In Avon Grove, nine candidates vying for five seats on school board
● By Steven Hoffman
There are five school board seats that are up for election this year in Avon Grove, and a total of nine candidates who are seeking to fill those seats. In Region I, the incumbent is Charles Beatty. He is seeking the Republican nomination in the upcoming Primary Election. He is being challenged by Dr. Dorothy Linn, a retired school superintendent who cross-filed, and is seeking the nomination on the Democratic and Republican ballots.
Region I is comprised of Franklin Township and London Britain Township.
Beatty said that his 40 years of experience in construction, including as a president and the owner of a construction company, has been useful while serving for the last eight years on the school board. The professional experience dealing with financial matters, as well as with cost projections, have been especially helpful while serving on the board, Beatty said. Beatty serves on the personnel, CCIU legislative, and co-curricular committees. He has two daughters.
Linn enjoyed a 30-year career in public education, working in a variety of roles. At the time of her retirement in 2014, she was the superintendent of the Colonial School District in Delaware. She and her husband have three children who attended Avon Grove schools, and she now has grandchildren in the school district. She currently serves on the Avon Grove Education Foundation board.
In Region II, which is comprised of Penn Township, New London Township, and voting district #1 of West Grove Borough, there are four candidates vying for two seats. School board president Tracy Lisi and school board member Jeffrey Billig have both cross-filed in the Primary Election and are seeking a second term on the board, while their opponents, Carmela Ciliberti and Mark Stewart Jr., are seeking to win the Republican nomination in the Primary Election.
Region II is comprised of Penn Township, New London Township, and Voting District #1 of West Grove Borough.
Lisi has served as a school board member since 2016, and has been the board president for the last two years. The quality of the schools was the reason that her family moved from Montgomery County to Avon Grove 14 years ago. She volunteered extensively in the schools while her family’s two children attended all four schools in the district. Lisi has 23 years of experience in the healthcare industry, with expertise in project management and operations.
Billig and his wife have lived in Avon Grove for the last 18 years. Their three children attend, or have already graduated from Avon Grove schools. Professionally, his expertise is in managing profit/loss and growing businesses.
Ciliberti’s family moved to the area in 1989, and she is a 1996 graduate of Avon Grove High School. After high school, she was employed for more than 20 years at the world’s largest commercial aviation training provider. She worked in various roles, including manager, auditor, and employee instructor. She is now enrolled in law school and will be graduating in 2020.
Mark Stewart is running for school board to establish a new facilities plan that meets the needs of students and taxpayers, to remain transparent to the constituents, and to continue looking for ways to improve Avon Grove’s academic excellence.
There are three candidates vying for two seats that are up for election in Region III. Two longtime incumbents, Herman Engel and Bonnie Wolff have both cross-filed, while Christina Fanning is seeking the Republican nomination.
Region III includes London Grove Township, Avondale Borough, and Voting District #2 of West Grove Borough.
Engel, a teacher for the Kennett Consolidated School District, has 27 years of experience in education. He has served for nine years on the Avon Grove School Board, and his committee assignments have included the Finance Committee, Curriculum Committee, and Facilities Committee through the years.
Bonnie Wolff has served more than 15 years on the Avon Grove School Board, including several stints as the board president. During that time on the board, the school district has had numerous accomplishments, including the transition to a full-day kindergarten program, the implementation of a five-year curriculum review cycle, major investments in technology, and the ongoing effort to keep millage rates low while providing the best education possible for students.
Fanning, a resident of Avon Grove since 1998, is employed as a global account manager. She wants to prioritize the district’s facilities, and she said she favors building a new high school—but it should be built based on what the community can afford.
The candidates for Avon Grove School Board took part in a meet-the-candidates forum at the high school last Saturday, just ten days before the Primary Election takes place on May 21. The forum provided the candidates with an opportunity to share their vision for Avon Grove’s future with district residents.
The forum was hosted and moderated by the Chester County League of Women Voters. Each candidate made a two-minute opening statement, responded to questions posed by the moderator, and concluded the event by making a two-minute closing statement.
The school district is currently in the process of designing and planning for the construction of a new high school—the largest project in its history. One of the first questions posed was whether the candidates supported the new high school project.
The five incumbents who are up for re-election this year have already staked out their positions on the project. Lisi, Billig, Engel, and Wolff, have all been supporters of the project, while Beatty has been part of the group that has said that the project is too expensive.
“I do support new facilities at Avon Grove, but I do not support the costs,” Beatty said, explaining that the plan that included a new high school and the one that included a new middle school were both more expensive than what he was comfortable with.
“We have a good school district with good outcomes,” Beatty said. “I don’t think a bright, new shiny building is the answer.”
Lisi talked about how a building project to address the district’s needs is long overdue—a previous school board came close to approving the construction of a new secondary school over a decade ago. The district has relied on modular classrooms for the last two decades.
“We have to have new construction to meet the needs of the school district,” Lisi said.
Engel pointed out that the district has relied on modular classrooms for so long that students have entered kindergarten and advanced all the way to graduation and the modular classrooms have remained.
