All six candidates for four seats on the Carlisle Area School Board shared their views on topics ranging from class sizes to the superintendent search at a forum Wednesday.
Challengers Kitzi Chapelle and Julie Lesman were joined at the table by incumbent board members Rick Coplen, Brian Guillaume, Anne Lauritzen and Deborah Sweaney. The event was hosted by the American Association of University Women Carlisle and the local YWCA.
The candidates introduced themselves before having the opportunity to answer questions from organizers or the audience of about 40.
Chapelle said she is a Carlisle Borough native and graduate of the local high school. “I am dedicated to my community,” she said. “I am dedicated to the students here. I believe in our district and I believe in our students.”
A volunteer on the Hope Station and Safe Harbour boards, the mother of two said she is running to help the district to connect more with outside agencies and to give students the resources they need. If elected, one of her priorities would be to advocate for greater diversity among the district teaching and administrative staff.
A retired Army officer with family roots in south Texas, Coplen said he was inspired to public service by the example set by his grandfather, a cattle rancher with a seventh-grade education who insisted that his daughters go to college. Coplen arrived in Carlisle 10 years ago so that his wife, a fellow Army officer, could attend the Army War College.
Active in the Rotary Club and on the Employment Skills Center board, Coplen wants to continue to serve at a time of transition. He mentioned how the board in the coming year will hire a new superintendent and implement a new strategic plan while continuing to deal with the fiscal challenges of the annual budget.
“These tasks require experienced board members that are good judges of talent, capable of strategic planning and perhaps, mostly importantly, a group that would facilitate a climate of community collaboration,” Coplen said.
A 1995 Carlisle High School graduate, Guillaume works as a construction manager on highway improvement projects across Pennsylvania. He is chairman of the board’s property committee, which reviews the need, scope of work and financing of district building and maintenance projects.
“Why I am running for Carlisle school board. ... The reason is simple — I have three reasons at home,” said Guillaume referring to his three children. “I think the public schools here in Carlisle did well for me as I went on to university and I feel I was ahead of the pack for what I gained at Carlisle school district.”
The wife of a career military officer, Lauritzen has children who attended different schools over the years. When her husband retired, they moved from Virginia to Carlisle because of the quality of the local school district.
“I have a unique perspective on how special Carlisle is,” she said. “Carlisle melds a small town community, where kids are not lost in a crowd, with a window to a big real world. We have economic, social and racial diversity. Carlisle does better than many places I’ve been.”
If reelected, she wants to maintain and improve upon what Carlisle is doing well. “But I’m not afraid to pull back the curtain and see where we need to change,” Lauritzen said. She said she will continue to push the board to maintain the current athletic and extra-curricular programs of the district to give students the opportunity to explore all their options.
A mother of two boys in the district, Lesman is an educator with 15 years of experience teaching high school and college level classes. “I am deeply committed to public education in our district,” she said. “I want to support our teachers. I don’t think we should be making them teach to tests. I think we should respect their expertise as professionals.”
She is concerned about class sizes and overcrowding within the district along with changing demographics. Lesman said she never served on a school board before.
“Why should you vote for me?” she asked. “You would be taking a chance. First of all, I can tell you I’m a good listener and I’m good about asking hard questions. As a parent, I have contact with district students, teachers and parents. I want to know what their concerns are. I’m not afraid of change. Change is an inevitable part of any institution, and we should always strive to change in a way that makes our students better prepared for the future.”
A Missouri native who once worked in Washington, D.C., Sweaney moved to south-central Pennsylvania after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to escape the Beltway crowds. She and her husband were drawn by the history of Carlisle and its charm as a college town.
Sweaney had cross-filed in the May Primary as a Democrat and Republican because she believes serving on a school board should be a nonpartisan activity. Since the primary, the board has appointed Christina Spielbauer as the acting superintendent to replace John Friend who retired, Sweaney said. She added the board also implemented goals for Spielbauer.
Below are some of the key questions and a summary of candidate responses:
What happens or what should happen when a class size exceeds the district recommended guidelines? What can the school board do to maintain an appropriate class size with our changing population demographics?
