U-CF school board member Gregg Lindner blasts political maneuvering in recent election
● By J. Chambless
By John Chambless
The election may be over, but the bad blood between some members of the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board is just beginning.
At the Nov. 9 school board meeting, Gregg Lindner – who was re-elected, along with Carolyn Daniels and John Murphy from the team that had run against him, read a statement strongly criticizing board member Jeff Hellrung, who was sitting next to him.
“During the 2013 reorganization meeting, I was nominated to be the vice president of the school board, as was Mr. Hellrung,” Lindner said. “The head of the Republican Party of Chadds Ford showed up at our meeting for the only time in my four-year tenure to watch the Region C board member vote for Mr. Hellrung. Her attendance lasted 90 seconds. Now let's move to the recent election. If Mr. Hellrung or any other board member wants to get involved in an election outside their region, that's their right. But to torture the truth in order to get people elected is not OK. At least not OK for a school board election. And Mr. Hellrung did all those things in an editorial in [local online media]. Mr. Hellrung, among other things, said our political team was composed of political operatives. If that is the case, Kathy Do, Bev Brookes and I are a sad team of political operatives, because we had no party machinery, and a political committee that included only the three of us.”
In an Oct. 30 letter sent to local media, Hellrung wrote, in part, “How ironic that Region C UCF School Board candidates Brooks [sic], Do, and Lindner are running on a platform that proclaims 'Education Not Politics.' Brooks, Do, and Lindner have all been highly active in partisan politics for many decades and each has served as an elected official. I applaud their involvement in political action but that campaign slogan is very inappropriate when each of them is an experienced political operative and each of their opponents is highly inexperienced in politics.
“Brooks, Do, and Lindner are putting their political expertise to good use in running a masterful campaign. Brooks has stressed her concerns as a caring grandmother of district students while choosing not to reveal that she is also the mother of a district teacher. Region C voters will have to decide if they want to elect a school board director who may not be able to vote on matters related to the teachers’ union due to her conflict of interest.
“On the other side, candidates Daniels, Murphy, and Ramunno are all political newcomers. Their primary interest is nothing other than ensuring that we continue to deliver an outstanding education to our students at a reasonable cost to our taxpayers. I hope that the voters in Region C will go beyond the slogans and make an informed decision on Tuesday, November 3.”
At the Monday night meeting, which stretched past three hours in length, Lindner continued his angry words aimed at Hellrung.
“My premise is that the school board elections in Region C, representing Chadds Ford and Pennsbury townships, are broken,” Lindner said. “School board elections in my region have become very tough, in part because since 2007, Region C began to have competitive elections. Prior to that, one party picked candidates to run and the results were never in doubt. No local election in Chadds Ford, Delaware County, had ever been won by somebody who was not an endorsed candidate of the Chadds Ford Republican Party until I was elected, along with my friend and running mate Kathy Do, in 2011.
“When I ran with Kathy Do in 2011, we ran a successful write-in campaign to get on the ballot, in part because the superintendent, who we were extremely in support of, left unexpectedly, and we felt the need to run and give the community a choice in school board leadership.
“During that election campaign, leadership for the Citizens for Efficient Education wrote an op-ed endorsing our opponents, which is fine, which included the president and vice-president of the board, with one person being very politically connected. That obviously did not bother Mr. Hellrung at the time. We ended up shocking everyone by winning that election. We never could have done it without a number of registered Republicans and independents supporting us.”
Lindner said that “no member of the endorsed Chadds Ford Republican Party that lives in Delaware County participated in any debate of any kind, whether for supervisor or for school board. It was not a coincidence -- it is a political strategy, and it worked. ... The second noteworthy fabrication was the continuous retelling of a story planted in local online newspapers, and then sent out to residents, related to an ethics opinion issued by the state of Pennsylvania in 1991. That's 1991. The letter, clearly written by someone with a legal background, was just a shot at Miss Brookes, who committed the cardinal sin of not accepting the endorsement of running with the Chadds Ford Republican Party, but rather took a principled view of supporting Kathy and I, like she did four years earlier. Had she taken the easy path, she would have been an election winner.
“So there can be no ambiguity, let me repeat: The other candidates sent out a letter, the premise of which had been discredited. This is the purest definition of a scurrilous and bullying political attack. … Mr. Hellrung, you can twist the truth with the best I have seen. That will be the prism in which I view your future comments. For the other team of candidates, the election is over, and you deserve current congratulations. I personally have run in my last school board election, so there will be lessons to be shared should someone want the support of people who believe that the support of school board elections should not be determined by those who have the most money and political clout.
