School board incumbents once again failed to show up for a candidate debate, as seven challengers gathered on Thursday night to discuss and debate issues facing the Harrisburg school district.
Some 70 people gathered at the House of Music, Arts & Culture (HMAC) to listen as Democratic candidates exchanged views at the debate, sponsored by Power Central PA, a local interfaith group.
In attendance were challengers Gerald Welch, Jayne Buchwach, Cory X. Williams, Lewis Butts Jr., Steven Williams, James Thompson and Doug Thompson Leader.
Absent were incumbents Lionel Gonzalez, Lola Lawson, Ellis R. Roy and Patricia Whitehead-Myers, as well as challenger Ralph Rodriguez. It was the second debate that these five candidates skipped over the past two weeks.
“Every candidate was extended an invitation,” said moderator Brandon Flood, the newly appointed secretary of the state Board of Pardons. “You can see who took us up on this invitation.”
The candidates first made brief introductions, many mentioning why they decided to run for school board in the May 21 primary.
“I saw the way the school district is operating and I said, ‘You can either do nothing or you can do something,” said Steven Williams. “I’m here to do something.”
After that, candidates answered a series of audience questions for nearly two hours, expressing their views on what they perceived to be the most pressing concerns facing the district right now.
“I’m going to net it out—transparency and accountability,” said candidate Jayne Buchwach. “Every person who works in this district should be accountable, and all of it should be for the betterment of children.”
Candidates often criticized the current administration and school board on such issues as hiring a new, in-house board solicitor and the recent refusal of the school administration to cooperate with a state-mandated financial audit of the district.
“Now, I hear the school board president is arguing with the chief recovery officer,” said James Thompson. “We’re no longer cooperating with the state. We’re arguing with the state.”
The school board just announced a special meeting on Monday, at 5:30 p.m., to select a new in-house solicitor for the district. It’s expected the board will try again to appoint former district solicitor James Ellison, an effort that fell just one vote shy last Monday.
Numerous candidates cited an alleged lack of leadership among the administration and board as a motivation for running.
“They ignore the kids, they ignore the parents, they ignore us,” said Doug Thompson Leader. “So, there needs to be a change.”
The candidates agreed on many issues, but seemed split on the whether to have more charter schools in the Harrisburg school district.
“I’m for a high-quality education,” said Cory X. Williams. “So, I believe personally that the parents should have the choice. I’m down for it if it’s going to give us a quality education.”
Lewis Butts disagreed.
“Charter schools cannot provide the extracurricular activity of a Harrisburg High,” Butts said, as a reason for objecting to more charter schools.
He mentioned “equestrian sports” as something the school district could offer, saying that students should be able to use the state Farm Show Complex for equestrian activities because “it’s in our house.”
The evening’s final question regarded cultural diversity and sensitivity in the district and as part of the school curriculum. All candidates agreed that the district should foster cross-cultural understanding, respect and empathy.
“If you treat everybody with dignity, honor and respect, you can deal effectively with having a diverse community,” said Gerald Welch.
Power Central PA has scheduled another debate for Saturday, starting at 6 p.m., at Choice Community Church at 1524 Walnut St., Harrisburg.