“This is a hot potato question,” Sweaney said. “We need to listen to parents.”
While the district administration has addressed overcrowding concerns at Mooreland Elementary School with additional teacher aides, each school within the district has its own set of concerns and demographics, Sweaney said.
The board should not adopt a cookie cutter approach to addressing needs at each building, she said. “I am not in favor of a rigid class size cap.”
Lesman said class sizes are a big issue. “Parents are passionate about it for a reason,” she said. “If a class size is too big, students suffer. I’m in favor of strict guidelines that should be followed.”
Lauritzen said the administration has done a good job in its analysis of enrollment numbers and of the need to balance long-term growth and short-term spurts with budget constraints and the board’s commitment to taxpayers.
“The ability to be nimble is an important quality as well as to address the needs as they arrive,” said Lauritzen, adding that Carlisle can have a very transient student population.
Coplen said the administration not only addressed overcrowding at Mooreland, but the unexpected enrollment of 15 new kindergartners at Crestview Elementary School.
Where appropriate, administrators are putting in additional classroom aides and even new teachers, Coplen said. “It’s something we can do quickly, but we don’t have the ability to build new classrooms overnight.”
Guillaume said that as school buildings are being renovated the board, in consultation with its architect, is adding classroom space wisely in anticipation of demographic changes.
Chapelle had no comment on this question.
State funding of public education has diminished over the years. What is your opinion of the way the school district has handled this challenge? What would you do as a school board member?
Aside from rolling back its percentage of subsidy, state government is also responsible for a lack of initiative in fixing the pension crisis facing Pennsylvania school districts, Coplen said. “We are looking at a bill of almost $11 million next year in a budget of $84 million.”
The Carlisle school district annual contribution to the Pennsylvania Public School Employee’s Retirement System has doubled in the last five years, Coplen said. Instead of falling on local school districts, he would rather see that expense be paid out of state coffers to spread out the burden.
So far, Carlisle has managed the crisis by drawing down money from its reserves without having to cut programs or teachers, but Coplen said that without help from Harrisburg, that could change in three to four years.
Sweaney had a similar concern. “It’s not sustainable for us to take money out of the reserve,” she said. “Eventually it’s going to run out. We are going to have to make some difficult decisions.” Voters need someone on the board who is capable of weighing judgment and making difficult decisions, she said.
“We are fortunate to have the foresight of prior boards,” said Lauritzen, referring to past actions taken to gradually build up the reserve. She said future board members have a responsibility to not only tackle long-term and short-term fiscal needs, but to handle the maintenance of facilities without saddling future boards with a lack of savings.
“We have handled the changes very well,” said Guillaume, adding that where possible, the board has outsourced some personnel in order to reduce the long-term costs of health care and pensions. He also said Tom Horton, director of facilities, has worked hard to put in place initiatives that have reduced costs by increasing energy efficiency.
Lesman called on local residents to not only keep a close eye on what is happening in Harrisburg, but to lobby state lawmakers for an increase in public education funding.
“One of the issues we run into at Hope Station is how do we get kids into programs,” Chapelle said. This includes helping those families who are economically challenged to find after-school care.
The district alone doesn’t always have to take on such heavy responsibilities, said Chapelle, who suggested the board find ways to partner with outside agencies.
This past summer John Friend retired as the superintendent of Carlisle Area School District. The school board has decided to wait until after the Nov. 7 general election to initiate a search for a replacement. What qualities will you looked for in a superintendent?
Guillaume wants a good listener and someone who is well-versed in the unique qualities of Carlisle and its role as Cumberland County seat. The person hired must also be willing to go out into the community and talk about school board and public concerns.
Coplen and Lauritzen recently rewrote the job description of superintendent. “There are so many important words that we put into that,” Coplen said. He said the revised language stresses the importance of having as a chief executive a facilitator of a climate of community collaboration, continuous learning and safety and civil behavior.
To Lauritzen, an important consideration will be the ability of the person to seek out and analyze input from faculty and staff members who are on the front-line of public education. Often these people are the best equipped to make suggestions.