Six candidates are seeking four seats on the York Suburban school board in the 2013 election Nov. 5.
Three candidates are seeking re-election this year: Lynne Leopold-Sharp, Emily Bates and Cathy Shaffer advanced from the primary election in May. Shaffer had the most votes on the Democratic ticket.
Ralph Felter, Ellen Freireich and Nicholas Pandelidis will challenge the incumbents. Pandelidis received the most votes on the Republican ticket in the primary, but did not cross-file as a Democrat.
Below, the candidates have responded to questions from The York Dispatch about upcoming building decisions and what sets them apart as candidates.
Emily Bates (R/D)
Age and address: 61, of Woodland Drive
Family: husband Brad, three children who are YS grads
Education: attended Emory University
Community organizations with which you are active: York Suburban Education Foundation
Ralph Felter (R/D)
Age and address: Of Turnberry Court
Family: Wife: Kitty, married 44 years. Two adult children: Daughter who is an Assistant High School Principal. Son who is a physician. Three grandchildren.
Occupation: Retired. Worked 40 years in transportation - logistics field. Currently do part time consulting.
Education: University of Maryland - College Park, Md.: BS; Johns Hopkins University - Baltimore, Md.: BS, MS
Community organizations with which you are active: Volunteer with Catholic Harvest Food Pantry in York, Pa., and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion Program for the sick at York Hospital.
Ellen C. Freireich (R/D)
Age and address: 68, Lehigh Road, Springettsbury Township
Family: Husband, Gordon (YS class of 1960); daughter, Amy (YS class of 1990); son, David (YS class of 1995)
Education: Graduate of the Wilmington, DE public schools and the University of Delaware with a BA in Psychology
Community organizations with which you are active: York Suburban Superintendent's Key Communicators group; OLLI at Penn State York, as part of the organizing committee and Vice President; York Suburban All Sports Booster Club; Temple Beth Israel; former President, Board of Directors, York Adams Academy (York County High School); former member of the Metro York Education Initiative
Lynne A. Leopold-Sharp (R/D)
Age and address: 60, of Dogwood Circle
Family: Husband: Daniel Sharp (married 34 years); Children: Robert (YSHS '09); Anne (YSHS '03); Evan (YSHS '01)
Occupation: Executive, state government
Education: Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts, University of Pennsylvania, Master of Business Administration, Temple University
Community organizations with which you are active: University of Pennsylvania Secondary School Committee -- 30+ years as alumni interviewer and committee chair; First Presbyterian Church -- Elder, Sunday school teacher and committee member; Girl Scouts -- 12+ years as a leader, board member and task force member; Boy Scouts -- 15+ years as a leader, committee member and chair and merit badge counselor
Nick Pandelidis (R)
Age and address: 54, of Grantley Road
Family: Wife - Lisa; Daughters - Katy, Thea, and Allie
Occupation: Orthopaedic spine surgeon with OSS Health
Education: Haverford College - B.S.; Penn State University, Hershey Medical Center -- M.D.; York Hospital -- Surgical internship; Penn State University, Hershey Medical Center -- Orthopaedic Surgical Residency; University of Rochester -- Fellowship in Scoliosis and Spine Surgery
Community organizations with which you are active: St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Logos Academy, United Way, Katallasso Health Clinic
Cathy Shaffer (R/D)
Age and address: 58, of Saint Andrews Court
Family: Spouse - Keith, Daughters - Whitney '99, Casey '01
Occupation: Business owner
Education: BS Marketing with a minor in business administration
Community organizations with which you are active: York Suburban Education Foundation, President
Questions and answers:
1. The district recently received the results of a feasibility study examining building conditions and enrollment projections. One option is closing an elementary school. How do you believe the York Suburban school board should proceed on this issue?
Bates: Undergoing periodic reviews of district facilities and projecting future enrollments are normal processes for school boards. Some of the reports the board requested have been completed, but an update on enrollment forecasting is still due from Pennsylvania Economy League. Once all reporting is complete, the board must hear the educational recommendation from district administrators. The idea of closing Indian Rock Elementary arose from campaign rhetoric and has not been justified as the direction to move. We need to remember that just because we CAN close a school, it does not mean we SHOULD close a school.
Felter: The board should exercise due diligence beyond the findings of the feasibility study and determine whether or not closing Indian Rock is a preferred option for reducing expenses. It is not my preference. Unfortunately this emotional issue cannot be ignored. It warrants consideration along with several other distasteful, but unavoidable, options. My preference is to genuinely seek / achieve more affordable arrangements in the wage and benefit area. This makes up 67 percent of our budget and is projected to grow to over 70 percent. We are faced with a projected cumulative deficit of $7.0 million over the next four years, even after taking inflationary tax increases under Act I. This unfortunate predicament is due to a spending policy that, even though well intentioned, did not take into account the realities of future funding and other critical needs facing the district. Our challenge is to prioritize many conflicting needs, in light of financial realities, with a goal of protecting academics.
