Incumbent Penns Valley school board members faced stiff competition from newcomers in the spring, setting up contested races for four seats Tuesday in the general election.
Three at-large positions and two regional seats are up for grabs, meaning this election could greatly alter the makeup of the board.
Vice President Chris Houser and newcomers H. Mark Benfer and David S. Braucht are competing for two at-large positions that carry four-year terms.
All three cross-filed in the primary. Houser came away with one Democratic nomination and Braucht one Republican nod, while Benfer won the second nominations for both parties. Two will be elected.
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Newcomers Joseph Ebeling and Jeffrey Hyde are squaring off for an at-large seat that carries a two-year term. Ebeling won the Republican nomination and Hyde won the Democratic nod in the primary. Both had cross-filed.
Challenger Victoria L. Brennan is up against incumbent Amy Niewinski for the Region 3 seat representing Millheim. Both cross-filed in the primary and Brennan earned the Republican nod while Niewinski captured the Democratic nomination.
Incumbent Henry Hank Yeagley won both party nominations in the primary and is running unopposed Tuesday for the Region 2 seat representing Gregg Township.
Braucht, seeking his first public office, said he would bring the change to the board that he believes is necessary to mend a divide in the Penns Valley community.
“I think the community needs change,” Braucht said. “I think I can bring the community together.”
Braucht said he believes the plan to build a community center on school grounds, which has since been reserved and declared dead, has caused distrust for the current school board.
“We are feeling the effects of that,” he said.
Braucht said, without change, he believes the board will have trouble selling the public on any difficult decisions that must be made down the road due to state budget constraints or other factors.
“When we (the board) have to make these decisions, it’s going to be a whole lot harder,” he said. “I would like to see (the community and board) brought together. And I think we can do that.”
Braucht said he believes the current board has done a poor job communicating with residents, even outside of the community center issue. That is something he says he would strive to correct if elected.
“I truly want the community to be involved with this school board,” he said.
Houser is seeking re-election to continue with what he called the sitting board’s progress in limiting taxes while improving education quality in the district.
“I think we have great schools and low taxes,” Houser said. “Everybody wants that. My record is we provide that.”
Houser said since he has been on the board the district has gone from having the highest tax rate in the county to one of the lowest, while transitioning from the middle of the pack in terms of academic performance to the top 10 percent in the state.
He said the district has found creative ways to save, such as a biomass heating conversation that he spearheaded, and has been able to lower the district’s debt from $30 million to $24 million.
Houser said the board must work to heal a rift in the community and has prioritized communicating better.
The father of four children, Houser said he has a personal stake in the district’s future.
“I think we’ve done a lot of good,” he said. “But it only takes a short amount of time to set us back 10 years. That’s the reason I want to continue the progress we’ve made.”
Benfer could not be reached for comment.
Ebeling, a challenger who has not held public office, said he felt compelled to run after closely watching the board interact with the community over the past few years.
“They got to the point they weren’t listening to the public,” Ebeling said. “I felt like it was time for a change, for people to be listened to instead of ignored.”
Ebeling said transparency and communicating are central to his platform.
“Two years ago, the communication wasn’t there,” he said. “That’s a big issue.”
Ebeling, a self-employed contractor, said he brings ample experience in construction and has extensive knowledge of buildings and maintenance, something he believes could be an asset to the board.
“I don’t know if they know, but I’m very interested in education,” he said. “It’s bigger than (one issue) for me.”
Ebeling said he wants to review the district’s curriculum and find why some students are choosing charter schools over Penns Valley.
“I want to go to those and see what they are doing better,” he said. “I want to implement that here if possible.”
Hyde, a political newcomer, said his background in economics and finances will help him hit the ground running as a member of the school board.
“The big challenge, because we’ve been able to have good academic success, is to continue in light of the financial pressures of retirement, health care costs — these sorts of extraordinary expenses,” Hyde said.
Hyde holds a leadership role at Penn State, overseeing a team of 25 people and with a budget of about $2 million.
“I’ve had to become as good as I can be and improve my leadership skills to help them do their jobs better,” he said.
A father of two children in the district, Hyde said he understands the implications of board decisions, whether financial or in setting goals for teachers.
Hyde said he strives for transparency and communication in campaigning for the post.
“I came into this process eight or nine months ago knowing Hyde was not a well-known name in the valley,” he said. “I’ve worked really hard ... to let them know who I am. I would hope they’d say ‘Jeff is a guy ... who knows getting to an answer isn’t as simple as making a decision myself, but listening to others.’ ”
Brennan, a political newcomer, said she would bring to the board her experience running a countywide counseling program for troubled teens and also her educational background in childhood and adolescent development.
“That’s where my interest has been since I was a child,” Brennan said. “I feel strongly about helping kids out, helping young adults. I would keep their best interests at the forefront.”
Brennan said when Penns Valley students graduate they should be ready to compete in an international economy, and that the district should offer the most competitive educational programming it can.
“We are losing students to other educational venues, whether charter and cyberschools or home-schooling,” she said. “We need to look at whether we are offering a competitive education.”
Brennan said she can also help the board navigate challenging financial times, having gained experience as the former manager of a countywide counseling program.
“I think my experience managing a budget, a large budget, gives me fiscal sense,” she said. “And I’m (now a) stay-at-home mom, so I know how to stretch a dollar.”
Niewinski, an incumbent board member, said her history of fiscal responsibility and her passion for early childhood education make her the right candidate to retain a seat on the panel.
“I’m very concerned about the academic and financial progress we’ve made,” Niewinski said. “I don’t want our school district to go backwards. I want to maintain the progress we’ve made and improve on the future.”
Niewinski said her experience managing budgets both on the board and with nonprofit organizations will help her guide the district through diminished state funding and ever increasing pension costs.
“I’m passionate about early childhood education because I have three young children,” she said. “I have that vested interest to make sure they get the best education.”
Niewinski said she’d like to see the board work to improve how the district reaches students on the highest and lowest ends of the curve and to help foster a positive educational culture in classrooms.
“I think we are doing a great job trying to reach every child,” she said. “But there are always areas that can be improved upon.”