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Chester County Press

Primary Election takes place on May 18

05/10/2021 11:37PM ● By Steven Hoffman
School board candidates are vying for one seat in each of the three regions of the Oxford Area School District, as well as an at-large position that is up for election this year. Candidates for school board positions may run for one party’s nomination or cross file to appear on both ballots in the Pennsylvania Primary Election. 
Two candidates are seeking the nomination for the at-large seat: Jennifer Kehs has cross-filed and will appear on both the republican and democratic primary ballots, while Sherri Matis-Mitchell is on the democratic ballot only.
Kehs is originally from the Pittsburg area, and she has lived in Upper Oxford Township for the last 19 years. She has five children now attending the Oxford Area School District, including the district’s Early College Academy. Her children’s success has been a motivation for her run for a seat on the school board. 
“I think it’s been a really good experience for my kids,” she said. “I want to be involved in what they are going to be learning, and ensuring they have these programs like the Early College Academy.”
Kehs has been very involved in the community, particularly with youth. She has been a Girl Scouts leader and is a Junior and Youth Program Leader at Russellville Grange. 
“I have a love for children,” she said. “I think this would be a good place for me to serve and try to make sure the  education they get is of the highest quality—that they have a lot of programs available to help them grow and develop.”
Kehs is a Penn State University graduate with a degree in chemistry who works as a clinical researcher. She has 25 years of experience in the pharmaceuticals  industry, plus a strong background in both science and business. She is very organized.  “Those skills that I bring with me from that background will help me (on the school board),” she said. ”I think I do well with budgets and timelines and negotiations.”
Quality of education is one of Kehs’ main concerns along with financial responsibility. “Making sure that the resources are there for our kids, as well as good, strong people that can teach our children, and just making sure that we balance the budget, that’s all important for the school. We can still offer good programs for the kids with a balanced budget,” she said. “I’m a resident of the area so, of course, I’m always concerned about our residential school taxes. It would be good if we could balance the budget without raising taxes for people that live in the area.”
Her greatest concern is the children of the school district. “I think what’s really key to me is that I really have a heart for kids,” she said. “The school district serves children in this area of all ages. I think we should be ensuring a good, strong education is available to all the kids, and that they have all of the different programs they need to be successful.” 
This is Kehs first time running for office.  “I’m very active in my community. This is just another way to serve,” she said. 
Matis-Mitchell is seeking the democratic nomination after running for the school board two years ago, when she cross-filed.
“I don’t believe the school board should be partisan,” she said.  “It’s about students and how schools benefit our community, and that’s nonpartisan. I do not have children in the district, but I believe that education benefits the entire community.” 
Matis-Mitchell is a research scientist who started in chemistry with an interest in public health. She got her Ph.D from the University of Pittsburgh and worked on the human genome project and has taught at a graduate level.  Now mostly retired, Matis-Mitchell wants to give back to her community.
“I have more time to participate in local politics,” she explained. “It’s important to recognize everybody’s views not just my own. What’s important is what people are saying and to try to be unbiased and listen and come to some sort of common ground that benefits most people. I want to try to represent everybody and listen to what everybody says, use my experience to provide what’s best for the students in the school district.”
Matis-Mitchell sees test scores as one of the main issues for the district. 
“I think that there is a gap between where we are and where we should be,” she said. “We have smart kids. We need to give those kids a good foundation so they can go out and make good contributions to the rest of the world. It doesn’t necessarily have to be white collar.”
Matis-Mitchell favors a strong foundation studies in math, science and English. “I’d like to see our test scores go up. That’s a really good metric that we have. I would really like to see improvement made in STEM certainly,” she said.
Matis-Mitchell grew up in western Pennsylvania and has lived in the district since 1996. Her grandparents came to this country as immigrants who did not speak English. “We need to make sure all of our students from any background have an opportunity to learn not just English but also other skills. I came from a community that was a lot like this  My father worked in a steel mill and we had a little farm. I did very well because I had people to help me. It’s about mentoring and giving back.”
Responding to families is also important to Matis-Mitchell. “I think that we could do a better job of listening to input from parents. I think any time a parent speaks, we need to listen, but also follow through.”
She also prioritizes school safety and finances. “People are concerned about their taxes being raised. That’s a valid concern,” she said. 
In Region 1, which is comprised of Upper Oxford, Lower Oxford East, and Oxford Borough East, incumbent Dr. Eric Owens is running for the democratic nomination. Cross-filed as both republican and democrat is Kristen Dean, who is currently serving on the school board as an at-large board member. This time she has opted to cross-file for the Region 1 seat instead.
Owens, age 48, is completing his first term on the school board. He is a professor and department chairperson in the Department of Counselor Education at West Chester University. He also works part-time as a mental health therapist/licensed professional counselor.
Owens was a high school counselor in Pittsburgh before moving to the Oxford area. “I teach mental health and school counseling at West Chester within the College of Education and Social Work. I've worked with the Pennsylvania Department of Education over the last decade on a number of different projects, as well as the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. I have also worked and consulted with school counselors, teachers, and administrators throughout the region and the state on issues related to mental health, school counseling, school funding, and trauma informed education,” he said. 
