What if you held an election, and the candidates didn’t show up?
Pointedly, a certain group of candidates—the incumbents for Harrisburg school board: Lionel Gonzalez, Lola Lawson, Ellis R. Roy and Patricia Whitehead-Myers (joined in absentia by one of the challengers, Ralph Rodriguez).
Over the past two weeks, three community events—a candidate forum and two debates—have been held, and the current office-holders have dodged each one.
I attended Thursday night’s debate at the House of Music, Arts & Culture (HMAC), and it was striking to see the same seven challengers lined up on stage—making statements, answering questions—but not a single sitting school board member.
Perhaps they didn’t feel they would be in friendly territory or that they would have to answer tough questions. But you know what? That’s their job.
As public servants seeking another term in office, they have a duty to stand before residents and explain their positions and defend their votes, even if they might face criticism. And besides, I doubt that Brandon Flood, the evening’s profoundly fair moderator, would have been any tougher on them than the other candidates.
Why do they believe so strongly in the policies of the school superintendent? How do they feel about appointing James Ellison as district solicitor? Do they agree with the district’s refusal to cooperate with the state’s financial audit? Why or why not?
Voters have a right to know. If you’re consistently voting to support the administration, you must have your reasons, and you should be able to air and defend them. If you believe the district should not cooperate with state auditors, you should be able to explain your view on this consequential issue–one that could jeopardize the very autonomy of the district.
But, once again, the incumbents weren’t in attendance, leaving some 70 voters who attended the debate without their side of the story or any idea what they would do over the next four years if elected.
Thus, the night was left to the seven challengers who have attended every candidate event: Gerald Welch, Jayne Buchwach, Cory X. Williams, Lewis Butts Jr., Steven Williams, James Thompson and Doug Thompson Leader.
Together, they had a lively, fascinating and civil discussion on everything from school funding to charter schools to curriculum. If they had attended, the sitting board members would have discovered an evening of serious debate about vital issues facing the district, not one of personal attacks against them or the administration.
The primary election is one month away, and other debates are planned. Will the incumbents attend those, or will they blow them off, too?
At some point soon, the incumbent school board members need to step up. They need to summon their collective courage, stand before the voters of Harrisburg and state boldly why they deserve another four years in office.
Lawrance Binda is editor-in-chief of TheBurg.