Four incumbents and a challenger vie for four Phoenixville School Board seats

ELECTION 2013 LOGO round

PHOENIXVILLE — All five candidates who cross-listed to face off in this spring’s Phoenixville Area School Board primary will again vie for the four available seats on election day.

Incumbents Joshua Gould, Betsy Ruch, Jan Potts and Dan Cushing share the ballot with first-time challenger, district parent Lisa Longo.

Facing the planned construction of combined early learning center and new East Pikeland Elementary School building as well as the scheduled resumption of negotiations with a teachers’ union after a contract was just finalized earlier this fall following more than three years of negotiation, there is no shortage of issues these candidates will face if elected to the school board.

All seats are four-year terms.

On the Republican side in the primary, Gould received 608 votes, Ruch got 582, both Cushing and Potts received 574 and Longo had 348, according to results from Chester County Voter Services.

Longo received 438 votes from Democrat ballots while Gould had 410, Ruch got 371, Potts had 346 and Cushing received 335.

- Joshua Gould

The current school board president, Gould previously served as board treasurer and is wrapping up his second term.

A 1984 graduate of Phoenixville Area High School, he is the parent of two Phoenixville students, serves as chairman of the board budget committee and president of the Phoenixville Public Library Board of Trustees.

“One attribute I bring to the board is the ability to approach issues analytically, ask questions, gather data and make an educated decision rather than an emotional or uninformed decision,” Gould told The Mercury before the primary election.

Gould believes his experience of eight years on the board is valuable.

“Some turnover is good, but over the last several years five long-time board members with more than 10 years of service each have stepped down,” he said in May. “So it’s good to balance turnover with experience and some organizational memory.”

Growth in the district, specifically regarding “classroom space at the elementary level,” is the biggest issue facing the district, Gould told The Mercury last week.

According to district numbers, Phoenixville’s enrollment grew 4.14 percent since the end of the 2011-12 school year.

“The board and administration have worked very hard on this over the last year,” Gould said. “We are very close to reaching decisions on a specific long-term plan to address the need for classroom space. We need to buy land and push ahead with designs for new classroom space that supports the long-term vision that the administration and the board have defined for the district.”

Regarding the district budget, Gould said that employee salaries and benefits “are, by far, the largest expense in any school district’s budget.”

“We need to make sure that we remain competitive and that we compensate all employees, not just teachers, fairly for the outstanding work they do for our students, but we also need to balance that against the need to hold expenses as low as possible for the sake of the taxpayers,” Gould said.

Beyond that, Gould emphasized “hold(ing) the line on operations expenses by squeezing out every possible efficiency before we look to cutting programs or allowing class sizes to increase in order to reduce expenses.”

He also said the district must seek to raise revenues “through other means than local taxes, such as through advertising and rentals.”

The school board recently voted to create a venue and production manager position to add value and emphasis on the spaces it rents out, which includes the secondary schools’ auditoriums.

In reference to the upcoming teacher negotiations, Gould explained that he does not believe “how fast” negotiations go is a good measure of successful negotiations.

“I will not agree to a bad deal just to make negotiations go fast, that would be irresponsible,” Gould said. “If I am still on the board, I will be respectful to the teachers, I will be patient and I will work hard toward achieving a contract that is fair to the teachers, students and taxpayers.”

- Betsy Ruch

Chairwoman of the personnel committee, Ruch is still on her first term on the school board.

A retired college and junior high school teacher, Ruch told The Mercury in May that she brings her educational experience along with a “business background” to the school board.

“I am retired and live on a fixed income, so I am familiar with the importance of living within my means,” she said.

Keeping taxes low is a prominent issue for Ruch “so that senior citizens will not be forced out of their homes.”

Ruch’s five children went through the district and she also has five grandchildren in Phoenixville schools now, too.

“As of right now, I think the biggest issue facing the district is acquiring land and building an early learning center,” Ruch told The Mercury recently. “I hope to participate in that process and make the correct and fair decision to move the project forward. We are running out of space in our present elementary school, as evidence by the necessity to put mobile classrooms in place, and definitely need to investigate other options.”

Modular classrooms currently stand at both the Kindergarten Center and East Pikeland Elementary.

