EAST ROCKHILL — With 11 candidates on the ballot for five four-year seats on Pennridge School Board, the primary election will narrow the field down to at least five or as many as 10 candidates.
School board candidates can cross-file on both the Democratic and Republican ballots, which all 11 did. The top five vote recipients in each party move on to the general elections in the fall.
There are two teams of five candidates. Megan Banis-Clemens, Joan Cullen, Sherry L. Thompson, David A. Reiss, Sr. and Ryan Gerhart are the Pennridge First team, with information at Pennridgefirst.com. Kyle Esposito, Kelley Peloquin, Alex Rajan, Lisa Wilson and Peter A. Yarnell are the One Pennridge team, with information at 1pennridge.com. Anna Sophie Tinneny, a 2018 Pennridge graduate and one of the leaders of Pennridge 225, is at @annatinn on Twitter.
Banis-Clemens, Cullen, Reiss, Thompson and Yarnell are the incumbents.
A candidates forum by the League of Women Voters of Bucks County was held May 9 at Pennridge North Middle School. A video of the forum is posted on the League of Women Voters of Bucks County YouTube channel.
Long-term planning is key, Thompson said during the forum.
"I would say that the vision we have for our students is long-term success and facilitating that success by implementing long-term financial planning and giving them the tools that they need and also creating opportunities for them to engage in the community whether they're going to go on to college or not," she said.
Esposito highlighted what he said was one of his areas of disagreement with the current board.
"I think there's a lot of great work that our students are doing, that our community's doing, that isn't getting as much attention as some petty squabbles between individual members and I think the past few years has shown us that we need to represent our community, all of our community, not just some of our community, and be respectful in that discourse and that dialogue and then the best of our community will shine through," he said.
Rajan raised additional differences.
"Most of our schools in Pennsylvania are offering full-day kindergarten. We should be prepared and ready to do that," he said. "We should be going to full-day kindergarten."
He also said the Pennridge district should be offering property tax rebates for low-income senior citizens and criticized the change made last year to a solicitor with a higher hourly rate.
"We have a different vision. We want to implement it. You have a choice," Rajan said.
Banis-Clemens, the current board president, said changing solicitors cut the district's yearly costs by $60,000 and provided more effective legal counsel.
In order to change to full-day kindergarten, the district would need 10 additional classrooms, she said.
"We don't have them, so what're you going to do? Are you going to put additions on every single building and then borrow millions of dollars and extend out the debt and raise taxes?" she said.
"If you're talking about giving a tax rebate to seniors, then you need to be honest with them about the fact that you have to make almost no money to qualify for that," Banis-Clemens said.
Rajan later said full-day kindergarten is a big goal, "but it helps our working community, it helps our kids. It actually helps kids boost to go to the next level. A lot of kids out there love going to school. We want to take advantage of that."
Ninety percent of the schools in Pennsylvania have full-day kindergarten, Wilson said in her closing statement.
"I don't think it's irresponsible to consider it. We've never promised that we would institute it and it's certainly feasible if 90 percent of other schools think so," she said. "Maybe it is a priority, maybe it's not, but we would surely engage the community in discussing it if we would decide to go forward with that."
Rebates matter to persons on a fixed income, she said. In the North Penn School District, seniors with a $35,000 or less income qualify for rebates, she said. Only half of Social Security is counted in the income determination, she said.
"These things can be done, but it can't be an I want it all and I want it now," Banis-Clemens said in her closing statement.
The district is decreasing its debt, she said.
"In five years, we can have these conversations about these bigger things and then we can pay for it as we go instead of borrowing, stacking out the debt, which has been the pattern," Banis-Clemens said.
There are other tax rebate programs for seniors currently available through the state, Cullen said.
In answer to a question about taxes, all the candidates said they don't want to raise taxes, but declined to pledge they would never do so.
Anyone who does say they would never raise taxes is either dishonest or naive, Cullen said.
"It would be the last choice of any board and that's why we've worked so hard to do what we've done. We're doing more with less and we're really happy about that," she said, "but to say you would never do something, I don't think that's something that you should do."
The district's proposed 2019-2020 budget does not increase taxes for the third year in a row, current board members noted.
Tinneny, who was an exchange student to Madrid, Spain, in 11th grade and just completed a gap year in Ecuador, said she will be studying political science when she begins college in the fall and was inspired to run after attending board meetings last year and becoming an advocate for youth voter registration and other social causes.
During closing statements, she noted that other candidates had mentioned their experience.
"I can't offer you that, but what I can offer is a student's perspective because last year I was a student at Pennridge," she said.
Having varied perspectives that represent all the constituents makes a stronger board, she said. She also pointed to her experience of having lived, worked and attended school in foreign countries.
What she lacks in experience, she will make up in enthusiasm, curiosity and willingness to collaborate and work, she said.
Peloquin, a biology teacher at Central Bucks East High School, said she's always been involved with her children's education, including being involved in parent organizations at West Rockhill Elementary School and Pennridge South Middle School.
"I'm running for school board because, for me, it's the next logical step as a way to continue to be involved in my children's education," she said in her opening statement, "and as an opportunity to have a positive impact on the greatest number of students."
She said she supports innovative methods in the classroom.
The team that she's running with won't always agree, but will work together to reach decisions that benefit the majority, she said.
"We need to share what we're doing each step along the way so that way we have a clear understanding so when we get to a decision and it's been made, everyone in the district understands where it came from," Peloquin said.
Yarnell said he has been on the board since 1991, serving as its president for 11 of those years, as well as having been on several board committees and a district representative to the Upper Bucks County Technical School Joint Operating Committee.
"I have a lot of experience and I'd like to use that experience to continue serving on the school board," he said.
The district's finances, which had a negative fund balance when he started on the board, have greatly improved, he said.
"Beyond that I think the academics have improved dramatically in all sorts of ways," Yarnell said.
One example is in the Advanced Placement classes, he said.
"They have grown from a handful to now almost 20, so they have a lot more choices," he said.
There have also been improvements for other students, not just the best students, he said.
Gerhart, who was away on business the night of the forum, and Reiss, who chairs the West Rockhill Park & Recreation Committee, which met on the same night as the forum, were not present at the forum.
Each was asked to write a short statement for this article telling why they are running and their goals.
"I am running for Pennridge School Board because I am passionate about family as well as community involvement," Gerhart wrote. "With two children about to begin their education in the district and being married to a teacher, a quality education is essential to me and my family. Given the opportunity, I hope to continue the success that the current administration has brought to the district. Continuing to prioritize education and execute long-term financial planning that includes no tax increases and a balanced budget is vital. I believe I can use my experience as an auditor to add value and a unique perspective to the board."
Reiss had not returned a statement as of press time.
Primary Election Day is Tuesday, May 21.