School board races boost Penns Valley turnout

Almost half the registered voters in one small Penns Valley community picked up ballots and voted Tuesday.

It’s a feat few other Centre County communities approached in a general election that saw poor turnout across the board — almost.

In Penn Township, almost 47 percent of voters cast ballots, the highest voter turnout in the county. The story was the same across the valley; 44.13 percent of voters came out in Haines Township; 43.12 in Gregg Township; 39.63 percent in Millheim.

Seven of the top 11 precincts in voter turnout by percentage are in the Penns Valley Area School District, according to the unofficial election results.

About 40 percent of the district’s voters cast ballots, compared with just 17 percent for the entire county.

“It went from steady to busy,” said Victoria Brennan, a political newcomer who was elected Tuesday to the Penns Valley school board.

“In Haines, it was standing room only,” said Brennan, who was at the polls all day. “They were lined up.”

It wasn’t a coincidence that Penns Valley voters flocked to the polls. They had some of the most anticipated and tightly contested races in the county with a handful of school board seats up for grabs.

Residents leaving the polls and volunteers working inside said the school board races confirmed the board races were tops on voters’ minds.

But in the Bellefonte school district, which also had contested school board races, turnout was significantly lower. In the 15 voting precincts there, about 24 percent of voters came to the polls.

“I think Penns Valley has a history of pretty good voting turnout,” said Jeffrey Hyde, another newcomer elected to the board Tuesday.

The numbers seem to support that.

In the 2012 presidential election, 74 percent of voters in Penns Valley turned out, while the county averaged 62 percent. The last time school board races were on the ballot, in the 2011 general election, 36 percent of voters cast ballots, compared to 23 percent in the county as a whole.

Turnout was even higher Tuesday, spurred on by some competitive school board races. Four challengers campaigned together for the general election and sought to knock off incumbents.

Two, Brennan and Mark Benfer, accomplished their goal, while current board vice president Chris Houser and Hyde, who campaigned with the incumbents, withstood the opposition. Incumbent Hank Yeagley, who ran unopposed, will join the others on the new-look board.

Brennan said she viewed the high turnout as the community “letting their voice be heard,” after months of criticism of the sitting board over its handling of a now-defunct community center project and communication issues.

Houser said the surge was attributable to Penns Valley residents turning out “to vote for great schools and low taxes,” something that had been a campaign point for the incumbents.

“The thing I noticed yesterday being at the polls,” Hyde said, “when people walked up, they already had their minds made up. They had done some homework. Overall, it was a very informed group that came out. I think that says a lot about the race, what was at risk.”

Brennan said she hopes the community continues to show the type of support it did turning out in high numbers.

“I hope the intensity of the interest continues,” she said.

Benfer said in an email that he looks forward to joining the board and getting to work to bring the best education possible to Penns Valley students.

“We all have the same goal, the best education for our children, a district who strives to meet the needs and concerns of all, and to deliver it in an equal and cost efficient manner,” Benfer said.

Houser said he anticipates the board will work together, because “at the end of the day all nine board members will do what’s best for the students and the community.”