In response to what could be done differently during teacher negotiations this time around, Ruch said the “them against us” mentality “has to be eliminated.”

“We are all in this for the benefit of our children and community. I respect our teaching professionals very much and want to make sure that they are adequately compensated, but they must also realize that there is a segment of our community who cannot afford the increases in the budget that fund these raises to the extent that the teachers desire,” Ruch said. “I feel at the end of the present negotiations we had all come to an understanding of what can be done and what cannot be done. I hope both sides can use this as a starting point and move forward from there.”

With budget season approaching, Ruch said she hopes to “have the lowest possible, if not not, tax increase,” but did not comment on which areas she might look to tighten up spending without seeing the proposed budget yet.

- Jan Potts

Vice president of the school board, Potts was appointed in 2009, replacing Bill May, and won an election later that year to keep the seat.

Facing re-election for the first time, Potts is the chairwoman of the curriculum committee and serves on the personnel committee with Ruch.

“I bring a passion for education. I have a masters of education as well as a business degree, undergraduate,” Potts told the Mercury before the primary. “Basically, that has enable me to tie together both the business and the education piece (of being on the board).”

With three sons graduated from the school district, Potts said she’s “good at asking questions and synthesizing information and bringing an efficient plan forward.

“I think that the most pressing issue facing the district is finding and purchasing property for the needed expansion of current facilities and our future planning as the school district grows,” Potts said Wednesday.

Potts thinks “great progress was made over the last year” in teacher negotiations and also thinks “the vision of the board is shared and supported by the unions and various stakeholders.”

Moving forward in the budget, Potts said “streamlining every school and department is necessary.”

- Dan Cushing

Cushing has served on the school board since 2009 and serves as chairman of the building and grounds committee as well as secretary of the board.

“I currently spend a great deal of time and effort on the long-term capacity solutions of the district,” Cushing told The Mercury in May. “The current overcrowding, together with the continued enrollment growth, will require the acquisition of property and construction of new facilities.

Continuing the role of looking to the future is something Cushing said he’d like to continue in if he is re-elected.

Cushing also didn’t respond to The Mercury’s supplemental questions via email, but expressed before the primary election that he would like to see organizations like the Phoenixville Community Education Foundation and the Community Budget Advisory Committee to assist in creating a “long-term capacity” plan for the district to account for growing enrollment.

- Lisa Longo

Rookie challenger Longo told The Mercury this week that she decided to run “not because I am unhappy with our schools” but because she wants to “work more closely to help in making our schools even more successful and providing students with a broad variety of educational opportunities.”

“I know I will be a positive and effective school board director who will work hard to ensure we have efficient and effective systems that also are inclusive and transparent while providing taxpayers with assurances that their tax dollars are being spent conservatively and with good stewardship,” Longo said. “My background in accounting and finance will be of benefit to the district in forming future strategies.”

Self-employed with a consulting firm, Longo has a daughter currently attending Phoenixville Area High School.

Longo advocates bringing more energy efficiency to the district.

“I have suggested that the board form an environmental mpact committee and one of the goals would be to develop a strategy for a reduction of energy costs,” she said.

According to Longo, the district “currently spends $700,000 a year” on energy.

“I would like to set a goal of a 50 percent reduction in five years,” she said. “I believe a 10 percent reduction per year is a reasonable goal.”

Additionally, she would like to examine the district’s transportation costs more closely.

Like the other candidates, Longo said the biggest issue facing the district is the building projects necessary for enrollment growth.

“Making sure we build (the new buildings) in a way that maximizes the investment for taxpayers needs to be the goal,” she said.

Longo said “two things” can be done to make them so: utilizing passive solar energy and building with a look toward “future student demands” and possible expanding enrollments.

Regarding the upcoming teacher negotiations, Longo said the district must look at teachers “as our greatest asset and work toward a contract that protects and provides for them.”

She said she would ask administration to break down the “cost per student for several areas” to get basic cost data which “would be useful in developing a plan and negotiating strategy.”

“As a management consultant, I am often engaged by clients to act on their behalf in negotiations, so I feel my background and experience will be a true asset to the district in this area,” Longo said.

The election is Tuesday, Nov. 5.

Follow Frank Otto on Twitter @fottojourno.