The Student NewsMedia of the PENNCREST School District held a candidate forum for the upcoming school board election, which will be part of the Nov. 5 Election Day.
In attendance were four-year term candidates Timothy Brown, Harry Hicks, Jeff Brooks, Luigi DeFrancesco and Jennifer Davis, and the two-year candidate Michael Muckinhaupt. On the line in the election are five spots for four-year terms, and one two-year term. David Valesky, who is running for a four-year seat, and Brian Lynch, competing for a two-year term, did not attend.
Pride and service
The first question of the night asked the candidates what makes them proud to be a part of the PENNCREST School District and why do they want to serve? The candidates took it in turn to give various praises of the PENNCREST schools, as well as outline their visions for helping the district.
Hicks said that it was his hope to work with the IU5, Crawford County Career and Technical Center and the PENNCREST school board to bring about improvements.
Brooks touched on the pride he had in the district, calling it the best education in Northwestern Pennsylvania. While he said he took that quality for granted when he was attending school in the district, he recognizes it now.
“I didn’t really understand how great PENNCREST was until I left,” he said.
When his kids began attending school at the district, Brooks said he recognized that they were not getting the same experience as he had received, and he wants to give his children and potential grandchildren the best education possible through the district.
DeFrancesco said his biggest concern was in the financial aspects of the district, specifically that all board members ensure all expenditures are done responsibly. He said he felt it was his duty to make sure everything was done the “right way.”
Muckinhaupt described himself as having a “passion” for what he wanted to see the community and district. He said that too often the district sees money and good teachers slip away, and he was afraid of the district losing many extracurricular programs if nothing but cuts occur, and that was the reason he decided to serve.
“Education is more than just math and science,” he said. “It’s also about art and theater and music and sports — all that stuff.”
Davis praised the education of the district, as well as the pride displayed by the people who live within the district. She said education and the students remain priority, but also stressed that financials must be balanced and handled in a responsible manner.
Brooks, who said he has traveled the world, described Cambridge Springs as always being home for him. However, he derided the cuts made in the district’s past by previous boards.
“It only takes a few minutes to make these cuts, but the ripple effects from those cuts will go on for a long time,” Brooks said.
He said some of those programs are coming back, and that he hoped to raise revenue for the district through methods other than taxes
Skills and ideas
The candidates were asked what skills and ideas they would be able to bring to the table to help the board address issues such as the area’s declining population and lack of industry. Brooks, responding first, cited his ability to bring people together and get ideas from other parties.
“I don’t, despite what some might think, I don’t think I know everything, but I do know people that know everything,” he said. “I think that’s one of the strengths that I have.”
He spoke on the importance of investing in education in order to attract businesses, and said that reduction in the educational opportunities at the district has hurt the chances of drawing more businesses in.
DeFrancesco acknowledged that enrollment was down in the district. While he said part of this is just due to population decreases, another factor was the draw of cyber or charter schools.
“One thing we need to do is to start bringing back these children and make sure the parents understand that we really want to do something about the best education for their children,” he said.
However, he also said the district must make adjustments, and cannot keep the same amount of staff to run the schools.
Muckinhaupt expressed support for better educating the public on what is going on in the district.
“I think just the understanding of what our district faces is something that would be very enlightening to people in the area,” he said. “A lot of people don’t pay a lot of attention to that.”
Through that, he said it would get more people involved and open up the possibility of making things better.
Davis expressed similar sentiments and said her connectivity with people in the community was a positive trait she could contribute. She also cautioned that the board must be careful and not make quick decisions to recover from previous mistakes.
Brown bemoaned that the board does not have much power in this aspect. While he said he “hates to say it,” he called Crawford County behind the times, with a variety of issues such as lack of WiFi access, prepared housing units or ready sewage lines for business to move in as keeping businesses away.
Hicks said that the board must do the best it can to balance its budget, while also creating schools that will attract employers such that students will be able to stay after graduation.
“As a school board, we can’t do anything about the population,” he said. “But what we can do is create schools to bring in a population.”
