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Hot-button national issues dominate Southern Lehigh school board candidates forum

So Leigh school board forum
Sarah Mueller
Southern Lehigh School Board Candidates (left-to-right) Eric Boyer, Paul Deebel, Doug Durham, Emily Gehman, Tim Kearney, Candi Kruse and Melissa Torba

  • League of Women Voters held a forum for Southern Lehigh school board candidates
  • The Democratic ticket and two on the Republican ticket participated
  • The slates debated about bathroom restrictions

U. SAUCON TWP., Pa. - LGBTQ students and bathrooms once again dominated the debate for candidates running for the Southern Lehigh school board.
Seven candidates faced off in a forum Tuesday night at the Penn State Lehigh Valley campus held by the League of Women Voters of Lehigh County.

The race has created strange bedfellows. The Democratic nominees are Melissa Torba, Eric Boyer, Tim Kearney, Candi Kruse and school board incumbent Emily Gehman. However, Torba is the only registered Democrat on the slate; the others are Republicans who crossfiled and won the Democratic nominations.

All five Democratic nominees took part in the forum alongside two contenders from the Republican ticket, Doug Durham and Paul Deebel. Three Republican nominees, Lance Tittle, Danelle Roy and James Pica, did not take part.

There are five open positions on the Southern Lehigh School District's nine-member board; the results in November could mean a dramatic shift in school board policies depending on the election's outcome.

The Republican slate call themselves the “true Republicans” and have released a controversial pledge vowing to enact certain policies if elected, including restricting trans students from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity, prohibiting teachers from hanging items like gay pride flags in their classrooms and requiring district staff to notify parents of student requests to go by different pronouns while at school.

A member of that slate, Deebel said he believed making sure only biological girl students use girls' bathrooms was a safety issue. He said parents had come forward to report “incidents,” of boys using girls’ bathrooms, but said after the forum that he wasn’t aware of specific incidents. He also said he was in favor of accommodation for transgender students.

“So we need to put in place single-use restrooms, as well as improving the overall safety of the restrooms themselves, perhaps by adding the floor-to-ceiling stalls and additional separate changing areas in our locker rooms,” he said.

Some members of the Democratic slate pushed back on the bathroom issue and other parts of the pledge, saying they could result in lawsuits against the school district. Kearney, a retired educator, said teachers wanted to be in an environment where they felt respected and supported.

“I think teachers want to be heard they don't want to be called indoctrinate when they spend every day in the classroom educating,” he said. “They don't want to be called criminals, because they are supporting students, and you don't agree with the way they're doing it.”

“We attract to support teachers by showing them that we listen to them."
School Board incumbent candidate Emily Gehman

Gehman said the board is getting ready to start negotiating a new contract with teachers in the district.

“There's a teacher shortage,” she said. “We attract to support teachers by showing them that we listen to them. We hire professionals that we entrust to do a job and we trust them to do that job.”

Several candidates discussed ways they can support seniors in the community who don’t have kids in the district, but pay property taxes. Durham said his slate proposed a moratorium on tax increases. Among Lehigh County school districts, Southern Lehigh has the second lowest millage rate at 17.26 mills, with Parkland the lowest at 16.30 mills.

"Our commitment for a two-year moratorium on tax increases is a nod to seniors who've I've talked to in the community who are struggling to stay in their lifetime homes.”
School Board candidate Doug Durham

“I will say that those without children or those who have grown children in the district benefit from a good school district because their housing values increase,” he said. “Property values increase because of good schools. Our commitment for a two-year moratorium on tax increases is a nod to seniors who've I've talked to in the community who are struggling to stay in their lifetime homes.”

Many of the forum participants said they were happy with Superintendent Michael Mahon, who is about two years into his tenure. But they also raised concerns about a lack of space and the community’s desire for the district to implement full-day kindergarten.

“That's something that's on everybody's mind on how we get to there. And because I'm a little biased that my daughter is going to be going to kindergarten in a couple of years, have we even initiated talks on what full-day kindergarten looks like to bring into Southern Lehigh,” Eric Boyer said. “Because we're one of the only ones in the valley that do not have that.”

The last day to register to vote is October 23. Election day is November 7.