Harrisburg got its first look at the large field of candidates for the hotly contested race for school board on Monday night, as seven of the 12 candidates gathered for a forum in Midtown.
All of the candidates attending the evening of speeches were challengers for the five, four-year seats, though all 12—including the incumbents—were invited to attend, said Carrie Fowler, a sitting school board director who helped organize the forum.
Challengers Jayne Buchwach, Doug Thompson-Leader, Lewis Butts Jr., Steve Williams, Cory X. Williams, Gerald Welch and James Thompson took turns speaking, presenting themselves, many for the first time, to residents gathered at the House of Music, Arts and Culture (HMAC).
They’re running against incumbents Lionel Gonzalez, Patricia Whitehead-Myers, Lola Lawson and Ellis R. Roy, none of whom were present. Challenger Ralph Rodriguez was also absent.
The audience of about 50 wasn’t large, but it was passionate, cheering often at the shared message of the candidates—a need for swift and decisive change.
“Despite being an off-year election, the people I meet while canvassing care about this race, and they want to hear about policy,” said candidate Steve Williams.
Jayne Buchwach echoed that sentiment, adding that she was pleased with the turnout at the event.
Despite the crowded Democratic field, the candidates were positive and seemed unified against a common enemy – the current school board members who generally support the policies of the district’s administration. Williams suggested that, no matter who ultimately won, any one of the eight challengers would be an improvement over the existing board.
Buchwach began the night of informal speeches with personal anecdotes about her husband, her children and her own struggle with cancer. She called her platform one of restorative justice, claiming that zero-tolerance policies in schools rob children of their education through the misuse of disciplinary action.
Thompson-Leader shared his frustrations as a parent of an elementary-aged daughter in the Harrisburg school district and promised to provide teachers with the tools they need, while Lewis Butts, Jr., spoke of his personal experiences in the district and suggested that Harrisburg students should have access to the resources already available within the city.
Steve Williams lamented that the school district’s poor reputation often pushed young couples out of the city, in hopes of giving their children a better education. Given that the district spends so much money per student, there’s no excuse for graduating seniors to be so ill equipped with critical thinking and life skills, he said.
Corey X. Williams also emphasized his personal relationship with the district. He admitted that he may not have the policy expertise of some of the other candidates, but said that he knows the district and its needs, and he challenged city leadership to do better by its children.
James Thompson, a former school board director, touted his past success on the board. Thompson suggested that, since his departure, early childhood education was threatened amidst budget negotiations and that the most at-risk students were being penalized by funding decisions. He said that he would focus on reinstating Head Start classrooms in the district.
Finally, Gerald Welch shared that he could empathize with struggling students, having dropped out of high school himself, only to receive a master’s degree in social work later in life. Rather than making it easier for students to graduate without the necessary skills, the school board needs to use taxpayer dollars more wisely by reinvesting in students, he said.
All the candidates were critical of the current school board, and many of their stated policies aligned. This batch of challengers repeatedly questioned where and how the district is spending its money and said that they hope to empower teachers and students to reach educational attainment goals.
The candidates plan to hold more formal debates throughout April and May. Their first debate will be held on April 18 at HMAC from 6 to 9 p.m. The primary election is on May 21.