Freireich: The YS board needs to very carefully and thoroughly digest the feasibility study, review the enrollment reports from administrators and PELS (Pennsylvania Economy League Study), review the room utilization study, analyze future program (including state/federal mandates) and facilities needs. The administration should prepare numerous plans that propose choices for the board -- stay as the district is currently, reconfigure grades, reconfigure buildings -- each choice should outline the impact on programs, class size, staffing, transportation, and overall costs. The board needs to have community meetings to gauge the feelings of the district for any proposed changes.
Leopold-Sharp: The feasibility report and related documents provide information on the district's infrastructure. This information needs to be evaluated in light of projected enrollment and current and future educational programming to determine the best use of our buildings.The board should receive an analysis with multiple options for facility usage. Each option should outline the educational impact of any proposed changes to current building usage and grade configuration and describe pros and cons for each. Analysis of changes in instructional techniques (based on changes in classroom space), curriculum, cooperative instruction, inter-grade interaction and building climate must be addressed. In addition, the analysis must address infrastructure needs and space availability for other functions (student instruction and support provided by traveling intermediate unit staff members, before/after school child care, conference space, etc.). Changes in transportation necessitated by the establishment of new attendance areas must be given serious consideration.
Pandelidis: York Suburban faces a $7 million budgetary shortfall (see answer 5 for clarification) over the next 4 years. York Suburban has many fine teachers; however, an unsustainable union-driven wage and benefit contract has significantly contributed to the deficit. The average salary for York Suburban teachers is $77,800 and benefits amount to $34,000. This contract was negotiated by the incumbent board member candidates Bates, Freireich, Leopold-Sharp and Shaffer. This deficit is the cause of York Suburban facing very difficult budget choices including facility utilization. "Smarter Spending, Better Education, Lower Taxes" means that individual spending decisions cannot be made in isolation. Spending in one area necessarily means less spending in another. The board, administration, teachers, and parents must examine and prioritize all current spending so to protect student education within the constraints of the budget. The good news is that $48 million is more than enough to provide an excellent educational opportunity for the district's 3,000 students.
Shaffer: While several studies have been completed, more information is needed. The Pennsylvania Economy League enrollment projection study update is due as I draft this response. Once this and all data assessment has been completed, the administration, the educational experts, must review and present options to the board, the governing body. In turn, the board must deliberate on the merits of each option. The deliberation must consider what is best for students with consideration for fiscal concerns and input from the community at large, a balanced approach. Just because we may be able to close a school, does not mean we should close a school.
2. York Suburban has a tax rate of about 21 mills, has approved tax increases between 1 and 2 percent each of the last three years. How would you rate the district's performance in controlling costs and the tax rate? Why?
Bates: York Suburban expenditures have followed annual inflation rates for the past 5 years and for the past 10 years remained in the middle of York County millage rates (for 2013-2014 budget, there are 7 school districts with higher millage rates and 6 with lower). I believe the board is doing a fair job of containing costs while delivering an outstanding product: academic excellence. Ongoing insufficient state funding and mandated annual pension contributions continue to put stress on the district's budget. Negotiating a reduction in benefits and salaries for teachers brought important permanent savings and provided cost certainty for upcoming budgets. I participated in the committee that recommended outsourcing of food service for the district, which provided additional savings and budget certainty. As we move forward, the board will need to work with employees for further savings, especially in healthcare costs.
Felter: Let the numbers speak for themselves. Beginning with 2006-2007 through 2010--2011 FY tax increases totaled 28 percent and exceeded the inflation rate each year. In 2011 tax increases started to trend downward and have since averaged 1.4 percent. In short, performance has improved for a number of reasons. Two fiscal conservative Directors were elected in 2011, there was a commitment by some Directors to stay within Act I allowable limits, and the union extended its contract for two years with modest wage concessions. Even so, more needs to be done. The district budget has increased 66 percent in the last 10 years, and the taxes 62 percent.The primary driver of the District's budget is wages and benefits which consume 67 percent of available dollars. The current union driven contract expires in mid-2015. All parties need to work in concert to get a new, more affordable, agreement that recognizes funding constraints and other academic priorities in addition to teachers' compensation.
