Southern Lehigh School Board hopefuls talk safety and taxes at candidate forum | #schoolsaftey

Southern Lehigh School Board candidates highlighted their philosophies on safety, taxes and leadership at a Tuesday forum hosted by the Lehigh County League of Women Voters.

There are five seats up for grabs on the Southern Lehigh School Board in November, and 10 candidates are vying to be a school director; seven attended the event.

All winners of the May Democratic primary race spoke at the forum, including Eric Boyer, Emily Gehman, Tim Kearney, Candi Kruse and Melissa Torba. (Torba is the only primary winner who is a registered Democrat.) Paul Deebel and Doug Durham are the candidates from the Republican ticket who spoke at the forum; Danelle Roy, Lance Tittle and James Pica II — all winners in the Republican primary — did not attend.

Gehman, Kearney, Kruse and Boyer are running on a slate. Torba is running as an individual, but supporting candidates on the Democratic ticket. Gehman, Kearney, Kruse, Boyer and Torba are all receiving support from the same PAC, Southern Lehigh Community Partners, and all are endorsed by the district teachers’ union.

Candidates for Southern Lehigh School board participate in a forum Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, at Penn State Lehigh Valley. (Amy Shortell/The Morning Call)

Deebel and Durham are running as part of a slate and are backed by the Lehigh County Republican Committee, along with Roy, Tittle and Pica. These five candidates, who are supported by Southern Lehigh Grassroots PAC, have all signed a pledge rejecting “woke politics” and laying out proposed policies for how the district deals with gender.

Deebel and Durham reiterated stances from the pledge Tuesday night in front of a crowd at Penn State Lehigh Valley, including a potential policy stating students can only use bathrooms corresponding to their biological sex.

In response to a question about school safety, Deebel said he’s spoken with parents who are concerned boys are using the girls’ bathrooms, which is why he supports the proposed policy. He also said he would advocate for floor-to-ceiling stalls for added privacy and additional single use restrooms for students who are not comfortable using gendered bathrooms.

Gehman, the only incumbent running for re-election, said bathrooms are not a top safety concern and pointed out similar policies have led to lawsuits elsewhere.

“I’m tired of the politics, and I don’t want Southern Lehigh to follow in the footsteps of other local school districts that have spent millions of tax dollars paying lawyers and fighting politics instead of educating kids,” Gehman said in her opening remarks.

Durham highlighted a section of the pledge he signed acknowledging he and his fellow slate members would only pursue the bathroom policy if legally permissible to do so.

“Our group of candidates are not going to make rash decisions that are going to risk litigation to our district,” he said.

An attorney for the district has stated publicly at past board meetings that a bathroom policy like the one proposed in the pledge is not supported by case law.

Deebel said he understands not everyone will agree with his vision for the district, but the pledge was a means for him and his slate to be transparent.

“We addressed some of these controversial issues up front in advance for the whole community to see where we’re coming from and what we see as the best solution for this community,” he said.

Kearney argued the pledge focuses more on bathrooms than academics.

On the topic of school safety, Deebel and Durham said secure school entrances are essential.

Gehman pushed back, saying the district already has secure entrances. While she was on the school board, the district doubled its school resource officer staff and put officers in secondary schools. Local police already train at district buildings in the summer to make sure they know the school’s layout, she said, adding that community building is essential to making kids safe.

Kearney, a retired teacher, said he’s had experience discussing school safety at the building level during his 40 years in education. He also said the district can continue to promote Safe2Say, a violence prevention app that allows students to report any safety concerns.

Torba said technology, such as digital hall passes, can be a way to promote safety, but echoed Gehman’s emphasis on community building as a preventative measure.

Boyer said the district should evaluate safety practices being used in other local districts and nationwide to see what might also work in Southern Lehigh.

Kruse commended the district SRO program. She said parents have told her they are scared of school shootings; she said the district can help parents better understand the threat evaluation process so they know what factors make it safe for kids to return to school the day after a threat.

Candidates also spoke on their fiscal approach to running the district.

Durham and Deebel again highlighted a promise in their pledge to put a two-year moratorium on tax increases.

Durham said as a small business owner he has experience with budgets; he also said low taxes are important for senior citizens living in the district who have fixed incomes. He said this section of the pledge is a “nod to seniors” who want to afford living in their “forever homes.”

Kruse and Torba both pointed out Southern Lehigh already has the second lowest millage rate in the county when it comes to property taxes. (Parkland School District has the lowest.)

Torba said state-level reform is necessary to address school district reliance on property taxes for their budgets. This is not a funding issue unique to Southern Lehigh.

In an effort to connect with taxpayers without children in the district, Kruse supports sending out paper communication to inform residents who may not use social media of district happenings.

Boyer, a senior project manager at PPL Electric Utilities, said he has experience with working with large budgets through his corporate job. He supports evaluating district taxation strategies and prioritizing facility updates based on the budget.

With approaching teacher contract negotiations, Gehman said it’s important to remember teacher salaries are a heavy lift for the district. She said paying a fair wage is essential in the midst of a teacher shortage.

Deebel said contract negotiations will allow board members to hear “pain points” directly from teachers. Deebel and Durham are proponents of “parental rights,” and Deebel said the pandemic highlighted a divide between parental expectations and teacher delivery in the classroom.

When it comes to attracting and retaining teachers, Gehman and Boyer spoke about the importance of a positive culture and work environment that trusts professionals to do their jobs. Durham said teachers need to be paid appropriately based on experience.

Torba wants decision-makers to communicate with teachers to understand policy impacts; Kruse hopes to explore potential benefits for teachers outside of pay increases; and Kearney will listen to educators and defend them from people who call them “indoctrinators or criminals.”

Torba also said teacher retention is a priority as staff members continue to leave for neighboring districts.

“These educators are the backbone of our schools,” she said. “Their departure is cause for concern.”

Multiple candidates also highlighted the district’s new stadium project and the need for prioritizing capital projects in the future, especially when it comes to making space for full-day kindergarten.

Many also want to open district spaces to community members, particularly seniors. Candidates also agreed the district is performing well in the arts and with extracurricular offerings.

They all see technology training for teachers and students as a growing need, especially with the rise of artificial intelligence.

Morning Call reporter Jenny Roberts can be reached at 484-903-1732 and [email protected].

Source link


Click Here For The Original Source.

National Cyber Security