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York City school board has more open seats than candidates
York City residents will head to the polls May 16 to vote on a slew of local offices, including four open school board positions.
However, only three candidates are running for the seats, and one of them is the incumbent board president. At this point, the fourth seat could be earned through a write-in campaign.
The York Dispatch asked each of the three declared candidates several questions to get a sense of what they’ll bring to the table.
Background: Margie Orr has been a member of the board since 2009 and has served as the president since 2012. She is a lifelong resident of York City and is a retired grandmother of five. Orr attended Princess Street Elementary School in York City at a time when the district was in the process of desegregating. She is a graduate of William Penn Senior High School.
Financial recovery: Orr has led the board under the watchful eye of a state-appointed chief recovery officer, the result of the Department of Education placing the district on "moderate" financial recovery status in 2012.
Orr, running for her third term, said she believes the school district has “come a long way,” giving credit to Chief Recovery Officer Carol Saylor and Superintendent Eric Holmes for recent changes in curriculum and fiscal responsibility.
“The district was in a mess,” she said. “There was a lot of spending going on.”
She said one of the most challenging moments of her time on the board was when the previous chief recovery officer, David Meckley, proposed converting all schools in the district into charter schools.
“We fought that tooth and nail,” Orr said. “Thank goodness we succeeded.”
She said she's completely confident in the current recovery officer.
“Dr. Saylor keeps us grounded and lets us know what we’re doing right, and vice versa,” Orr said. “She’s a godsend.”
Audit: Orr said she “took great offense” at some of the findings in Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s recently released audit report of the York City School District.
She said many of the “discrepancies" found regarding finances were at the credit of business manager Richard Snodgrass, and that a lot of the activities were “going on before I came on.”
Regarding DePasquale’s criticism of the school district’s reliance on state funding, Orr said the auditor general was being crass regarding the issue.
“Where would he think we get the money from?” Orr said.
She added the city has more renters than homeowners and already has the highest property tax in the county.
“Give me a break,” Orr said.
Charter schools: Orr was with the school district when it approved the closure of New Hope Academy Charter School, which she called a “successful” decision by the school district.
Regarding Helen Thackston Charter School, Orr refused to delve into the struggling school’s relationship with the district.
In February, the school board passed a resolution giving the charter school deadlines for addressing concerns, including troubling test scores, a lack of transparency regarding finances and little programming related to homeland security, a focus of the charter school.
The resolution states that if the school fails to meet the recommendations by the deadlines, the school board can "revoke or not renew" the school's charter.
“There are records that were received and some that we haven’t received,” Orr said.
Overall, Orr said she is not opposed to the concept of charter schools, pointing to the success of York Academy as one example.
“I’m not against charter schools; I’m against for-profit charter schools,” she said.
Priorities: Orr said she considered not running for school board but did so out of excitement for the Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy, set to open in the fall.
“It’s what’s keeping me here,” she said of the school.
Orr said she wants to be around as the school comes to fruition and hopes to see the success of the STEAM curriculum one day make its way to William Penn.
“I want to see all of our students succeed,” she said. “I want our schools to be second to none.”
Background: Tonya Thompson Morgan is a civil rights investigator with the York City Human Relations Commission, which works against unlawful discrimination in the city. She is a 1985 graduate of William Penn Senior High School and a former business owner. Her husband, Judge James Morgan, is a former York City school board member. She has a daughter attending Devers K-8 in the school district.
Financial recovery: Thompson-Morgan said she witnessed what the district has been through during its financial recovery. However, she is pleased to see the district pull itself out of its financial predicament.
“I want to see them continue on that trend,” she said.
Audit: Thompson-Morgan said she was “disappointed” with some of the findings, including some of the credit card spending at the district. She said she believes the auditor general was responsible in his investigation and hopes the district takes the findings constructively.
Priorities: Thompson-Morgan said she wants to be a champion of representative and diverse curriculum in the district.
"I would love to see black history and Hispanic history taught,” she said.
Thompson-Morgan said the district’s makeup has changed drastically since she attended York High 32 years ago, and she thinks an increase in black and Hispanic history curriculum would be a strong motivator for students.
“I think that when young people get a sense of history and a history of people, that resonates with them,” she said. “Our students need to know where they came from in order to know where they’re going.”
Charter schools: Thompson-Morgan said her opinion on charter schools hasn’t completely formed.
“I’d like to examine it a little closer,” she said.
Thompson-Morgan said she sees both sides of the argument and believes a successful balance between school districts and charter schools is “highly achievable.”
She said it will take both sides to “stop fighting” and find a “happy medium.”
Background: Lisa Kennedy is a York City resident who has had four children educated in the school district. She is an independent consultant with the state Department of Education and has worked with students for more than 20 years. Kennedy is a board member at Helen Thackston Charter School.
Recovery: Kennedy said she has been attending meetings regularly and has noticed positive steps occurring in the school district. She said the district’s recovery label has a silver lining.
“I think that it’s an opportunity to continue to identify and improve,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the Edgar Fahs Smith STEAM Academy recently approved by the district is an “exciting” idea that will further place the district on a path to success.
“Hopefully when it gets off the ground, the success of the STEAM school will be eminent with the students and our community, including the businesses that will be involved and offer our students internships and scholarships,” she said.
Audit: Kennedy said she has not read the audit but plans to do so in the near future. She said she would not comment until after she reviewed the findings.
Charter schools: Kennedy struck a neutral tone on charter schools, including Thackston. The school received a scathing state audit in 2015 in addition to its recent warning from the city school board.
“I’ve never been one to support one (side) and not the other,” she said. “I am most assuredly about kids and family and education.”
Kennedy has been on the charter school's board since 2016. She said she did not resign before her run for York City’s board because she came to the decision to run late in the filing process.
“I decided late in the game to throw my hat in the ring,” she said. Kennedy stated she would resign from Helen Thackston's board if elected to the city school board.
Kennedy admitted there are challenges at Helen Thackston, but she said she is still “very proud” to be part of the school.
Given the scenario of a potential vote to revoke or not renew Helen Thackston’s charter as a York City board member, Kennedy said it would not be fair to comment at this time.
Priorities: Kennedy said she would like to see all school stakeholders be “open and willing” to collectively engage with students and parents to increase involvement.
“That’s how we get everyone at the table,” she said. “Teachers, principals (and) parents can't do it by themselves.”