Touching on a matter of discussion within the district, the candidates were asked what they felt about combining teams of the various schools within the PENNCREST area into one single group, as some schools may be lacking in the necessary numbers.
DeFrancesco expressed support for the measure, while some of the other candidates were hesitant. Muckinhaupt acknowledged there would be difficulty due to the distance between schools, and a potential challenge to parents.
Davis called the issue an “emotional” one for her, and said there was no blanket answer. Instead, she said the combining of teams would have to be done on as-needed basis depending on the team.
Brown acknowledged there would be costs from such plans, such as from providing transportation for the students to travel between schools. Ultimately, he said that input from the students was important in deciding whether to follow through the measure.
Hicks believes that, if necessary, the combining of teams is something the district can do. Brooks, meanwhile, took a different take. He said the district wasn’t doing enough to promote its teams, and he thinks that there are enough people to field full sports teams for every school if they can get enough people involved.
“Really, it’s going to come down to us promoting it, us being patient and parents being involved in the longterm,” he said.
The next question came from a pair of students, who asked if the school board members should be more involved in the district, and how the board members will be able to make positive decisions for students without participating in school activities directly.
Muckinhaupt said that it was worthwhile for the board members to visit the schools in the district every now and again. While he acknowledged that there is sometimes a disconnect between the board and the schools, he said that the board members do their best to participate and learn more about school activities however the can.
Davis expressed empathy for the question, and said that under previous school boards, she found it difficult to reach out to district leadership. However, she said the current board is more open to communication, and encouraged people to speak to the board with any concerns.
“They are listening,” she said. “They are available to you.”
Brown said he attends many school events, including concerts, musicals, plays and career fairs. While he said it can be difficult for the students to speak to the board members due to the age gap, but brought up his own three daughters as a sign he knew the difficulties in relating to kids and can handle it.
Hicks pushed for more students to make presentations before the school board at their meetings as a way to increase communication.
Brooks and DeFrancesco said it was not the duty of the board to micromanage everything, but encouraged people to reach out with any concerns. DeFrancesco also said people should be mindful of the “chain of command,” going to the principals and superintendent before coming directly to the board.
The next question took on a theoretical aspect, as the candidates were asked what they would be most disappointed hearing about the board if they were elected.
Davis said she would most dislike to hear the district was sliding backwards under the board, rather than continuing forward. Brown gave three separate answers, including that the board had failed to properly roll out a new program or feature, wasn’t making informed decisions or failed a student, teacher or parent.
Hicks appeared not to answer the question directly, and instead stated that the board relies on the information provided by the superintendent for much of its actions. He referred back to the previous question, and said that the board needs feedback from the district.
Brooks, bemoaning that his previous answers were taken by Davis and Brown, said he would be disappointed to hear that the board had given up. He said the board has set a high expectation, and compared serving with the group to “putting together an airplane going down a runway.” However, he said the board is looking to provide the best education possible for the district students.
DeFrancesco similarly did not directly answer the question, but said the best thing a school board member could do is honestly explain to someone feeling disappointed why a certain decision did or didn’t happen. He also said that a board can change a decision and bring items back up for a vote in the future.
For Muckinhaupt, while he said that the board cannot make everybody happy all the time, he would be most disappointed hearing that the board simply didn’t care about the district.
The candidates were asked their thoughts on the phenomenon of esports, which are video games played as competitive activities by schools. For the most part, the majority of the candidates expressed support for the measure.
While Brown and Davis both said they were initially both against the idea, further research led them to change their opinions. Hicks saw the idea as a way to get students more involved in education, while Brooks viewed the activity as another extracurricular with plenty of possible advantages, including improving self-esteem, building friendships and reducing bullying.
Muckinhaupt, who said he is an avid gamer himself, supports the idea as a way to future proof the district.
“If we keep sitting back, everyone is going to have something we don’t and it’s going to give people less of a reason to move into our district,” he said. “So I’m all for it.”
The only candidate who expressed full opposition to the idea was DeFrancesco. He said he didn’t see anything educational about the idea, and worried about the lack of a say the district might have in how an esports program is run.
Ray can be reached, by email, at email@example.com.