East Penn School Board candidates voice concerns, agreements at forum
- East Penn School Board candidates gathered Tuesday evening for a candidate forum held by the League of Woman Voters
- Candidates fielded questions about school safety, transparency, facilities expansion and other issues
- Four candidates — Tim Kelly, Angelic Schneider, Paul Barbehenn and Lawrence Huyssen — did not atttend
EMMAUS, Pa. — Six of the 10 East Penn school board candidates gathered Thursday at Lutheran Church of the Holy Spirit, near Emmaus High School, to answer questions from the community at a League of Women Voters-run candidate event.
Candidates in attendance included Shonta Ford, Joshua Levinson, Gabrielle Klotz, Jeffrey Jankowski, Kristofer DePaolo and Matt Mull.
Three candidates on the Republican-endorsed "Your Voice on the Board" slate — Angelic Schneider, Lawrence Huyssen and Paul Barbehenn — did not attend.
Nor did Tim Kelly, a registered Republican running on the Democrat-endorsed slate with Levinson, Jankowski, Ford and Klotz.
At the forum, candidates paraded their strengths — Jankowski's experience as an attorney, Klotz's experience in working with people as an insurance professional, Levinson's variety of career experiences, DePaolo's accounting and finance background, Mull's nonprofit development experience and Ford's experience administrating and establishing a budget in the mental health field.
They also addressed their concerns.
Questions, occasional consensus
With a few dozen community members in the audience, candidates fielded questions about topics such as facilities management, school safety, the need for diversity and inclusion initiatives, and public availability of data.
Candidates broadly agreed to the need to work with administrators and act as oversight and governance rather than activists.
Mull noted the "chaos" and wasted money and energy he has seen in other districts, such as Central Bucks, when boards attempt to "micromanage."
Regarding finances, many candidates acknowledged the limited wiggle room on school budgets because of the funds available.
"Ninety percent of our budget is our fixed costs," Jankowski said. "And, again, as others have said, we're subject to inflationary times.
"We need to balance what is needed versus what is wanted, and at the same time making sure that our students and our teachers are getting the resources they want, or that they need with without having a really negative impact on taxes."
Ford noted the restriction in funds, saying that Pennsylvania tends to spend more on incarcerated people in the state than on students.
"I don't think we spend enough," Ford said. "I think we do have to be fiscally responsible, but I think our kids are worth the investment."
Candidates sounded off on school safety. Klotz, Levinson, Ford and Jankowski spoke to the mental health component, noting changing threats and continued issues that remain after the coronavirus pandemic restrictions were lifted.
"I think post-COVID, if we're honest, we know our students came back and our teachers came back different," Ford said.
"I think there's the mental health component that needs to be addressed. What can we do to address some of the anger that we see out of our students post-COVID that maybe wasn't at that level?"
DePaolo insisted that safety and disciplinary issues have gotten worse in recent years, and there need to be consequences to address it.
"It's going to take the community getting involved, especially parents, so we're going to need teachers, the parents and the students to get involved in this, and really clean this up," DePaolo said.
At various points, candidates offered olive branches of transparency to the community, such as Mull saying there needs to be a return of community forums such as the one held related to COVID restrictions in 2021 and improved communication.
DePaolo felt the notification that Lower Macungie Middle School was on given a TSI list noticewas delayed, but Levinson disagreed, and Klotz said she plans quarterly community meetings and wants to make public data more searchable.
"There is a lot there, I think people aren't aware of everything that is there," Klotz said. "I think something I would like is to actually be able to make it searchable, like on like Word documents."
Students address the candidates
Four students and members of the Emmaus High School Activism Club, who said they were reached out to by the League, questioned the candidates about restrictions on books, strengths and weaknesses of themselves as candidates and the board as it stands.
In regard to book restrictions, the candidates' consensus was support for the current established policy involving the professionals in the library and administration to make those decisions.
Klotz noted the importance of being aware that many books removed from districts involve LGBTQ, social struggle and race themes, and how they often can become appropriate or inappropriate based on someone's political leanings.
Mull spoke of living in Kansas City in a predominantly white area, and how the community involvement with the growing Muslim population helped build library curriculum to be more inclusive.
Student Husrit Grewal asked the candidates about the need for ongoing renovations to address overpopulation concerns.
"One thing that we have to think about is that the picture that's likely going to be painted is that doing nothing is not an option," Levinson, the current school board president, said.
"We have to address this problem, we have to create the space, we have to do programmatic changes to make things better for the district and for the students. At the same time, we're balancing what the community is capable of supporting."
Candidates broadly spoke of wanting more information about what options could be in front of them, given an anticipated upcoming presentation of facilities improvements to manage the population growth in the district.
"My biggest concern is going to be looking at the facility as a whole," Mull said. "We are landlocked. You have, there's just no way to grow other than up and that becomes terribly expensive, as well.
"My biggest concern is, I'm excited to see the presentation, are we going to kick the can down the road for another 5-10 years and be dealing with an old structure again, or do we have a real sustainable 30-, 40-, 50-year outlook."
In an earlier question, Levinson and Mull agreed, noting that equitability needs to be taken into account for the whole district, not just the high school.
The students noted the candidates' civility at the forum, and the lack of vocal polarization, in contrast to concerns shared on social media related to the race.
"I appreciated how they were had different viewpoints, but we're still in agreement with each other about a lot of the key issues," student Brett Heier said.
"I think that's really important, and very heartening, especially when looking at a slate of candidates who are going to be on the board to know that there's a lot of things that they can agree with and come to the same conclusion."
They said a forum for members of the school community, such as teachers and students, is going to be held Friday.
Campaign rhetoric noted
Candidates Mull and DePaolo emphasized the partisan rhetoric surrounding the campaign, which continues to draw questions of transparency because of funding from national political actors and PACs.
"I've spent the last seven months talking to hundreds of teachers, students and citizens in this district, from all corners to hear what their current concerns are not to push a specific agenda," Mull said.
"I'm here tonight so that you can hear directly from me, and not from false narratives driven by people who seek to divide their district or turn a blind eye to real issues."
DePaolo said, "I would say to you get to know each of these candidates individually. Don't believe everything that's being spread on social media posts, whose loud voices are only there just to divide the community.
"I don't think there's a place for that. Often our slate gets accused of not responding to social media posts, most similar of 'Defend East Penn.' But it's rather difficult to reply to those sorts of posts when were blocked from it."
Other candidates and social media campaigns opposing DePaolo's and Mull's slate have alleged they support right-wing cultural wedge issues, such as those related to DEI initiatives and book restrictions because of activist donations and alleged connections to local right-wing education activist groups.