5 seek 4 Connellsville Area School Board posts
Three incumbents and two challengers will be seeking the four open seats on the Connellsville Area School Board in the general election on Tuesday.
They are incumbents Paul Means, Gary Wandel, P.J. Carte, and challengers James Duncan and Jay Fox III. Means, Wandel and Fox will appear on the Democratic and Republican tickets. Carte will appear on the Republican ticket only, while Duncan will appear only on the Democratic ticket.
Means, 44, of Bullskin; Carte, 45, of Bullskin; and Wandel, 63, of Connellsville, are seeking second terms. Fox III, 45, of South Connellsville, and Duncan, 67, of Connellsville, the former superintendent of schools, are seeking their first terms.
Each seat is for a four-year term.
The candidates were asked a series of questions.
What is the role of a school board member?
• Means: “I feel the school board's most important role is to ensure that all our children receive a quality education, which will help them succeed later in life. This is done by the board making policies, hiring the best administration and staff, ensuring our students have the necessary technology, equipment and supplies, maintaining our buildings and grounds, and managing our budget to ensure the viability of our district, along with many other areas of oversight of the district.”
• Wandel: “I think that the public would be surprised to learn that the job is very diverse, one that involves many hours of work without compensation. I have been very proud to serve as a member of the Connellsville Area School Board for the past four years. Working together with eight other community-minded citizens in the best interests of the students as well as the taxpayers requires a delicate balance. It requires working together to do the best job of providing a quality education for our children. I remind myself that decisions I make affect the future of this community and of our nation. An important job of a school board member is the work that occurs in committee. There are 17 committees that deal with all aspects of running a school district — from athletics to transportation. The members of the board also make decisions involving policy, hiring of staff and administrators, adoption of a budget, levying taxes, textbook adoption, and collective bargaining. We are the voice of the community, and we must always be aware of their wishes regarding the education of their children. We have adopted a new hiring policy which helps us to hire the best possible candidates as educators for our children.”
• Carte: “Even though it is a volunteer position, I take my role as a school board member very seriously. As a board member, I have the responsibility for ensuring that all students receive a quality education. An essential role of the board is to hire employees. During our second month in office, we established a new hiring practice and put hiring guidelines into place. The primary goal of the new process was to ensure that the best and most qualified person is always hired. It doesn't matter who somebody knows or to whom they are related, that will not get them a job. Instead, we are looking at qualifications and ability. First, we look to see if a person has all of the qualifications required for the job that is open. If they meet the qualifications, they can move on to the interview process. Interviews are done by a team of people including central office administrators, principals and board members. When a job is highly complex or specialized, we will also include a content expert as part of the interview process. The superintendent also participates during the interview process. For teaching jobs, the candidates who have the best interviews are then invited back to teach a lesson to a class of students. Following the teaching lesson, the interview team discusses the candidates. Then, the superintendent makes a recommendation to the school board for our action and vote.
“Another important role of board members is to help parents and students when they need help. It is important for board members to remember that they are there as representatives. As such, it is important to listen to parents and students. A key role that I have as a board member is to be a conduit for parents and students. I am able to help make sure that their concerns and issues are shared with the administration and teachers.
“Additionally, the previous board had planned to close several schools in May and have all the students moved to new schools by the beginning of the new school year just three months later. So far, all of the feedback that I've received from parents, students, teachers, the school administration, and district administration has been positive.
“Furthermore, my fellow board members chose me as their representative to run for the Intermediate Unit 1 board. I'm hoping to be re-elected to make sure that I continue to represent Connellsville on the IU1 board.
Another important role of the board is to establish a good working relationship with our teachers, paraprofessionals and other staff members.”
• Duncan: “I feel that a school director is a very important position, and that they must find a balance between what the children need and what the taxpayers can afford. They can levy tax, hire and fire, and it is truly a very powerful position and one that must always carry the best interests of the students. A director should be someone with an educational background as well as background in dealing directly with members of the community so that they are able to see situations from both angles.”
• Fox III: “The role of the school board member is to make policies for the school district and to oversee the operation of the school district and its many aspects and to help the administration with their job of running the school district.”
What areas of the school district need improving?
• Means: “I feel that any district has room for improvement and we are certainly trying to do this by investing in new technology, supplying new textbooks, upgrading our facilities and constantly assessing our curriculum and improving this to meet the students' educational needs. These are all areas that we will continue to improve upon and monitor in the future.”
• Wandel: “One who serves the community should never be completely satisfied with any aspect of being responsible to our young people and taxpayers. There is always room for improvement. However, I am very proud of the accomplishments of this board since my election four years ago. The high school renovation is something that has been talked about for many years, and has come to fruition under this board. We have looked at areas of concern and addressed them, making sure that our curriculum is aligned to state standards and Common Core. We have data-driven instruction that evaluates each student's weaknesses and tailors instruction to target those weaknesses. Since reading and math are central to the understanding of all subjects, we are working hard to make sure our elementary students are performing at or above grade level in these areas.
“We are proud of the partnership our technical education departments have with the community, but are always working to improve our graduation rate. None of our schools are in school improvement, but we are continuing to insure that all students are given an opportunity for success. Technology is central to our students' learning. Therefore, we continue to provide the latest technology for them. After much consideration, study and listening to the community, we were able to close a junior high and an elementary school, thereby saving considerable taxpayer money.
