LIMERICK — The decision for appointing a new Spring-Ford Area School Board member will go to the county courts after another vote on the two finalist candidates for the vacant Region II seat tied again Monday night.
After four candidates were interviewed Wednesday night, the school board deadlocked at 4-4 on Clinton Jackson and Janet Stokes. Jackson and Stokes were brought back for additional questioning Monday but the vote remained exactly the same and the board adjourned, virtually resigned to letting a judge decide the next member.
In a vote that mirrored last week’s, board President Joe Ciresi, Vice President Tom DiBello, and board members Dawn Heine and Bernard Pettit broke for Stokes in the Monday vote. Board members Will Cromley, Mark Dehnert, Todd Wolf and Kelly Spletzer voted for Jackson.
“This is nothing more than people afraid they’re going to lose something,” Jackson said after the meeting. “I don’t think it’s a hard choice; evidently, they do. It’s sad that it’s come to this.”
Jackson, an engineer who also serves on the Spring Valley YMCA board, advocates expanding science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs as well as developing partnerships or “co-ops” with local businesses for educational opportunities for Spring-Ford students.
DiBello and Heine said the district has tried to get such partnerships before but “the door has been shut” in their faces.
“I’m pretty sure I can help open that door,” Jackson said.
Additionally, Jackson said he’d like to see the Western Montgomery Career and Technology Center programs expanded “to where we have kids working there.”
His support of STEM and the Western Center come from a focus on providing students jobs and career opportunities.
Jackson ran for school board in 2009 against Clara Gudolonis but came up short by 79 votes. He said one of the best skills he brings to the school board is handling large and complex budgets, which he does as a senior project manager at Jacobs Engineering.
“I live and die with my budgets,” he said.
Stokes, a Spring-Ford board member from 1997 to 2005 who at one time served as vice president, said she wants to bring perspectives she gained from the private schools her sons attended for high school to the district.
“Because I’ve seen how other schools operate, I think I have a sense of the different ways they do things,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they’re better ways but I think we can look at them.”
Among those is a mentoring program of individuals (which could involve staff or volunteers) who are well-acquainted with students and can help guide them through their schooling.
“I do think that kids can get lost in a big system,” she said. “If they have an adult or a faculty member to reach out to for their last four years who they trust and are familiar with... (to aid in) choosing classes...I think we can work on that.”
Most of her expertise, she said, comes at the high school level and college planning.
“We need to set high standards for all of our students and raise the expectations for all our students,” Stokes said, who also wants students who are struggling to have more parent involvement and take more ownership of their education.
In her interview last week, Stokes said she wants to address “grade inflation” in the district by adding more “rigor,” since students can get very high grades but still rank out of the top part of their class.
Asked about Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed state budget, both Jackson and Stokes felt more money was necessary, with Stokes saying she didn’t think it’s a “pro-public education” which also “kicks the can down the road as far as the pension” issues/reform.
Once they were both interviewed, the board took a break. When they came back, there was some sentiment to let the public speak on the candidates. As opposed to last week, the seats in the Spring-Ford Area High School cafeteria set up for the meeting were approximately 2/3 full.
The board’s policy is typically to allow public comment before the board embarks on its agenda and once it is complete. What was characterized as a typo left a public comment section before the board’s vote.
“They had the opportunity before we started,” and the public could still comment after the board’s decision, Pettit said. “We have eight board members. We heard both candidates and I think it’s based upon what we, as a board, heard and without getting any input from the public or anyone else. We’re here and it’s our decision to make.”
Spletzer and Wolf both felt it was in the interest of the board to listen to the public and a motion was made to allow for comment, which passed 6-2, with Heine and Pettit against.
Public comment was overwhelmingly in favor of Jackson, with many co-board members from the Spring Valley YMCA, his wife and a neighbor speaking in favor of him, as well as some who didn’t know him.
“When asked what your primary concern was for moving the district forward (earlier in the meeting), your answer was budget and financial,” said Andrea Webber, a Royersford resident. “I feel that that’s the area that Mr. Jackson excels in. He has experience in those areas. In addition to that, he’s a new face...in order to move forward, you have to take on some new ideas.”
Spring-Ford eighth grade teacher Rhiannon Zimmerman advocated Jackson, saying it would be a “slap in the face” to the district’s teachers if the board selected someone whose children went to private high schools.
Julie Mullin, the board member whose seat is being filled because she had to leave it to become Upper Providence’s tax collector, spoke in favor of Stokes and said it wasn’t fair to attack Stokes for where her children went to school.
Mullin also praised Stokes for wanting to take on the issue of perceived grade inflation.
A Mercury poll was a lot closer than the public comment section, with 23 readers breaking for Jackson and 22 for Stokes as of Tuesday afternoon.
Since the board could not come to a decision Monday night, it falls to a Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas judge to decide the new school board member, according to district solicitor Mark Fitzgerald.
Anyone from Region II, covering the Limerick and Trappe areas, can petition for the seat.
“We will just kind of wait on the sidelines and see what happens,” Fitzgerald said.
The board can still convene and choose a new member, but that seems very unlikely.
“I am disappointed the board could not come to a resolution,” Stokes said following Monday’s meeting.
After adjourning, several different board members became involved in spirited, but not heated, discussions with members of the public.
Jackson and Stokes both ended up talking together and even posing for a picture with each other.
With the decision going to the county courts, Jackson said he’s definitely going to put in a petition.
“We’re going all the way,” he said.
Stokes, on the other hand, is still deciding.
“At this point, I’m not so sure,” she said.