Sunday, May 15, 2011

Highlights from the Region I EASD School Board Candidates Forum

Region I EASD School Board candidates from left to right: Robert Fehnel, Jodi Hess (incumbent), Millie Mandarino (incumbent), Richard Siegfried, Bob Arnst, and Bill Rider.

Posted by: Noel Jones

There were about 55 people at the Region I forum last week, about 15 more than showed up for the Region II debate. Initially I had intended to transcribe this forum as I did for the Region II candidates, but quite frankly, it was too boring to be worth it--with the exception of the Bob Arnst--who may not be the most politically savvy of local politicians, but was at least refreshingly candid and not playing it safe like everybody else, who seemed to be as intentionally vague as possible. In their defense, many of the questions were constructed in two--and sometimes three--parts, and responses from candidates had a time limit, so there wasn't a lot of opportunity to go into detail. Still, there was a lot of obfuscation going on, which did not happen in the Region II debate, where all three candidates were pretty candid about where they stand on the issues. If you want to see where Bill Rider stands, you'll find out a lot more in my previous interview with him than you would have at this particular forum. As for the rest, here are the highlights of interest that I jotted down:

#1 was a 3-parter:
a) What are your qualifications to serve?
b) Why are you better qualified than the other candidates?
c) Do you have family that work for the district?

Both incumbents, Jodi Hess and Millie Mandarino--have family in the district, and both hedged on their answers. Hess spent her time limit answering a and b, and so never answered c. Mandarino, who is a cousin (through marriage) to Pat Vulcano, and therefore also related to Michelle Vulcano Hall, said that she only had "a brother-in-law who is a custodian and no other family members work." Now, perhaps she is justifying this lack of transparency by saying that since school board members don't get paid, they don't technically "work" for the district, but clearly, the question was asked at both forums because there is a desire in the community among voters to know whether anyone might be running to benefit their family in some way, and whether any one family might be gaining too much power in the district. Apparently she also doesn't count Michelle Vulcano Hall, because she is just a teacher whose emergency certificate was not renewed after she failed to finish her certification, and is now suing the school district for discrimination against her because of an undisclosed disability. Because this question is important to the community, the question was asked again at the end of the forum as a follow-up question from the audience. Mandarino again denied having any other relatives in the district, and Hess got very defensive, said she had run out of time the first time the question was asked, and teared up while saying that she is tired of defending herself because her husband is a teacher in the district. She neglected to say that her mother is a school secretary.

Now, I want to be clear, I don't see anything wrong with the wife of a teacher or the daughter of a secretary being on the school board, especially when this particular board member asked that the original teachers' contract be tabled when Joe Kish tried to ram it through, and then abstained from voting when it came around again for a vote. But it's not good to get defensive about questions from voters--ever--and it's never good for candidates when they appear less than transparent. Richard Siegfried, for instance, had no trouble saying that he had a niece that is a teacher and a nephew who works as a police officer for the district. My biggest concern with both Hess and Mandarino is that they rarely participate in the board's discussion at public meetings, and generally just vote yes or no and let others do the work of asking the hard questions.

More highlights:

#2 How many school board meetings have you attended in the past year?

Bob Arnst answered, "I only went to one and decided that I should never do that again, 'cause either I'm gonna get hurt, or somebody else is."

#7 How would you prioritize cutbacks with regard to the arts, sports, and languages?

Hess: It's not my job to decide--it's my job to ask questions.
Mandarino: We need to focus on reading, writing and math, and stop teaching to the test.
Siegfried: Not all tech classes are necessary or appropriate, for instance, Microsoft I and II at a semester each--we should cut these classes--these kids already know MS I and II before they ever get to these classes, it's an easy A, and we know it. We should also cut some languages. We should pare back each area.
Arnst: We better start teaching our kids Chinese.
Rider: We should cut according to enrollment in each class, but world languages are a critical requirement for college applications.
Fehnel: We should cut certain tech classes and cut all classes according to enrollment.

#9 Do you support merit-pay for teachers and administrators, and if so, what methods should be used for assessment?

Siegfried: Yes, use the center 40% of the scores for each class to determine whether the students are improving--you can't use the highest and lowest scores, or else the results will be skewed.
Arnts: No--it's too easy with merit pay for administrators to retaliate against teachers
Rider: No--we need professional development to improve the relationship between teachers and administrators. Administrators need to be visible in the schools.
Fehnel: No.
Hess: Not unless you change No Child Left Behind.
Mandarino: Merit-pay is not a bad idea but it's hard to ensure fair evaluations.

#10 What is your position on the I ♥ Boobies bracelet controversy?

Arnts: I love boobies. The problem is, you have the ACLU.
Rider: What matters is how its handled by the administrators
Fehnel: Administrators should work and talk with parents and enforce rules fairly.
Hess: It sends the message that you don't have to respect authority and causes disruption.
Mandarino: We're going to have other bracelets with names of other...body parts popping up.
Siegfried: It causes a disruption. These girls were used by their parents, but the district should drop it and not waste the money fighting it.