Freireich: YS has done a reasonable job (8 on a scale of 10) in attempting to control costs and its tax rate. The board needs to balance what is needed and good for the students and what is good for the community. As a district with a limited business tax base, YS must rely on property taxes to fund the "lion's share" of the budget (84% local vs. 15% from the state). Until there is a change in the state funding formula, YS will have shortfalls in its budget. I am committed to providing a solid education for our students, meeting the expectations of our residents, and staying within the fiscal means of the community.
Leopold-Sharp: I would give the district a "B" in controlling its costs and establishing its tax rate. The district has operated at or below the Act 1 tax index despite decreases in promised state reimbursement and significant increases in pension contributions. The district has re-configured staffing and programs as retirements occur to permit the continuation of outstanding academic instruction at lower costs. It has out-sourced food service and taken advantage of other savings to protect its educational mission. The district has balanced its budget with current year revenue, rather than relying on large fund balances. It has financed capital projects in ways that minimize the impact on the district, and re-financed debt to save significant dollars. The district will benefit from increased financial analysis and additional long-range budgeting. Increased attention to forecasting, and the evaluation of alternatives in a more systematic manner, will increase its grade.
Pandelidis: In the fall of 2010, we started The York Suburban Citizens for Responsible Government. It was evident to many of us that our country's and children's futures are imperiled as a result of a political establishment that serves self and special interests, solves problems poorly, and wastes hard-earned taxpayer money. We recognized we couldn't affect Washington or Harrisburg, but we were going to work hard to make local government better. Our efforts began at the school board level. We found the school board was not problem solving well and was wasting taxpayer money. We attended meetings. We gathered and distributed information on budget growth, salaries, debt, student to employee ratios, and property tax growth. In the years prior to the YSFRG founding, the board raised taxes 3.4 percent, 4.1 percent, 5.9 percent, 5.1 percent, and 9.1 percent. The more recent tax history (1.4 percent, 1.3 percent, 1.6 percent) reflects our efforts to make the school board more accountable and responsible.
Shaffer: Over the past 10 years, YS has consistently ranked in the middle of the range of county millage rates. This stability, combined with a culture of rigorous academics, continues to make YS a good value for residents and a desirable location for home buyers. I believe we've done a fairly good job given the hand we have been dealt from not only the economy but also from the reduction in funding from the state in areas like charter school funding, and state mandates, such as pension funding. As the board personnel committee chair, I served on the committee to open and renegotiate the staff contract which resulted in a savings of $1.5 million and provided cost certainty an additional two years. In addition to that, long term savings will be realized by the outsourcing of food service, another committee in which I played a role. That said, there is always room for improvement and certainly we must strive to do so. The healthcare benefit package is worthy of reviewing.
3. York Suburban doubled its activity fee for students involved in extra-curriculars from $25 to $50 for the 2013-14 school year. How do you feel about this means of raising additional revenue toward the district's budget and should the district continue to adjust this fee as expenses require?
Bates: Nearly 75 percent of York Suburban secondary students participate in some form of extra-curricular activity. Research shows that academic success is supported by participation in outside activities. It is important for schools to provide opportunities for all students to participate in their school community, whether through athletics, music, or clubs. Participation fees do not cover the costs of these opportunities, but they do help. I believe strongly, however, that such activities must be available to all students and that economic hardship should not prohibit involvement.
Felter: I feel students and parents should have some level of financial responsibility for the extracurricular activities in which they elect to participate, but there should also be a "safety net" so as not to exclude the truly needy from participating in this important component of education. As expenses increase for activities the fees should be adjusted accordingly. It also seems appropriate to define costs associated with activities so that fair -- justifiable fees can be determined based on a particular activity. This is a minor consideration when viewed in the light of other economic challenges faced by the district. Fees that may generate approximately $200,000 over the next four years are insignificant when compared to the projected $7.0 million deficit. They won't save the day when it comes to efforts to balance the budget. Rather, "activity fees" should be viewed as a "user fee." That is, if an individual elects to take advantage of a special program, not pursued by the student body at large, then the fair approach is for that student to bear some of the associated costs.
Freireich: Asking families whose children participate in extracurricular activities to help underwrite this expense is reasonable, as long as there are "scholarships/assistance" for students in need. This fee takes some of the burden off those families with no children in school. There is, of course, the option/possibility of seeking sponsorships for extracurricular activities to help fund the programs.
Leopold-Sharp: The activities fee is a reasonable means of raising a modest amount of revenue for the district. Participating students and their families acknowledge the expenses incurred for these programs by paying the fee, and volunteer organizations underwrite the expense for families of limited means. From time to time the board and administration should reconsider the fee and its reasonableness.
