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Is fractured school board on the mend?

by Suzan Erem

Last November’s State College Area school board election was the most contentious and expensive ever, one that removed five sitting board members in one fell swoop and brought in a majority of new members facing steep learning curves in their new roles.

They joined four veteran board members who could only wonder if they would ever be relevant again.

And since January, the school board has made headlines in the local press for its continued contentiousness over three issues: the replacement for departing member Barney Grimes, a decision that eventually went before a judge for lack of board consensus; the application by ousted board president Sue Werner to serve on a citizens advisory committee, a situation akin to, as one person put it, George Bush applying to a cabinet-level position in Barack Obama’s administration; and the concession stand at the high school track, which ignited a debate that involved personal and professional attacks on district staff and at least one member of the board.

It looked like we had begun a long, painful and somewhat hopeless era. So Voices invited board members to a conversation to discuss the board dynamics and members’ vision for the future. All nine members accepted.

In one-on-one interviews, each board member answered the same open-ended questions. New and veteran members alike said that in their first six months, they have agreed more than disagreed, and that in the grand scheme of things, the controversies are but a few bumps in the road to what they hope is a constructive future.

Just politics? Maybe. But Voices demanded specifics. Almost every board member named at least one of these five areas of agreement:

· Routine business

· The interview process for hiring new staff

· Budget discussions

· The districtwide master plan process

· Graduate competency exams

We are dedicating these pages to a representative yet extensive sample of comments by board members about progress to date, obstacles, and goals for the future. Time served on the board is in parentheses after board members’ names.

Progress to date

"What progress have you made in the first six months?"

New board members President Rick Madore, Ann McGlaughlin, Chris Small and Dorothea Stahl pointed to the transparency the board has instituted regarding work sessions and citizens advisory committees as the most important improvements. Veteran board members David Hutchinson, Donna Queeney and Gowen Roper mentioned, in turn, good discussions and questions, a board retreat that ended in a shared direction, and a new board that is moving in a similar direction as the former board.

In their own words:

Rick Madore (six months):

"We went through the process of having somebody appointed. It wasn’t exactly our finest hour, but yet the process was there to be able to take care of all those circumstances that might arise. We deliberated, we fought a little, but we came out."


Dorothea Stahl (six months):

"I’m thrilled there are areas in the district that will now have air conditioning without having to wait. Some have waited for decades."

Jim Pawelczyk (two months):

"We’ve started a discussion about sustainability, how we’re going to help the environment. There’s a lot of interesting things happening that way."

Chris Small (six months):

"I don’t accept one of the premises that’s been put out there that the board’s dysfunctional. I don’t believe we are. The nine of us have agreed on the next step for the master plan. We’re not fiddling while Rome is burning."


"What do you see as obstacles to progress?"

These answers highlighted more differences. Small, Stahl and McGlaughlin said meetings are running too long. Madore named the three hot button issues. Veteran board members tended to address current dynamics.

In their own words:

David Hutchinson (four years):

"The larger problem is, I think, that as a group, many of them are starting with the perspective that the district is either incompetent or irresponsible financially or they’re hiding something.

"If they start from that perspective then they feel a moral obligation that they should be doing something to fix that. Then they also feel a responsibility to a constituency that feels the same thing and wants them to do something about it.

"That’s the biggest barrier. We have to get past that perception."

Gowen Roper (two years):

"I think there are some different perspectives on the role of the board, the level at which we should be working, the role of the board vis-a-vis the administration, and those are often where we tend to get distracted.

"When the board begins to delve down into and try to micromanage that process, we’re not doing what I think we’re supposed to be doing. We end up wasting time, and we potentially undermine the administration and the staff."

Donna Queeney (19 years):

"I think the biggest obstacle is what I perceive as the very strong animosity in the community. There are enough bad things that happen to good people over which we have no control. The fact that people deliberately set out to hurt good people I think is unfathomable."

She identified a board dynamic unique to this situation and one to which others referred.

"In the past, when new board members have come on, there’s been a culture of the board into which they were absorbed. With the majority of the board being new members, we don’t have that culture to fall back on. We need to develop a culture of working together, respect, trust."

Ann McGlaughlin (six months) echoed that but added:

"Any time you try to take two distinct groups of individuals and say, ‘Here, work together,’ it takes time; and with everything that preceded it, I didn’t really expect it was going to be a walk in the park. It’s had its ups and downs, but in time, it’ll work its way out."

Lou Ann Evans (10 years):

"It takes time, and it takes effort on everybody’s part to make that (relationship) happen, and doing it in a public arena is extremely difficult. You build a history, and as you listen to one another explain why you’re making the decision you’re making, you get to know the person’s philosophy, and you listen to the questions they’re asking.

"That’s so valuable—to listen to the kinds of questions that are being asked—so you have an understanding of what the other person knows or doesn’t know, so you can share your knowledge or your experience or a different perspective."


"I would say the biggest obstacle is my dissatisfaction with the media. We have, I think, been very cordial and been an effective board right now, and you wouldn’t know that based on what you read. (…) That’s a greater obstacle than district issues.