“I've genuinely enjoyed my time on the board, and I think I've been able to bring my expertise in education and in mental health to the stakeholders in the Oxford Area School District. I'm particularly proud of helping to lead the district through the COVID-19 crisis, but also I'm proud of being able to work with administrators and local leaders to bring additional mental health services to our district,” Owens said. 
For his next term, if re-elected, Owens lists his priorities as working with school leaders and teachers to explore how the kids can best recover what they may have lost over the last 14 months; to continue to explore how students can access mental health and emotional health resources that are difficult to find in the area; find ways to lessen the tax burden on taxpayers in the district; and determine how to better support teachers, who have done amazing work since the pandemic began.
Asked about the major issues facing the board and how they should be addressed, Owens began with the impact COVID-19 has had on education. “Our teachers have done an amazing job over the past 14 months, but no amount of work was going to prevent our kids from falling behind. Between the challenges of online and hybrid learning, family struggles, economic hardship, learning from home, etc. it's far too much to explain in a short answer. Our teachers have done the best they can, but we have much to do to catch up from this year,” he said. 
He also cited mental health and economics as important issues. “We need to refocus efforts and explore options for bringing free or low-cost mental health services to our kids and families, because kids need to feel safe and well in order to learn,” he said. “With revenue challenges and increasing costs…we have to find ways to make the best we can with what we have, while limiting the impact on taxpayers.”
Owens added, “I serve on the board because I genuinely and sincerely care about our kids, our community, and about public education. School board members are volunteers. I do this because I care deeply, really deeply,, about public education, and about our kids and our community. The last year has been beyond hard on every single one of us, but it has been especially hard on our kids, our teachers, and on public education. To lead us out of this, we need people with experience, and with an understanding of both education but also mental health. I think that's what makes me uniquely qualified for the challenges that lie ahead.”
Dean, age 43, and her husband Michael have lived in Oxford Borough for nearly 14 years. She is in her fourth year on the school board, where she is serving in an at-large position, but now she is running for a position as a Region 1 representative. She has cross-filed.
“I felt that, since I am very involved with the kids and families in my immediate neighborhood, it was a better fit for me to represent those constituents. I’m not sure how much it will affect how I represent, but it will affect where I place my time and attention while campaigning,” Dean said. “Eric Owens and I have discussed having to run against each other and we know it’s less than ideal, but we both agree the upside is that a good school board member will represent Region 1.”
A graduate of Grove City College in 2000 with a degree in business management, she has been a job coach for a young lady with Autism for the last 15 years. “I have taken the last year off in order to develop and run a free learning pod for some of the children in the Oxford Area School District. These 7 children, ranging in age from 7 to 16, have done amazingly well, and it’s been one of the joys of my life to help them,” she said. 
Dean is involved in the community and has been a weekly volunteer at the Lighthouse Youth Center for the past 8 years. She has enjoyed her time on the school board thus far.
“It has been a very positive experience for me for two main reasons,” she said. “First, the other board members are great and they do truly care about serving the community. Second, I feel that I am able to make positive contributions, particularly from a financial standpoint. My analytical mind is able to understand the financial aspects of the position and I enjoy thinking through various scenarios to ensure we are being wise as we create our budget each year.”
When asked about issues facing the school board, Dean responded that a particularly important issue for the board involves parent and student confidence. “An increase in confidence will lead to a decrease in students switching to charter schools, which will result in decreased costs for the district,” she said. “There are many facets to this issue. Some of these include legislative reform, continuously evaluating and improving the curricular options for students, improving communication with stakeholders, and making sure students are thriving academically, socially and emotionally.”
She added, “Something else that is very important to me is being a good steward of our resources. The people in our district work hard and we, as the board, must be wise as we spend this money. I do think we are on the right track as a district, but there is always room for improvement.”
Should she win another term. Dean would like to continue to improve how the board communicates with stakeholders. “I want to continually evaluate our budget to ensure we are spending in the wisest manner possible,” she said. “I would like people to know that I really appreciate our community. I want to ensure that we raise young people who are willing and able to give back to the community that has served them so well. And I am glad to invest the time and energy necessary to help bring this to fruition.”
In Region 2, comprised of West Nottingham, Lower Oxford West and Oxford Borough West, William Kloss has cross-filed, while Amy Jones is seeking the democratic nomination.
Jones, age 40, is a graphic designer who is an Oxford graduate. After attending Kutztown University, she and her husband, who is also an Oxford graduate, decided to stay in the Oxford area to raise their family. They have two sons, ages 6 and 9, who are students in the district.
This is her first time seeking public office. 
“I saw there was a need and a space for a democrat to run,” she said.  “This might be a way I can contribute and maybe I can win the seat. I am interested in education. I believe in public education strongly as it contributes to equality. When you have a good public education, I think you can do a lot with your life.”
Jones sees her experience in Oxford schools as a student and as a mother as her strongest qualifications for the school board. “That knowledge of going through the school district, that’s really helpful, and now that I have two children, and they’re in the school district as well, I have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a student, both then and now. I think I could help building toward opportunities for my children and all our children, my perspective would be valuable.”