Pandelidis: Decreasing revenues and increasing costs have led to budgetary shortfalls, even though the York Suburban budget has increased from $29 million to over $48 million, and property taxes have increased from $21.5 million to $34.8 million over the last 10 years. Most of the revenue is consumed by salary and benefits. That percentage will grow as state mandated payments to the teacher's pension fund increase. The more money goes to salaries and benefits, the less money left over for student programs. A school budget, just as in our households, must recognize that there is only so much money, and that spending decisions are prioritized by value. For the school district, value should be defined in terms of educational benefit; and spending must conform to the budget no matter how attractive an additional program or project might look. We must prioritize spending and to reduce spending where appropriate so that fees for participating in extra-curriculars don't continue to increase.
Shaffer: 74 percent of our secondary students participate in extra-curriculars. This significant participation translates into increased academic success, school and community engagement, and positive well-being. While these fees do offset some costs, "pay to play" does not cover all costs and for some, is a hardship. This will have to be monitored carefully in order to determine the tipping point.
4. What will your other priorities be if elected as a school board member? Explain why those are your priorities.
Bates: The current superintendent has indicated her intention to retire and the board will begin a search for her replacement within the next 2 years. This will be one of the most important decisions that this board makes. Experienced board members will be needed as we search for the next leader of the district. As the district continues to deal with challenging economic conditions, it will be increasingly important for board members to have a balanced approach. I will work hard to keep cost cutting measures as far from the classroom as possible as we work to control tax increases. Finally, as a lack of sufficient state funding continues, our board needs to continue advocacy at the state government level. The legislature must finally repair what is an out-of-date, unworkable school funding formula.
Felter: Protecting the district's record of academic achievement will be my overriding priority. This however cannot be accomplished unless we begin to recognize the financial realities confronting the district and act based on facts, rather than emotion and political expediency.I feel that the biggest near - term priority facing the district is negotiations of a new teachers' contract that is due for renewal mid - 2015. This clearly represents the biggest cost component of our budget and involves a vital asset: our teachers who play a major role in the academic success of our students. Irrespective of what position you take with respect to the current levels of teachers' salaries and benefits I think most would acknowledge that failure to achieve a mutually satisfactory contract would be detrimental to all concerned.
Freireich: Maintaining the outstanding educational environment for our students and creating financial sustainability in today's economic climate are my top priorities. The need to maintain not only the highest academic standards with well-rounded co-curricular programs -- which play such an important part in children's development -- but also to maintain the physical infrastructure is being challenged by today's economic climate. YS needs to continue to monitor its revenues and expenses to be fiscally responsible without damaging the district's state-wide reputation for excellence. All possible options for programs, staffing, and use of facilities must be considered by the board. The board can do just so much. Legislators must be urged to pursue property tax reform, follow through on proposed changes to the way districts are charged for charter school students, and pension reform. Partnering with the townships for some programs could be a possibility.
Leopold-Sharp: I have three priorities for the York Suburban School District: continuing our tradition of academic excellence, supporting the needs of all our students and meeting financial challenges without sacrificing programs. The district must continue to offer a rigorous academic program and take advantage of opportunities to collaborate with other districts and institutions of higher education to offer increased opportunities for our students. We must set and meet academic goals that exceed government mandates. The district must meet the needs of all of our students: English language learners, kindergarten students who need additional skills to start first grade on par with their peers, technically-minded students and those ready for college-level study. Equally important, the district should provide extra-curricular opportunities for students. The district must make responsible financial decisions to offer programs of value with limited financial resources. A program's value, not its cost, should be the fact considered in decision-making.
Pandelidis: To represent York Suburban School Board in working with other school boards in the county and state to effect legislative reform at the state level. There are important issues that have significant local ramifications but can only be changed in Harrisburg. The teacher pension deficit is wreaking havoc on school district budgets. There is an un-funded state liability of $27 billion and that number assumes an unlikely return of 7.5 percent. A more conservative return of 3.25 percent changes the liability to $54 billion. I believe reform requires funding the liability to keep promises we have made to teachers, but going forward, changing the retirement benefit into a defined contribution, e.g. 401k -like most taxpayer's retirements depend on. Other state level issues include eliminating prevailing wage laws that increase building costs by an estimated 20 percent, eliminating property tax for funding schools, and stopping collection of union dues by school districts.
Shaffer: As our superintendent nears retirement, the board will begin a search for her replacement. I believe this to be one of the most important tasks the board undertakes. A superintendent sets expectations, which should translate into a positive learning environment for the students and staff and result in high academic achievement. In turn, this enhances our community and helps make it a desirable place to live. In these challenging economic times, we've made significant strides in cost reductions without impacting programs. Community needs must be considered; however, it is important to not lose sight of what is also in our students' best interests. A balanced approach is paramount. A concerted effort with other growing districts is in order. Persistent efforts with state legislators to alter the thinking in Harrisburg that is unfriendly to public education must include meaningful community engagement to share the same message: inadequate and inequitable state funding is unacceptable.