#12 Should the school district provide before and after school care and who should pay for it, parents, or taxpayers?

Fehnel: Yes, if the parents pay.
Hess: Yes, the parents should pay.
Mandarino: No--we should partner with other community agencies and avoid liability issues.
Siegfried: Yes, if the parents pay.
Arnts: Yes, the parents should pay. And we should make the provider provide the insurance.
Rider: Yes, if the parents pay.
To read more about each candidates qualifications, please see Colin McEvoy's article for the Express-Times from last month.

That's all I got folks! Who do you think should be elected and why?


Anonymous said...

Based on reading this blog report, it is interesting to note that Bob Arnt didn't disclose that his wife is an Assistant Athletic Director.

Maybe its is because the Athletic Department is an area that is administratively "top-heavy." They have an Athletic Director who makes approximately $100,000 a year, Jodi Hess's husband who is an Assistant Athletic Director who is given release time from his teaching duties (plus a stipend), and Bob Arnt's wife who is well paid as another Assistant Athletic Director.

Hey, Bobbie: What other department is more administratively "top-heavy" than the department your wife works for? Maybe you have something funny to say about this issue or maybe it is to insure that your wife keeps her job?

noel jones said...

Anon--Thanks for posting--that was my omission--I didn't jot it down because the bigger disclosure was that Arnst worked in the district himself for 35 years (as did Rider)--sorry that I didn't include that--I do remember him being up front about his wife. Rider does not have relatives in the district that I know of, but worked as an asst. coach, a guidance counselor, a principal and finally Head Principal of the high school until he retired. So I guess that means that both Arnst and Rider are currently collecting pensions from the district.

Your concern, however, with Arnst is the same issue that other voters have with any other candidate running that has family working in the district. There has been a general frustration in the community for years with croneyism in our local politics. The flip side of that argument is always that some insist that the city is too small to not have familial overlap between political bodies and employers.

I can see how someone that cares enough to be moved to run for school board could come by that passion by either working for the district or being related to someone in the district. But I always feel better about the people that have no family working for the district that have gotten involved as private citizens because their children are in the district and that's how they get their first-hand knowledge, as well as their concerns--from being parents that are eventually inspired to run.

The Region I race is definitely much more of an insider race, than the Region II race, where all three candidates are a little less experienced, but they are privately employed, and have kids in the district.

The Region I race is two incumbents (Hess and Mandarino), two former school board presidents [one from Wilson (Fehnel) and one from Easton (Siegfried), a retired teacher (Arnst) and a retired principal (Rider). Strange that all the candidates from the Palmer area are insiders in some way...any thoughts on why that might be?

The three candidates for Region II are not affiliated with the district, they are concerned citizens and parents.

Anonymous said...

The two top candidates in this race are Rider and Fehnel. Bob Fehne's record on the Wilson Area School Board is well documented. He is respected by all for doing the right thing. Some may say that Rider has an ax to grind with the administration. Yep he certainly does. He was forced into retirement by Kish and was replaced with TWO principals doing thesame job he did. He is well respected as a principal and has the passion to do the right thing and make the right decisions regardless of his grudge.

Anonymous said...

Anon 5:11:

You claim that Bill Rider was forced into retirement? I don't think so. He retired on his own terms and was given a $50,000 bonus to boot!

Anonymous said...

Bob Fehnel did some serious damage to the facilities in Wilson over the years. Every project was a lawsuit. Just look at the high school and all the issues. It ended up costing the taxpayers millions. Then he hires an engineering firm for the not needed middle school project, guess who the engineer was, for like 1.3 million which was like twice as much as the next lowest engineer. I would not vote for Fehnel. He loves to build things then enter into lawsuits with the contractors. Exactly what Easton doesn't need.

noel jones said...

Anon 11:36--who WAS the engineer? D'Huy? someone else? It's best to complete your thoughts because a lot of readers might not know what you're referring to.

noel jones said...

here is the Morning Call's Voters Guide from last Thursday, produced by the League of Women Voters:,0,2817445.htmlpage

it explains which precincts vote in each region, both for magistrates and for school board members (called "School Directors" in the guide) as well as info on other races and candidates--I wish I had seen this sooner! i got to the polls and didn't see this race on my ballot at all, and yet the candidates' signs for the magistrates' race were outside. turns out that because my polling place has both precincts 6 & 7, the signs were for 7, not 6--confusing!

noel jones said...

from the Express-Times election results live chat:

Comment From Colin McEvoy
The county is still lagging, but WFMZ is reporting that Bob Arnts, Robert Fehnel and William Rider have won the three-way EASB Region I race on both the Republican and Democratic sides. That means they are a lock to win in November too, ousting incumbents Jodi Hess and Millie Mandarino