Jones would most like to be a part of the board conversation as issues arise, contribute her perspective to the conversation, and help in the decision-making process. 
“I’m strongly invested in our school district and I want all of our children to succeed,” she said.
Kloss has cross-filed. Kloss served on the Octorara Area School Board until he moved from that school district. He is now bringing his experience to his new district as a potential school board member.
William Kloss, age 38, served three years on the Octorara School Board before resigning in April 2020 to move to the Oxford area. He is a republican, crossfiled on both party ballots for the primary.

“I was just starting to get a rhythm and understanding of the needs of a board member,” Kloss said. “I feel like there’s a lot of the things I learned in Octorara that I can apply in  Oxford.”

Employed in marketing for Wawa with an MBA from Delaware Valley College, Kloss comes from a family closely involved in education. He is very involved in his church having served as a deacon at Penningtonville Presbyterian, and also served on the Atglen Borough Zoning-Hearing Board. 

The Klosses have been as a foster family for over four years, and have adopted three of their children from the program. “We have an understanding of children with special needs and those affected by trauma,” he said. 
Five of Kloss’ six children will be attending Oxford schools this coming school year, with a child in every building except the middle school. 
One of Kloss’ major concerns is the return to school after Covid-19, and how to help children who have been impacted the most to catch up. “I’m worried there could be a cohort of students that have been impacted for the long term.” 
Kloss feels it is important to communicate with teachers and the administration to catch the long term effects of Covid-19 and address them as soon as possible. “We’re not going to have time to wait years to get test scores back. We’re going to have to work quickly as teachers start to see trends,” he said. “It’s going to be an interesting time as wee come out of this.
Another concern related to Covid is the number of students that may have opted for online charter schools, and the financial impact that goes along with it. “Those are lost tax dollars that put a strain on the district.
On the issue of taxes, Kloss wants to address today’s needs while the district to prepares for the future and future funding requirements. 
Having school board experience, Kloss understands that it will take time as a new member to learn all the issues. “I want to make sure we’re aligned on correct priorities. I want to know how I can work with this board and administration coming out of Covid to align with those needs and address them,” he said. 
As a board member in Octorara Kloss was very involved with Career and Technical Education, as well as the OABest event. He also was involved with the board’s search committee that found the current superintendent, as well as principals and other administrators.
In Region 3, which covers Elk and East Nottingham townships, incumbent Jenifer Warren and challenger Michael Blessington have both cross-filed. 
Blessington has been unavailable to campaign due to the impact of COVID-19 on his entire household. Blessington was admitted to Jennersville Hospital on March 29 and spent 17 days on a ventilator, followed up by rehab until his release on May 10. 
“I’m very lucky to be alive,” he said. 
Blessington is an insurance agent specializing in Medicare policies. The Blessingtons have been married 29 years and have two daughters adopted from China in 1997 and 2000.  Both girls are graduates of the Oxford Area School District. Their success at Oxford is one of Blessington’s motivations for running for a position on the school board, where he hopes to maintain the high quality education of the school district.
“I want a fair shake for the kids - I want them learning the basics. I want to continue what they did with my daughters, who both graduated in the top 20. I think it’s an excellent school,” Blessington said. “They did a great job for my kids. I don’t want to see it change. I don’t want it going backwards.”