5. What sets you apart as a candidate voters should support for a seat on the York Suburban school board?
Bates: I bring 13 years of board experience. I know the role of the school board, what it can and cannot do and will continue to work without the need for a period of transition. I do not bring an agenda or a personal ax to grind. Rather I bring a passion for public education in general and York Suburban in particular. Be wary of candidates whose children have graduated and now favor reduced support for current and future students. Be cautious of candidates who are looking to change government at a level other than the school board. My commitment is to maintain academic excellence in York Suburban.
Felter: As with all candidates I have unique talents, experience, education, and perspectives that will be brought into the district's workings. The board currently has some very talented directors with admirable business, professional, and educational backgrounds. Unfortunately it seems that the talents they bring to the table, as well as their perspective and advice, is often discounted or ignored because of opposing interests. It seems that new approaches, which may be counter to "business as usual," often don't receive the benefit of due diligence. The district is at a critical juncture that requires openness and receptivity amongst all involved parties, including board members. With a pending four year deficit of $7 million, the past "spend and tax" approach needs to change. All reasonable options that will contribute to the districts long term sustainability and success, irrespective of who suggests them, need to be evaluated and given a fair hearing. This may require that "favorite positions" be replaced with other alternatives that afford a better avenue for meeting the District's objectives. I pledge to do this.
Freireich: I am an advocate for children. I have always believed that students are the most important resource in a community. Experience counts! After two years off the board, I am concerned that what is best for students is beginning to take a backseat to shortsighted personal agenda goals. During my 16 years on the board, I based my decisions on what is best for the children and affordable for the taxpayers. I served in numerous leadership positions, and have continued to attend board meetings, committee meetings, and countless of the district's academic and extracurricular activities. Representing YS and leading the York Adams Academy board (an alternative high school opportunity) was an informative experience. I would welcome the opportunity to continue working on behalf of our children -- and all the residents of the district -- to bring a balanced approach to academic excellence and fiscal responsibility.
Leopold-Sharp: My moderate voting record during my eighteen years of service on the school board sets me apart and reflects my commitment to making decisions based on the facts. Rather than acting on impulse or emotion, I have researched issues, listened to a variety of viewpoints, and reached a conclusion based on data. My opinions and votes are my own. I have supported compromise for the good of the district. This meant adopting budgets that were balanced with current revenue, not large fund balances. It meant reducing services so that academic programs remained intact. It meant accepting the outcome of a vote, whether mine was on the winning or losing side, and supporting the decision of the board. I understand that school directors are charged with governing their school districts. I have patience, treat others with respect and remember that no one understands all or is always correct.
Pandelidis: Ralph Felter and I are honestly acknowledging the fiscal crisis facing YS. Our incumbent opponents' emotional rhetoric concerning Indian Rock, the swimming program, or whatever else they are accusing us of wanting to cut is nothing more than an effort to divert attention away from the real issues, and to divert/blame that rightly falls on their shoulders.The YS April budget report projected deficits of $0.9, $1.8, $1.9, and $2.4 million for the next 4 school years. This projection assumes each year's deficit will be resolved but makes no effort to identify how that would be done. Each year's deficit should be carried forward to all subsequent years; therefore, the actual 4-yr deficit is more accurately $7 million. Each year's shortfall can only be resolved with a permanent ongoing cut or tax. This cannot be an "us versus them" discussion. We can and we must spend smarter to protect education, while being responsible stewards of hard earned taxpayer money.
Shaffer: I am one of only two candidates who reside in the eastern portion of the district. As the board personnel committee chair, I served on the committee to open and renegotiate the staff contract which resulted in a savings of $1.5 million and provided cost certainty for an additional two years. In addition to that, long term savings will be realized by the outsourcing of food service, another committee in which I played a role. As a parent of two successful graduates, I have been engaged in several volunteer initiatives that have benefited students, parents, staff, and other community members and brought in significant revenue to fund those initiatives. I co-founded the York Suburban Education Foundation, which has raised over $300,000 in 5 years and given grants totaling over $110,000 at no expense to taxpayers. I continue to lead this independent, non-profit organization. In 2001, I founded and led York Suburban Communities That Care, sought and received grants in excess of $500,000. I also co-founded and led the York Suburban Post Prom, now a York Suburban tradition. All of these initiatives have been funded by donations or grants.