At least two candidates—Ciliberti and Stewart—have campaigned on a plan to stop the construction of the new high school and instead develop a plan that would include renovations to three of Avon Grove’s schools. The forum would have been a natural opportunity, it would seem, to share details about the plan with the community. However, none of the candidates presented an alternative plan, during the forum that lasted nearly two hours.
Ciliberti did say that she’s not convinced that the school district is planning for the best outcome by building a new high school, and she also noted that a minority of the board wanted to explore other options. Essentially, the board has been divided on the high school project, and many other issues, by a 5-4 margin.
Stewart and Ciliberti seem to be very much in line with Beatty and the three other candidates on the school board who view the construction of a new high school and renovation of the current high school into a middle as being too expensive for the community. There are concerns about abandoning the current middle school, as well as the long-term financial impact that undertaking the project will have on the school district and community.
It was actually Billig who came the closest to referencing the alternative plan when he said that school district officials analyzed a wide variety of options, including proposals to renovate and expand the existing schools. An option to renovate the three schools so that the modular classrooms could be taken out would total about $132 million, which is comparable to the costs of building a new high school and renovating the current high school into a middle school. For minimal cost-savings, those buildings would be between 85 percent and 90 percent capacity from the very start once the renovations were completed.
“We studied this for five years,” Billig said forcefully. “We looked at so many options. Public education is an investment to be made wisely.”
Wolff has also been an advocate for the plan that the district is pursuing. “A new building is a much smarter and better use of our tax money,” she said. “A new high school will allow us to expand our technology offerings, eliminate the cost of portables in the district, reconfigure grades across the buildings so that we have breathing room in the buildings and offer a true middle school configuration of grades six to eight. We get a solution that lasts for many years, instead of a short-term solution we’ll need to address again in a few years.”
The opinions that the new candidates have on the high school project varied.
Ciliberti indicated that she was opposed to the plan.
Linn said that she is absolutely in favor of building the new high school. “The key,” she said, “is to stay within budget. That is the job now.”
Fanning said that she “absolutely supports” the construction of the new high school, but wants to make sure that expenditures are kept to a minimum. The school district can only build what the community can afford, she said. She identified the proposed community health center, which is included in the new high school plan, as an example of a luxury item that she wouldn’t support.
One of the questions asked during the forum was whether the candidates would support such a health center.
A majority of the candidates, including Lisi and Billig, said that the new health center would be an item that could be taken out of the new high school project to reduce costs. It would seem, no matter how the election turns out, that the health center might not make it through the planning stage.
Ciliberti thanked Lisi and Billig for their responses to the question about the health center—she lives in their region, and she does not want to see the school district spend money on the health center.
The first question at the forum was about whether Pennsylvania is funding education appropriately.
Kudos to Beatty for pointing out that the state is providing a lower and lower percentage of total education funding to Pennsylvania schools, and by doing that the state is placing a greater burden on local residents.
“I’d like the state government to find more money for public schools,” Beatty said.
Engel said that unfunded mandates are an issue that makes it difficult to pass school budgets without costs going up.
One example of the unfunded mandate, Wolff said, is the testing that is required, but the costs of administering the tests falls to the school districts. She also noted that state law requires that prevailing wage be paid for any school construction projects. In Avon Grove, it’s the prevailing wage of Philadelphia, which is much higher than other areas. This drives up the costs for the school districts.
Billig said that the best thing that the state could do is address the rising pension costs by taking action to finally solve the problem.
Linn said that, as a superintendent in Delaware, she had a lot of experience working with lawmakers on issues. She also noted that Pennsylvania is the opposite of many other states in that, here, most of the revenues are generated from local taxes.
The candidates shared similar views on a number of the topics that were raised during the forum. For example, everyone was in agreement that the school district’s facilities should be utilized for enrichment programs of interest to the community. A question about whether the candidates believe politics should play a role in school board elections resulted in all of them saying that educational issues shouldn’t be decided based on politics. Another question, about how the candidates would handle the stress of serving on the school board, did not draw any significant distinctions among the candidates. All the candidates were generally in agreement that the Avon Grove Charter School provides an educational option for local families.
Another topic that was raised during the forum was school bus safety. Everyone was in favor of safe school buses, of course, but the discussion yielded a good public service announcement—if anyone in the community sees someone not obeying the law when a school bus stops to pick up or drop off a student, it’s important to let the authorities know.
Billig explained that one of his constituents in Region II notified him of a situation that was occurring where a vehicle was failing to stop for the school bus. The school district was able to contact the State Police, and they were able to set up a patrol. They ended up stopping motorists who weren’t following the laws.
Toward the conclusion of the forum, Fanning noted that taking part in the event was helpful.
“It’s fun sitting up here,” Fanning said, “because a lot of good ideas are being brought up.”
While the candidates didn’t agree on all the issues, there was agreement on perhaps one thing—the importance of district residents going to the polls on Tuesday, May 21.
Linn had the final word at the forum, saying, “On May 21, go out and vote. It’s important to have your voices heard.”
(Editor’s note: Two of the candidates, Mark Stewart, and Bonnie Wolff were unable to take part in the meet-the-candidates forum. Both were provided with a list of the topics raised during the forum so that they could provide responses for inclusion in the article. Stewart did not respond. Wolff’s responses are included here.)