The three candidates for school board from the Unionville-Chadds Ford district's Section B met with the public in a May 3 town hall-type event that mostly grappled with the controversial Unionville High School renovation proposal.About 30 people attended the "Meet the School Board Candidates" event, which was organized by the Newlin Township Democratic and Republican committees and was held at 7 p.m., Sunday, May 3 in the recreation hall of the KOA Campground on Route 162 in Newlin Township.
The candidates from Section B, which includes Newlin, Pocopson, and Birmingham townships, are Holly Manzone, a Democrat from Pocopson, Jeff Leiser, a Republican from Birmingham, and Laura Maurer, a Democrat from Newlin.
The meeting began with the three candidates giving brief presentations about their background and qualifications. Maurer said she had almost 30 years of experience with IBM doing tactical and strategic business planning, managing personnel, and handling large budgets. Retired for 11 years, she runs a family horse farm in Newlin.
"Budgets and large amounts of money don't intimidate me," Maurer said. "What intimidates me are large taxes." She said the voters have rejected two referenda on funding the renovations, and the district should respect the electorate and scale back the plans, especially given the current recession.
Leiser said he and his wife moved to Birmingham because of the school district's quality. He has worked for W. L. Gore & Associates for 23 years in business leadership and customer relationship management roles.
The taxpayers should be considered customers of the school district, Leiser said. They understand that making investments in the schools is a good thing in the long term, but they want proof they are making the right investment at the right level, he said. He said the district's current school board had failed to effectively explain to the public why they felt the proposed $70 million renovations were necessary.
Manzone, whose professional background is in biological research, said she has gone to nearly every school board meeting for several years and serves on several school committees. "I really do understand what's going on in the schools," she said.
She pointed out that she also cares about the 75 percent of the district's residents who don't have children in the schools. One of her primary goals is to preserve open space, Manzone said.
"We see the plight of the farmers," Manzone said. Even before the current recession, it was hard for farmers to hold on to their land. Every time a farm is sold, houses are built and more children come into the school system. Then taxes are raised, and farmers squeezed even more. "It's a vicious cycle," she said.
Like the other candidates, Manzone said the two-year controversy over the renovation has polarized some residents, but most were solidly in the middle. They want to improve the schools, but within what they saw as more reasonable funding limits.
In the discussion period, the candidates first explained that they were "cross-filed" for the primary, meaning all three would be on each party's ballot.
Then an attendee asked what effect the candidates could have on the renovation funding, since they would not take office until December. Maurer said she wasn't sure they could have any effect, given that the district has chosen to proceed. "The train may have left the station," Leiser said. Manzone pointed out that if the project is done in phases, new board members could influence future stages of it.
Manzone said that among her concerns for the future was a proposal by Governor Rendell to consolidate the state's school districts from some 500 to about 100. "I think that would be an absolute disaster," Manzone said.
An attendee asked if the candidates could offer tax relief for those retired and over 65. Maurer said school districts didn't have the power to offer such relief, but she would see if other agencies could. Leiser mentioned the district's Seniors Applying Generational Experience (SAGE) program, in which seniors work in the school and get pay they can keep or apply toward their taxes.
Asked what she would do differently from the current board, Maurer said she would reprioritize the district's renovation needs to emphasize academic achievement and student safety, and defer until later other things that were desirable, "a new auditorium, for example," but not necessary.
All the candidates said safety improvements were necessary, especially the ability to lock down the building against potentially violent intruders. Currently "anybody can walk right in," Leiser said.
The candidates also agreed that district residents would vote for improvements they were persuaded were necessary. "These school buildings belong to all of us," Manzone said. "We all have a stake in this."
The final questioner asked each candidate to briefly state his or her strongest asset. Leiser cited his objectivity, Manzone her understanding of the issues, and Maurer her ability to think and communicate clearly.