On this most recent Election Day, one of many decisions constituents faced was: who would they like to represent the needs of their children? To allow voters the opportunity to fully consider this issue, on October 26, the School Board hosted a debate for the upcoming election. This debate took place at Welsh Valley Middle School, and was moderated by officers of the LM and Harriton debate teams. Over the course of two hours, candidates addressed questions pertaining to LMSD’s biggest issues, including start times, enrollment growth, the achievement gap, and our school’s special-ed and gifted programs. The debate was between the eight candidates who were running for four available spots on the School Board. This included the three incumbents, who ran for re-election as a Democrats: Laurie Actman, Ben Driscoll, and Melissa Gilbert. Also included on their ballot was Debra Finger. In addition to that ballot, Mary Brown ran as a Republican, although she identifies as Democrat, but didn’t win the democratic primary. The other three candidates were on the ballot as well, but for the Republican party: Milissa Tadeo, A.J. Kait, and Terry Spahr.
The structure of the debate was very rigid and formal: every candidate answered the same question, in a different order each time and were all given a minute and thirty seconds to speak. Candidates were not permitted to address one another directly. While this structure made for a calmer, less explosive debate, it did not completely keep the environment from intensifying as clashes between the Democrats and Republicans began.
The debate started off with introductions. The incumbent Democrats took this time to explain what they have been working together on and plan to continue working on, all the while endorsing each other. The Republicans heavily endorsed each other as well, but they differed from the Democrats in their presentation. From the get-go, they passionately addressed how the current School Board failed to support our community and its needs. For example, Tadeo said she feels as if “our school district is at risk—we used to be number one, but many issues in our district have been handled poorly by the current board. I believe we should be following the law, and the money going to legal fees should go to education.” Tadeo repeatedly expressed anger at how the incumbents have been handling issues within the district, urging voters to “push away the dark clouds of the incumbents and bring back the sunshine.”
As the debate continued, tempers began rising. Candidates responded to the question: “Given the rise of enrollment, how should we plan without overburdening the taxpayers?” The incumbents were the first end of the table to respond, each one of them explaining different parts of the issue and all of the possibilities that they are looking at, including adding a new school in the district, adding space on to existing schools, and redistricting. While listening to these responses, members of the audience expressed confusion, whispering things like, “They’ve explained the issue and what they are thinking about doing, but none of them actually answered as to what the decision is.” Republican Kait, however, answered, “Nobody has actually answered the question—the Democrats have responded with: What are the goals? How do we actually make this decision? What does [the public] think we should do? How do we get to a decision? Our current board doesn’t have a process; there is a lot of input and not enough output.” This response raised some eyebrows on the Democratic side of the table, as Kait did not answer the question either.
As the candidates began to discuss how to address the special-ed and gifted programs, the Democratic slate gave out a lot of information. However, moving down the table, responses were a bit different. Kait responded, “This is an issue I know nothing about.”
When the question was posed to Tadeo, she responded with similar frustration: “I want to make it known that the author of this question is an expert in special needs. This was geared for the benefit of the incumbents. This is why we have diversity of skill sets on a board [...] not all Democrats, and not all Republicans [...] I am very frustrated because this question was biased, and there needs to be fair planning about what goes on in these forums.”
For two hours, this was more or less the structure: the incumbents giving responses full of information about each topic. In response, Republicans continued to call out the lack of actual decisions, urging the audience to “see past their rhetoric and trickery, and realize what’s really going on here.”
As the debate wrapped up and the moderators concluded, there was one person who was not ready to accept these comments. Lucy Klain, the Inter-School Council Chair, immediately walked on stage and took the microphone. She expressed disappointment in the candidates, specifically Republicans, regarding behavior during the debate. She explained that she felt the questions that they felt were biased were incredibly unbiased and that if Republicans wanted the chance to ask questions they felt were part of their campaigns, there were plenty of opportunities. She finished her remarks by stating “I’m sorry to hear you think so poorly of the parent volunteers.”
After this event, community members made clear who they found the most believable, as on November 7, Democrats Gilbert, Actman, Driscoll, and Finger were elected.
School board candidates debate. Photo courtesy of Harriton TV.