2 challengers, 4 incumbents seek 4 seats on Bellefonte school board

mdawson@centredaily.comNovember 2, 2013 

A field of four incumbents and two challengers will vie for four seats on the Bellefonte Area school board in Tuesday’s general election.

The two challengers, Rodney Musser and Michael Danneker, were the only candidates from the primary election to secure both Democratic and Republican nominations, and they’ll be on both tickets when Bellefonte voters go the polls.

The incumbent field consists of Charles “Chip” Aikens and Keith Hamilton, both Republicans, and board President Becky Rock and Jeff Steiner, both Democrats.

While the race for four four-year terms is contested, a second race is not. Incumbent Jenna Moorehead is the lone name on the ballot for a two-year seat.

Here is a look at the candidates in the contested race:

Aikens, 52, was appointed to the school board in 2011 and is seeking his first full term on the board. He said he supports the vision Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger has for the district.

“I’m impressed with our superintendent’s and assistant superintendent’s knowledge of these issues and support their philosophy,” he said.

On the fiscal side, Aikens said he supports not raising taxes to pay for the construction of a track facility on land purchased in the past few years by the district.

“We can’t afford to raise taxes,” he said. “We’re tapped out.”

He supports a fundraising campaign that would pay for the construction.

In September, Aikens voted in favor of terminating Bellefonte Elementary School principal Elaine Cutler, a move that had been recommended by the superintendent. Cutler had a public dismissal hearing, and the board was required to consider all the testimony and decide whether to fire Cutler or retain her.

The firing has been met with anger in some parts of the community, and Aikens stands by his decision.

“The evidence was overwhelming, in my opinion, in support of Dr. Potteiger,” he said. “It was a very, very difficult decision. We had to do what we had to do as a board.”

Aikens is happy with the direction of the school district and he believes the teachers understand the economic pressures the district is under, given the lower levels of state and federal funding and the “ticking time bomb” that is the possible increases districts have to make to employees’ state pensions.

He said the increases will be impossible for the district to make, and he supports reforming the system.

Danneker, 42, is making his first run at an elected position. He’s the chief of the Spring Township Police Department, and he said his position as chief will not affect his ability to serve.

He said his motivation to run was his desire to give back to the community that he’s been a part of the past 18 years.

As someone with a background in law enforcement, safety in schools is very important to Danneker. He said he and the school resource officer have spent the past two years instructing teachers what they can do to protect themselves.

He said his responsibilities as a police chief will help him as a school director, if elected. He’s had to work through budgetary issues, staffing matters and handling complaints that originate from the outside.

“You always try to do what’s best for all,” he said.

Danneker, who is assistant coach for Bellefonte Area High School’s football team, understands the improvements needed at the football stadium.

As for the track facility, Danneker said he understands the need, but he also understands how the tough economy could make people hesitant to contribute the fundraising campaign to pay for the construction.

He said if he’s elected he’d do what he can to move things forward.

Danneker did not indicate support or criticism for the way the board fired Cutler, but more broadly, he said, “I want to continue to improve the morale between staff, administration and the school board.”

Hamilton, 61, would like to continue the work he started when he was appointed five years ago and elected to a full term in 2009.

Hamilton said one of his accomplishments while serving on the board was the purchase of the 100-plus acres near the Bellefonte Area High School for planned athletic facilities.

He said he’d like to see the project realized to its fullest extent, and he wants to be a part of the fundraising campaign.

Hamilton said he supports reform of the state pension for teachers so that school districts do not see the huge costs that are looming.

“It’s going to be millions of dollars, and we just don’t have the funds,” he said. “We’ve got to get the legislators in Harrisburg to step up to the plate and make a decision.”

Hamilton voted in favor of the decision to fire Cutler, the principal. He said it wasn’t an easy decision, but he said the board did its due diligence.

“We listen to testimonies. We read script after script,” he said. “We followed the law that was given to us.”

Hamilton stressed the community needs to continue support of the superintendent.

“We have a lot of wonderful things going on in the school district,” he said, referring to the results of state test scores that showed Bellefonte Area students performing above state averages.

Musser, 67, is seeking a return to the school board after a 41/2 year hiatus because he thinks the board has lost its way and he’s concerned about its future from the taxpayers’ standpoint.

“I’m not sure that the board has represented the overall thinking of the community,” he said.

He is opposed to the $4.5 million land purchase for the athletic facilities, saying it happened at a time when employees had to bite the bullet by agreeing to pay freezes. That was demoralizing for faculty and staff, he said.

“A lot of people in the community have questioned that purchase and the timing of it,” he said.

Musser thinks the school district needs to take a look at how much property it owns and possibly get rid of some land, depending on future plans and growth. He used the 100-plus acres for the athletic facility as an example of possibly having too much.

“What we’ve done is take a lot of land off the tax rolls,” he said.

Musser said he doesn’t think the school board took into consideration Cutler’s side when it fired her.

“I was there for the night they made the vote,” he said. “There was no discussion that night whether they had listened to the defense.”

Rock, 47, is looking for a third term as a school director, and she hopes voters take into account the relationships she’s been able to build with people in the community, fellow school directors, teachers, students and legislators. She said the relationships have given her the perspectives necessary for making the decisions she’s had to make.

One of the highlights of her tenure, she said, is the land purchase because track is important for the student body. She thinks more students will go out for track once the facility is built.

She supports the capital campaign to raise money for its construction.

Rock said the board has done well handling its expenses and will “need to continue to analyze and prioritize our expenses.”

She defended her voting for Cutler’s firing, saying she and her board members considered the evidence from both sides.

“I personally feel that the board made the correct decision,” she said.

Rock said the district is heading in the right direction, and she has nothing but support for Superintendent Potteiger.

“I think she’s doing a fantastic job leading our district to where we need to go, so our students can achieve,” she said.

Steiner, 47, was appointed to the board in 2009 and a few months later won election to a full term. He said he’s seeking re-election because he’s sees the position as an important part of community service.

He is proud of the district’s work to revamp its language arts and math curricula. He said the focus is now on the STEM concept, or science, technology, engineering and math.

“Engineering is really the new liberal arts degree,” he said. “It’s important our students have engineering curriculum to get them into good colleges.”

Steiner is a strong supporter of the land purchase for the athletic facilities.

“Absolutely it was the right decision,” he said, noting the $4.5 million cost included $2 million in state funds reimbursed from another project that had to be used for a capital project.

He’s a supporter, too, of a fundraising campaign to get donations to pay for the athletic facilities.

“I’d like it to be happening quicker than it is,” he said about the work to start things up. “And I’d like to be on the board to help get the process moving forward.”

On the Cutler issue, he deferred to the comments he made in September when the board unanimously voted to fire the principal.

“There wasn’t a choice at hand,” he said at the time. “There was a course of action to be taken.”

Steiner said as the district faces flat funding from the state, officials have to look long-term.

“Everyone’s got to be able to work to be able to make decisions you need to make, so you’re not forced to make decisions that would cut into the (educational) program or affect employees,” he said.

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