“Finally, the minimum requirement for being on the school board should be recognition by candidates that you owe the community a couple of debates where the issues are raised and you are put on the record with your views. If the election for school board is treated as a popularity contest, with one side able to enormously outspend the other side, and not participate in public dialogue, then our community and our children will suffer.”
The audience applauded Lindner's comments as Hellrung sat silently.
In stark contrast to Lindner's comments, the meeting began with congenial interviews of three candidates seeking to fill the seat left by retired school board member Keith Knauss. The candidates – Elise Anderson, Jeanne Best and Albert M. Iacocca – made statements and answered questions from the board, expressing their desire to make a difference on the board. The board will vote for one of the candidates to take a place on the board at next week's meeting.
Much of the meeting was taken up with a discussion of class size limits, particularly what parents of third graders at Hillendale Elementary School describe as overcrowded conditions. The parents have expressed their views during public comment at the last three board meetings.
Board president Victor Dupuis guided the discussion by saying, “This is not a new issue -- it may be new to third grade at Hillendale this year, but it's certainly not new to the district. We've had class size issues in all our elementary school in various grades. So perhaps we should discuss what are the guidelines and are there situations where we make exceptions to the guidelines?”
District superintendent John Sanville explained, “In the 2008-2009 time frame, we had a class size guideline in elementary school of 22 students in K-2, and 25 students in grades 3-5. At that time, we had a number of budgetary issues in the commonwealth. We had to make a number of difficult decisions. One of the things we did was raise class size by one student in the elementary levels. Those have been the guidelines ever since. From time to time, no matter where you draw a line, you're going to have classes that are near that line. We called it a guideline, not a policy. There are times that we have gone over.
“This group of Hillendale third-graders last year was two sections of 24 students,” Sanville continued. “They were one student over the guideline last year. That was the only place that that happened last year. ... Not all groups of 24 are created the same. Not all groups of 26 are created the same. Also, at what point in time do we go over the guideline? Once we send out information to parents – this is your child's teacher -- we're uncomfortable adding a section, because there is an investment by the child, by families, to the teacher. When we do go over the guideline, we add additional supports, and this board has been good about providing those supports, in the form of paraprofessional support, or added sections in math and language arts. I've never asked the board for an additional position that the board has turned down.”
Dupuis said, “I think what you're going to hear is that the administration is pretty comfortable with what we're doing right now for third grade at Hillendale. That's not to say that the guidelines can't change, because we can change that, as board, to add additional new classrooms, space permitting, at Hillendale.”
Board member Kathleen Do said, “I just feel like for two years in a row, these kids are in overcrowded classrooms, so maybe we are not giving them the education at the level that we've promised. One year? I get that. What bothers me is that this is the second year that these kids have had to deal with it. Please don't do this to these kids in the fourth grade.”
Dupuis said, “In this K-5 model, the right solution to this is redistricting. It's not adding another section because, quite frankly, the third grade sections in the other schools are small enough that we could redistrict this problem. But the community has spoken very clearly: 'Don't do that.' And so now we're figuring out plan B. The right answers are not the ones everybody wants to hear, that's all.”
Sanville countered, “We've had this guideline for five years, and we are within the guidelines in every class in all four elementary schools. If we feel that those are overcrowded classrooms, and we've had these rules for five years, then at what point do we want to act on this?
“We could redistrict and you would still have this issue,” Sanville continued. “No matter where you draw a line on class size, we will bump up against that line, no matter where our geographic lines are at our four elementary schools. It may change how many students are at each school, but it won't address the class size issue. What addresses the class size issue is a change in policy.”
Dupuis addressed the issue of whether to address the problem now, or wait until the next academic year. “Let's say we go to 24 or 25 students instead of 26. What difference does one student make? Not really that much of a difference -- so maybe we go to 24 or 23,” he said. “So now we're talking about half a dozen to a dozen new classrooms in the four elementary schools, district- wide. We're talking about trailers at Pocopson Elementary. We have to be careful what we ask for here. … The questions is about creating immediate relief by posting a .4 position for a language arts section at Hillendale third grade.”
In an informal count, four board members indicated they would approve adding a part-time teacher position.
Sanville pointed out, “We have similar situations in other schools -- how do we handle those?”
Hellrung, clearly tense, said, “The problem is that the person and the team that has the most information to decide on the exceptions is the superintendent and his team. For the board to overrule that is, I think, egregious. Very disappointing.”
Dupuis summed up the tense discussion by saying, “There will be a motion made at next week's meeting by somebody. So stay tuned.”
As the meeting neared 10:15 p.m., Do said, “This ends possibly the longest curriculum report in the history of the school district.”
Given the length of the meeting, Dupuis said the rest of the work session agenda would be taken up at next week's meeting.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.