“I am very proud of our success in getting a Junior ROTC program in our high school. It is a great program that is teaching our children values and discipline.”
• Carte: “Over the past four years, as a school board, we have continually focused our efforts on continuously improving. Working in conjunction with our teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals, we have made great strides in improving. We have focused on the data and made data driven decisions. For instance, on the elementary level, we discovered that most of our textbooks were written back in the 1990s. Our students and teachers hadn't been given the right tools to use. Before buying new textbooks, the curriculum was revised for each subject. We wanted to be certain that our curriculum matched the state standards. Also, instead of waiting on things to happen, we took a proactive approach. We started changing our curriculum to be in alignment with the Common Core a few years ago. We have taken a much more proactive stance in the last four years. Before we came on the board, our students were being tested on the PSSAs; however, most of their textbooks were published before the PSSAs had even come into existence. Upon discovering this after we first elected, we, as a school board, decided that our students needed new textbooks. Consequently, we have adopted many new textbooks over the past four years. Our elementary students now have new textbooks for language arts (reading, English, and spelling), math, and social studies. In math, we purchased consumable textbooks so that our students will receive new books every year; as standards change from year to year, our textbooks will change with them, and we won't have to buy new books to make sure that our students have the newest standards being taught to them. This year, we just added new social studies books. Additionally, in science, we are now utilizing science kits so that our elementary students are getting hands-on experience in science. As teams of administrators, teachers, and board members saw the need for new textbooks, those were purchased in a variety of subject areas.
“We have also begun to use the data that we have available to us as a school district. Our students were given different tests to assess their performance throughout the school year. Instead of just having them take the test to assess the school's overall performance, we are now making extensive use of the data for each student. We now have data teams that are looking to see where individual students have weaknesses. In order to help our elementary students, we started intervention periods. During that intervention, teachers work with individual students on their specific needs.
“We also need to continue monitoring our performance in our elementary schools and ensuring that all of our students are on grade level or above in reading. We also need to continue improving our high school graduation rate and our technical education programs.”
• Duncan: “In general, I feel that the Connellsville school district is doing well. But I do feel that some concentration should be made in the technical programs to assure that they are supervised and maintained. We did all those renovations at the technical school and now they are selling off equipment and dropping programs and in my opinion, that is not what this district needs. Technical jobs are a major part of our area and there is a lot of need for people to get their technical skills and training and not just students-there is also a need to offer training to adults-this all needs to be looked at more closely as I don't feel that all of the students are getting everything that they can. We need to look at what our students need and what the general public needs such as training programs that can be used to fill various areas for jobs.”
• Fox III:“The school district can always continue to improve by updating technology, making sure we are teaching the students what they need to be successful and also keeping our building updated and well maintained.”
What can the district do to help students with the various testings that are required?
• Means: “I feel that we are being very proactive in improving our tests scores and are providing resources to help the students continue to move the district forward on our goal of all our students meeting the current standards. We have instituted tutorials, adjusted our curriculum and have put together teams of our administration and teachers to continue to stay ahead of the curve as new core requirements are released. We are constantly assessing our areas of deficiency and then utilizing our resources to correct these areas.”
• Wandel: “Our administration and teachers are already working very hard to make sure that our students do their very best on these tests. More importantly, our teachers are helping them to a better understanding of these subjects. Simply teaching to a test is not productive or helpful to our students. What is important is making sure that our students are good thinkers and problem solvers. This will help them to be better able to compete in our technology driven world. We also have tutorials that provide individual help for any student who needs help.”
• Carte: “Connellsville Area School District has been very aggressive in helping students improve their scores on various testing that is required. We have already implemented many different strategies to help our students improve their test scores. As a starting point, the curriculum has been re-written to make sure that it is aligned with the state standards.
“On the elementary level, we have added intervention periods where teachers work with students to address specific skills with which they need help. Data teams are meeting and continually monitoring student performance to determine areas of strength and weakness. Then, students receive instruction that is specific for them. They are provided with additional help in the particular area where they need it. Several different computer programs have been purchased to help students with specific skills. The programs are geared toward the students' specific needs. After school tutoring has also been offered.
“On the secondary level, we are also using data driven decisions. Using student specific data, we are able to tailor the education to each individual student to meet their needs. Tutorial classes are also being offered in all of the subjects that are tested. During the tutorial classes, teachers are able to provide individual instruction in the area where the students are struggling. After school tutoring has also been offered to students.
“A lot of emphasis has been placed on helping students improve their scores on various testing, and we just need to make sure that we continue provide those resources to our students. We must continue to monitor the data to see if we have a need to do anything more than we are already doing. If the data show that we have such a need, then, we'll look at adding more resources for our students.”
• Duncan: “I think that the Connellsville School District like any other district is trying to improve testing in all the schools. Studies show that there is a close correlation to social economics and test scores Not everyone is the same and not everyone is going to be able to meet the same levels in proficiency. Having everyone score at the same high levels is not realistic. I think that our staff is doing an excellent job and our top students are getting into top schools. Our teachers need to work with the students and I think that they are doing that and they can always do better. It is good for everyone to have goals, and most of our students will move on to higher levels of education, but to say that everyone is ever going to be at the same level is not a realistic expectation.”
• Fox III: “The district should focus on where we are deficient and adjusting our curriculum and courses to best prepare our students.”
Marilyn Forbes is a contributing writer.