Blessington sees a need for a school climate that supports education. “I’d like to get rid of some of the political correctness. Some of it’s very good. We have to be polite to each other, we have to be nice to each other, we need to understand, we have to open up conversation. We can’t be 100 percent adversarial,” he said. “That’s what I want to bring into high school education. I want the kids to feel free to speak their minds.”
He also supports a strong foundation for education. “I like to keep the classics, I don’t want them messing around with the math, I don’t want them messing around with the authors, I don’t want them messing around with history.  I think history, what our country did for the last 200 years, is important. We have to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going,” he said. 
Blessington was elected to the position of township auditor for East Nottingham in 2019 and has been a republican committeeman for over 10 years.
Now, Blessington hopes to serve the community through the school board. “I think I’m fair minded. I think I’m a reasonable person to deal with. I think I could help make some great decisions here in the future,” he said.
Warren is running for a second term on the school board. She has work experience in libraries and supporting her husband’s engineering company as his office manager. She has lived in the Oxford area for the past 17 years and has two children who have attended the district schools. 
“Now that my children are older … the time seems right,” Warren said. “I’m a firm believer in public schools. They make the community stronger, whether you have children in the district or not.”

At the school board reorganization in December, Warren was elected to the position of vice president. “I have a good working relationship with all the current board members,” she said. “I do feel like I’m making a difference that’s one of the reasons I ran - to make a difference in my community.”
Warren has cross-field. She noted how some school boards tend to split along party lines, but that does not seem to be a factor in Oxford. “I don’t think it’s a partisan position,” she said. “This is a nonpartisan position which is why we can cross-file. I do have support on both sides.”
One of Warren’s accomplishments that she is most proud of is the new superintendent evaluation system. Warren chaired the committee for revising the system. The new version was presented for review at the May work session and is up for possible approval at the regular school board meeting in May.
She explained, “We have re-done the superintendent evaluation, the rubric, the evaluation tool and also the time line for the process. That was a suggestion I made to the board president about a year ago. Enough board members were frustrated with the tool we were using. That’s something I’m most proud of. I’d like to get back on the board because we won’t be using it this year.”
Warren sees the budget as one of the most challenging issues for the district. 
“The fund balance had gotten to a point where we needed to work it down, and that allowed us to keep taxes low. We were consciously doing that, but that was not sustainable. At some point you get to where your fund balance is too low. We’re there,” she said. “We’ve got to find where we can cut, but that’s not going to make up for the shortfall alone. Over the next two or three years, how do we close that gap?”
Related to finances, Warren would like to see fewer district students opting for charter schools.  
“For some people, they are going to find that’s the best solution for their child, but that money just flows out of our district. The funding formula is not fair.  If you have special education children going to charter schools, it’s even more lopsided,” she said.  “Public schools have not had to compete, Now, there’s so many choices, we need to compete. We have a very good education product. I don’t think we market ourselves.”
Warren points out that she is very active on the school board and she has the time available to commit to the work, and to listen to the community.  “You need to be able to have that time and energy,” she said. “I will work really hard to get people the answers they need. I want to hear from the community. I have never tried to hide from anybody.”