League of women voters forum features hopefuls for school board in Bellefonte, Penns Valley and State College

mcarroll@centredaily.comOctober 16, 2013 

— Candidates vying for four of the five open Penns Valley Area school board seats this fall faced off Tuesday to outline their visions for the district.

The Penns Valley candidates joined those seeking seats on the State College and Bellefonte school boards for forums Tuesday sponsored by the League of Women Voters in Centre County.

Only the Penns Valley forum featured contested races, however. In State College, four candidates are running unopposed and only three candidates in the Bellefonte race — all incumbents — were in attendance.

Fielding questions asked by the audience, the incumbent Penns Valley board members highlighted what they called the district’s recent success academically and financially. Four of the newcomers, who have banded together in campaign literature, called for greater transparency and said they would involve the community more than the current board has.

“When I started eight years ago, we had the highest taxes in Centre County and, at best, average performance at the high school,” said Chris Houser, board vice president. “Today we have great schools and low taxes. We’ve cut the debt from $30 million to $24 million.”

Amy Niewinski, another incumbent, praised a district program that has put technology in students’ hands, including personal laptops for all high school students. The program was expanded this year to include seventh and eighth graders.

“I’m really encouraged by the progress of the last five years,” said Niewinski, who was appointed to the board in December to fill a vacancy. “ I want to maintain that progress.

Several of the challengers praised the district’s academic achievements, but said the past few years have revealed a board that is not in touch with what Penns Valley wants, alluding to the controversial plan to build a community center on school grounds that has since been reversed and declared dead.

“I got involved because of one issue, but that issue pointed out that there was a leadership problem in our district,” said challenger David Braucht. “The community is aware of what they tried to do and what wasn’t heard. We are good in many ways, (but) what we lack is a board that has the community on (its) side.”

Challenger Joe Ebeling said he wants to forge collaboration between board members and the community at large.

“Two years ago, the Penns Valley school board wasn’t like this,” Ebeling said. “The people who came to meetings weren’t heard.”

Victoria Brennan, another challenger, said wants to give the community a voice.

“I’m going to listen,” Brennan said. “I’m here for you as your representative. There is no room for personal agendas.”

Challenger Mark Benfer said he believes the board needs to work to regain the trust of Penns Valley residents.

“We all know Penns Valley’s heritage is rich,” Benfer said. “I want people to come because of what we are, not because of what they want to make us.”

Jeff Hyde, the lone newcomer who did not campaign with the other challengers, doesn’t see it that way. He praised the work the board has done financially and economically and said he is most concerned about academic competitiveness.

“What I’m really concerned about is our ability to prepare our kids to compete in the global environment, to get into good colleges and to get the good jobs,” Hyde said.

Three incumbents in the Bellefonte Area school board race fielded questions, too. Chip Aikens, Keith Hamilton and Jeff Steiner are seeking election to one of four four-year seats on the board.

The incumbents had similar answers when responding to the questions posed by the audience.

For instance, one of the questions addressed their thoughts on how to create more transparency on the school board.

“I can say honestly there’s not anything behind the scenes going on that people should know about,” said Steiner, who will be listed on the ballot as a Democrat.

Aikens, on the ballot as a Republican, said he’d never been “firewalled” if he had a question about something, and Hamilton said the board is as transparent as it can be.

“For all practical purposes, we do let everything out there that should be out there,” said Hamilton, who will be on the ballot as both a Republican and Democrat.

The candidates were asked their thoughts on the biggest challenge facing the district, and all three candidates pointed to fiscal worries, such as the increase in contributions districts have to pay into the public school employees’ pension fund.

They had additional answers, too: Aikens said teachers face the task of supporting children who come from broken homes, and Steiner said teaching standards continue to evolve and administrators have to adapt and implement them.

All three candidates said they support the $4.5 million purchase in 2011 of 107 acres of property near the high school building that will include a long-desired track facility.

“We’re going to need to do a capital campaign to improve our facilities,” said Aiken, about how to raise money to pay for the track.

State College school board hopefuls, including incumbents Penni Fishbaine, David Hutchinson and Jim Leous and challenger Scott Fozard, also faced questions, including what they view as the largest challenge for the district.

For Hutchinson, it’s determining the right educational opportunities for the future and then finding ways to implement that with limited resources.

“It’s changed quite a bit,” Hutchinson said. “The environment our children will enter is much different.”

Leous said future academic competitiveness trumps even the local high school renovation project and statewide pension funding concerns.

“We’re not just competing with students from Iowa anymore, but students from around the world,” Leous said. “The way we teach has to be innovative.”

Fishbaine said economic issues, like funding the Public School Employees’ Retirement System, are a top concern. To that end, she said, the district has been putting away money to help pay for the ever-increasing local contributions.

“We’ve been very responsible,” Fishbaine said.

Fozard also said the board’s biggest challenge is maintaining a forward-thinking approach.

“We have this big old high school project and no one said anything about it,” Fozard said. “And I’m not going to either. I think that speaks to the board and the people on it. I think the biggest challenging is making sure the board maintains a long-term focus.

Matt Carroll can be reached at 231-4631. Follow him on Twitter @Carrollreporter. Mike Dawson contributed to this report.

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