"A well-informed public will participate in an effective manner, and an ill-informed public will only be in a defensive mode."

Madore said replacing a board member put the biggest wrench in the works.

"When I look at how the board was starting to function and get along and accomplish the work that was in front of us, we were doing quite well. There was a little uneasiness, but that was normal, especially when they know they’re coming from different viewpoints.

"But what that whole process did was put us back into election mode, and it’s the thing we didn’t need at that time."


"What are your specific goals for the foreseeable future?"

All of the new board members and most of the veterans listed the districtwide master plan as the highest priority for the board, with a nod to passing the budget as well. The next most common comment was a desire to see the board working together better. Various members raised concerns about needed renovations at older elementary schools and the high school.

Pawelczyk added environmental sustainability and what he called a districtwide educational plan. Hutchinson and Evans listed the need to get secondary school students more connected to the schools. Both named civic engagement and service learning as part of that process.

Everyone mentioned the need for public input, listing a variety of ways to solicit such input:

· Expanding information on the Web site and the use of e-mail.

· Holding open and inclusive meetings, work sessions and citizens advisory committee meetings.

· Using school functions to network with other parents.

· Presenting programs and issues to church and business gatherings, the parent-teacher association and other groups.

· Hosting school open houses for the public.

· Seeing what the companies vying for the districtwide master plan propose.

Fewer than half of all citizens vote, much less attend public meetings. And board meetings seem to have become a battleground for the handful of people in the room. So Voices asked, "What average member of the public would venture forth into such a seemingly hostile environment?"

Madore chairs the meetings.

"There’s a line that we as civil people shouldn’t cross, and yet sometimes it does get crossed," he said. "Right now I want to give everybody the opportunity to say what they have to say. It falls under being as inclusive as you can be.

"I’m not going to be responsible for what they want to say, though I have to be responsible for board meetings being run effectively. (…) It looks like I need to step in and ask people to keep their comments relevant, concise and appropriate."

Finally, will there be a new school or not?

In their own words:


"The growth we’re going to have is going to feed into Park Forest and Radio Park, which already had two trailers trying to accommodate the overflow. So if the growth continues, there will have to be a new school or they will have to be renovated, unless we are going to just keep changing boundary lines. So yes, I would say our district would have to accommodate a new elementary school."


"You have to go back and look at the education part of it. We don’t have increasing enrollment; it looks like it’ll stay the same for about 15 years. I know people want to tie us down to a yes or no about that, but I don’t have a set idea."


"People need to put their emotions aside. Any business not willing to look at all the options is not doing its job. It’s very possible that when you look at the facts, it’s just not fiscally responsible to do that at this time, but you definitely have to have that conversation. (…)

"There’s a lot of suspicion out there in the community. You don’t have to read or listen too much to think the new board members have an agenda. That’s not true.

"But the thing that’s of most interest of this community is the high school. I think it’s unfortunate that when people like Jim Pawelczyk say, ‘Let’s look at green,’ there are people who say, ‘That’s an end run around to "let’s build a new high school."’"


"Whether it’s a new school or a renovation, it will have to come with extra costs we have to absorb, but I look at those kinds of capital projects as something different than our annual budget. I would like to be able to design any future school with the idea that that school will be with us for a long time and spread the cost of that over time."


"What we know from our demographic analysis, the growth pressure is on the west side of town, predominantly Ferguson and Patton and likely to include Half Moon. It might not be 10 years but maybe farther down from that.

"A large high school at a new site? I think that’s on the table. But what else is there? Matching it with the resources. Is there an optimal site within the growth boundaries of the district? That’s part of the dialogue."


"The demographics suggest that we do not foresee the need for a new elementary school because our enrollment’s fairly flat. The only issue would be if you decide to replace one."


"The groundwork has been laid to fund a new school if and when the board decides to build one. That’s a very complicated question. For a new school, we borrow money, and we do have some funds that have been set aside for this kind of thing, but yes, there are possibilities for funding another school."


"I don’t think so. I think we have to go through the districtwide master plan. They’ll make that recommendation, but I think the demographic study suggested that, in fact, we have the capacity that we need, because the population is not changing. We have the classroom space.

"That gets back to the sustainability and sprawl issue. We’ve got the buildings; we may need to renovate them and may do that in a sustainable way, but at this point, I wouldn’t say we need a new school."


"The demographic study supports the fact that we are not going to see a large growth in student population.

"Of course there will be some changes in location. I believe the high school needs to stay in the borough. The study shows most of the student growth is going to be around Radio Park and Easterly Parkway, with slow growth in Patton Township. So I think the location we currently have is the appropriate spot.

"I also very strongly believe that having a comprehensive high school is the best possible high school education we can offer the students in this community, and anything else is a disservice to the kids. When you look at recommendations for high school reform, it’s all about multiple educational opportunities for kids, a blending of career, technical and academics. And it’s exactly what we have."

Dr. Radut | page