaufman said he will welcome input from the administration, teachers, parents, students and community members.
“Too often our current board has hidden behind their email or lawyers and provided no response to community questions,” he said. “Our educators and district parents deserve a voice in the future of the schools their children attend.”
The Protect Pennridge 2023 slate includes Josh Hogan, a Marine veteran and computer networking architect; Barbara Vees, who worked in the printing industry and as a physical therapist before retiring; Bob Sellers, a retired marketing and facilities management professional; Jim York, a civil engineer; and Russell, a trial attorney.
If elected, Hogan said he “will worry less about controlling what other Board Directors do and worry more about what I can control, which is myself.” He pledged to “dutifully maintain open and cordial lines of communication with all of my fellow board directors, community members, and Pennridge staff to ensure that I take as much information into account as I possibly can. At the end of the day, I will make my decisions as one director on a board of nine, and when I find myself in the minority, I will honor the will of the board as being infinitely more important than my own individual vote.”
While there will likely always be a disagreement regarding what is “best for students,” Russell said, Policy 011 charges board members with “working together in a spirit of harmony, respect and cooperation, despite differences of opinion.”
In this regard, “the process” of reaching a decision, can be just as important as the decision itself, he said. “My hope is to engender a collaborative approach to board engagement, where all parties are invited to be heard, so that we can work with and not against one another. Unfortunately, in our current environment, it has become increasingly difficult to have a respectful disagreement over a policy without making it personal. It has been said that the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. It remains my hope that I will demonstrate “the practice of the better.”
Candidates Vees, York and Sellers did not respond to a request for comment.