There was a sense of déjà vu on Wednesday night as numerous challengers, but few incumbents, crowded the stage during a school board candidate debate in Midtown Harrisburg.
A large group of residents attended the event at the House of Music, Arts & Culture (HMAC), as did all eight Democratic challengers: Gerald Welch, Jayne Buchwach, Cory X. Williams, Lewis Butts Jr., Steven Williams, James Thompson, Doug Thompson Leader and Ralph Rodriguez.
Three incumbents—Lola Lawson, Ellis R. Roy and Patricia Whitehead-Myers—did not attend, though Roy had a surrogate read an introductory statement. One of the incumbents, Lionel Gonzalez, departed after attending only about 15 minutes of the two-hour event.
“We invited all 12, so who showed up, showed up,” said Brian Ostella of Friends of Midtown, the community group that organized the debate, which was held in anticipation of the May 21 primary for five, four-year seats on the board.
The most open-ended question arguably came first when moderator Brandon Flood, secretary of the state Board of Pardons, asked candidates to name a specific goal or two that they would like to implement to improve the district.
Challenger Steven Williams answered first, naming adherence to the state recovery plan and the desire to bring more counselors into the district.
“We have students dealing with serious issues outside the classroom,” he said
“Bringing in more counselors is crucial . . . to give students the life they deserve.”
Butts said that he wanted to put each of the nine board members into one of Harrisburg’s schools, presumably so they could get to know and advocate for the school.
“Each board member will be assigned to a school. They’ll have an office in that school,” he said, adding that improving nutrition is also a priority.
Rodriguez advocated “more services for students,” such as counseling and support. He also recommended an audit of contracts, saying he believed that there was overlap among services and vendors.
“I’d like to go through the books and do a full audit of programs in the district,” he said. “The school district should have just one umbrella of programs.”
Buchwach reiterated the themes of “transparency and accountability,” which she has brought up repeatedly at numerous forums and debates over the past month.
“That is the one big goal, to put in policies and procedures to do that,” she said, while also advocating “restorative policies in our schools, so that suspension and expulsion are not first results.”
Gonzalez, the only incumbent to attend, simply mentioned that he’d like to see students do better academically.
“I would love the children to get better grades. I would love the children to get motivation,” he said, before promptly walking off the stage and not returning for the remainder of the debate.
Welch mentioned improving graduation rates as a major goal if he were elected.
“I would like to see more college enrollment,” he said. “That’s the reason I got involved in the school board race, because we were lacking in graduation rates.”
James Thompson said that he’d like to see a change in the district’s leadership—the superintendent—and an improvement in reading performance.
“We have in our schools 20 percent or less that are making reading proficiency,” he said. “You cannot learn if you cannot read.”
Doug Thompson Leader built on the argument of top-down change, saying that the school board also needed new blood.
“I hope we get five independent-thinking, smart people on the board. I mean, five independent thinkers who are going to focus on policy,” he said, adding that communication also needed to improve among the district, parents and the community.
Cory X. Williams added to that point.
“First, I would work hard to bridge the gap between the schools and the community” he said. “As a community, it’s up to us. It takes a village to raise a child.”
Many times, the candidates espoused the importance of community involvement, even pointing to the crowded and often vocal group of residents gathered for the debate.
Organizer Ostella also complimented the turnout for the event.
“Harrisburg is nothing without its residents, and engaged residents make it a great place to live,” he said.
The primary election is slated for May 21. The competition is only among Democrats, as no Republicans are running in the race.