Hempfield school board candidates talk safety, book policies, high school renovation | #schoolsaftey

There are nine candidates for five seats on the Hempfield Area School Board in the Nov. 7 general election.

A field of 15 sought the positions during the primary race in the spring. The district is rehashing a major renovation project, and there’s been lengthy discussion on topics including library book content.

Four incumbents are seeking reelection — Vince DeAugustine, who cross-filed, Republicans Jennifer Bretz and Michael Alfery, and Democrat Jeanne Smith.

Democrats Colleen Gallagher, Kathy Charlton, Erin Johns Speese; and Republicans Jennifer Stape and Tracy Miller are new candidates for the board.

The Tribune-Review asked all of them their positions on how the district should address three pertinent issues.

Responses were edited for length.

Book, reference material policies

After a year and a half of debate, in August the board approved new policies governing what books and materials should be included in the district’s collections. The rules set restrictions on sexual content — written or visual — and nudity in books and formal procedures for how a book can be challenged.

Board members were asked how Hempfield should address policies of book and reference material appropriateness.

Smith: “We had a great vehicle already in place for parents or guardians who feel a resource needs to be reviewed for appropriateness. … I’d like to see us go back to relying on policies that the board has in place and have worked for us for many years.”

Gallagher: “I am fine with the policy how it was. Obviously there shouldn’t be books that are sexually explicit in the elementary or middle school shelves, but it’s not another parent’s right to choose what another child reads.”

DeAugustine: “I am not in favor of providing our students with inappropriate books, but I am also not in favor of taking away a library book that’s controversial because it’s on a topic that I may not agree with.”

Charlton: “I think that the school board and the administration have put together a really sound policy. People need to let the admin and the teachers make good judgments, and if they have legitimate real concern, they can bring that to the attention of the book review policy they have established.”

Johns Speese: “Librarians supplement teachers and our kids’ education. I just think the responsibility of a board member is to find compromise, to find middle ground, and that could have been done with the book issue in a way that would have respected all the families in the district and the choices that parents want to make for their own families.”

Bretz: “I think it’s fair. I think that how it is written there — it took us 18 months to do that — right now as it stands, it’s fair,” she said. “There was a divide there for two groups of folks, and I think it’s fair for both sides.”

Alfery: Alfery said he is “pleased” with the latest rendition of the policy. “The only restrictions are, no pornography should be supplied by the district, period,” he said.

Stape: “I believe it is the community that should get to decide whether something is obscene or not, because they are ultimately paying for it.”


“I believe the new (policy) the administration/board has implemented was the right step forward, and will still allow all different types of content while selecting material that is age appropriate.”

High school renovation project

The district’s planned renovation of the high school has stalled as bids came in millions more than projected.

Candidates were asked how the district should proceed.

Smith: “No one on the board has expertise in large-scale construction projects. Several of us recommended hiring an owner’s advocate when the project started. Hiring someone knowledgeable in that field as our advocate will see that the right questions get asked and will know avenues for helping us to stay within budget. Our advocate will look after our interests, see that we are kept informed, and in the long run, will save us money.”

Gallagher: Getting closer to the original estimate is a priority, Gallagher said. “If that has to do with cutting some of the things they wanted to get in, then so be it.” She approved of hiring an owner’s rep to provide more expertise in the field of construction. “I still think they should go ahead with the renovation, but just maybe tweaked.”

DeAugustine: “We needed an owner’s rep to help us navigate through a landscape that is foreign to this board and administration. We put all of our faith in a construction manager that led us down a bad path, and now we are left trying to pick up the pieces. I am confident (the owner’s rep) will provide the necessary guidance to help us get the high school project back on schedule.”

Charlton: Charlton thinks the district should pivot to building a new building instead of renovating the high school. “There are so many problems in that building that most people are unaware of. It would be much more secure and it would be a much better environment to build a new building. When they start ripping into that building, they are going to get surprises, and that is going to increase costs.”

Johns Speese: Johns Speese approves of hiring an owner’s rep to help the district save money. She wants to balance finances with the fact that the building needs repairs. “If roofs need repaired, wires need fixed, structural things need fixed, those are the things that we need to do first. And after that we need to focus on educational facilities, the things that will provide all of our students a good learning environment.”

Bretz: The board was “shocked” by the high quotes that came in this year, she said. “As far as the renovation project, we are looking there and reevaluating there, and we want to go ahead with that. Right now, we just want everything to come within budget — we don’t want to have to raise taxes.”

Alfery: “I will continue to work with our team to come up with a state-of-the-art learning environment for our students, while keenly aware of the rising costs and the impact those costs have on the residents of the district.”

Stape: The district should make cuts to the project to lower the costs, she said. “Now we have more sunk cost by hiring an owner’s rep, but if that means that the right decisions will be made moving forward, then I’m OK with that, because they’re not making the decisions that need to be made as of now, and it’s very frustrating,” she said.

Miller: “Renovations to the high school are necessary. However, I believe cuts need to be made to reduce the cost.”

School security

After several recent incidents, security has become an issue.

Candidates were asked how they feel the district should address the subject.

Smith: “We are working with the state police, county government and knowledgeable individuals in the area of safety. I am confident that we are going to come up with a solid, researched, layered approach to improve our safety practices.”

Gallagher: “I’m totally for them having metal detectors at the doors. That should be in every school in the whole country.” The current high school building has too many doors, which poses a safety hazard, she said.

DeAugustine: Security is not as simple as putting a metal detector at the entrance, though metal detectors are a good idea, DeAugustine noted. “We have to focus on the why. Why are kids bringing guns to school in the first place and how can we stop it before it gets to that level? Some of it is 100% parenting, which we can’t control. However, what we can control are mental health issues, bullying, as well as any form of discrimination.”

Charlton: The high school building itself presents “insurmountable” problems, and the long-term solution is to build an entirely new building, she said. “The idea of wanding kids or putting metal detectors in is probably the best thing to make people feel more secure, but it is going to take a long time to get kids in and out of the building.

Johns Speese: “I think if we are proactive, from the beginning, hopefully we can fend off any future situations. But it’s really important that we are playing offense not just retroactively playing defense.”

Bretz: “Right now, we are currently reviewing and implementing and addressing those concerns. We are addressing right now that safe learning environment for the students and for the staff.”

Alfery: “Along with our district team, I will rely on input and guidance from local law enforcement experts, security industry leaders and previous incidents to ensure that all aspects of safety are covered, every day, districtwide.”

Stape: Stape wants to prioritize making the buildings and grounds safe and secure, and rechecking locks and equipment. She noted that she has heard varying opinions on what security measures the public would want. “More important in those decisions is actually listening to the community and the parents, and coming up with a resolution. I would listen, and hear what the community has to say from everyone.”

Miller: “Wand all students or install metal detectors or weapon detectors. More cameras and resource officers are needed. They need monitoring of areas where cameras are not allowed, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.”

Julia Maruca is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Julia at [email protected].

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