Sunday, May 15, 2011

Meet Kerri Leonard-Ellison, EASD Region III School Board Candidate for Re-Election

Kerri Leonard-Ellison
Posted by: Noël Jones

Kerri Leonard-Ellison, 51 of Forks Township is running for re-election to the Easton Area School Board for Region III, which covers part of Lower Mount Bethel, Forks, the West Ward and College Hill. Her only challenger is Frank Castrovinci--who is the brother of the school district's Human Resources Director--John Castrovinci.

I had an opportunity to talk with Ellison this weekend, who, as a mother of four, first got involved in the school district on the committee level 15 years ago as a concerned parent, eventually becoming PTA president and then running for school board and winning in 2007. 

At her first meeting of the school board as a new member, the board was handed a single copy of the new teachers' contract to share, five minutes before the meeting was supposed to start. Ellison made her presence and her backbone known right away. "Is there not more than one copy?" she asked then acting-superintendent Joe Kish. She was told no, to which she replied, "this is inappropriate." Mr. Kish then asked the other eight board members, "Well, who's ready to vote?" Everyone indicated they were ready, but the uneasiness was palpable. Ellison's first act as a board member was to motion to table the
contract until the next meeting so that school board members could have time to read it. The motion was seconded by then-member Randy Mahl, and Jodi Hess also motioned to table the vote, but the motion failed and the vote was called. The teachers contract was passed 7-2 [two abstentions, those of Ellison and Hess--whose husband is a teacher]. Mahl ended up voting for the contract he had just voted to table.

Over the last few years, Ellison has become known as a passionate and outspoken advocate for students and taxpayers alike, continuing to challenge the status quo. I have never seen Ellison sit back safely and avoid taking issues head-on in public meetings, which has garnered her both friends and foes. Since Region III is the only region in this primary that did not have a candidates' forum, I decided to get Ellison's take on a few of the hot-button questions that came up in the forums for the other two regions. It didn't surprise me that she had a lot to say…

On merit-pay:

"I have been working diligently for the three years to get merit pay. In the beginning, I asked the acting superintendent [Kish] about assessments, and they were completely inconsistent.” Not everyone was assessed, and when they were, they were not all assessed in the same way. “I believe that the district should be run like a business," says Ellison.

Not long after she was elected, she joined discussions regarding the search for a new superintendent, which had already been conducted and had rendered five finalists for consideration. But board president Pat Vulcano and others became somehow convinced that the search should be re-opened, that the district should pay the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) to conduct the new search. Furthermore, it was proposed that Kish, who was in the final year of his superintendent certification, should be re-instituted for another year. Ellison raised the concern that it might not be legal, and was able to convince the board to write to the Pennsylvania Department of Education to ask about the legalities of re-appointing an acting superintendent for an additional year. The PDE responded that it would, in fact, be illegal, and so Sue McGinley, a former elementary school teacher, assistant principal and grant writer, was appointed as acting-superintendent while the search for a permanent super continued. During that time, Ellison and other board members were able to a draft a merit-pay evaluation provision into the next superintendent's contract, ensuring that out of a 5% annual raise, 3% would be granted if performance were "average or above" expectations. Eventually, McGinley's name was added to those being considered for the position of superintendent, and she was eventually selected by PSBA over the previous finalists.

Since being hired, the district has implemented similar merit-pay assessment processes for some of the other administrators who are individually contracted [not union members]. Ellison hopes that the district will continue to implement these structures until all individually contracted administrators are on a merit-pay system.

With regard to merit pay for teachers, Ellison was an early proponent of President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, but since then says, “It is something I’m cautiously watching…as I have learned more about what can potentially happen—and what is happening in other areas. If you become reliant on the federal money, then mandates can be added along the way. Will they then eventually control curriculum? Could they stipulate how the money is spent? You can lose local control to the federal government when you become reliant on that money. Hints of this are beginning to occur in areas that have accepted Race to the Top dollars. We can apply for grants, yes, but we should not become reliant on federal money that might only be cut later.”

On taxes:

“Of course it’s preferable to balance the budget without dipping into the fund balance. In this year, if we have to dip to get us through this financial crisis, it’s an option. I am absolutely against a tax increase in this economy. Our district should be able to do with what they have. We have huge waste in the district, and I’ve been asking to go line by line together with the administration to find waste in the budget, but it hasn’t happened. The district has not yet done all it can do to cut wasteful spending. We are still paying for things that have nothing to do with education—it’s got to stop."

Last year, the district started using a new budget program called Panamation. But the problem was that comparing numbers from the new program to the old reports was comparing apples and oranges—the budget was not allocated in the same line items so the board could not easily do their own research without the help of the business manager to explain when line items didn’t match. “This year, at least we can compare two years of the same report, but it is still hard for the board to interpret because there are large dollars figures throughout the budget labeled ‘Miscellaneous’ with no further explanation. We’ve got to be able to go line by line.”

As for positive accomplishments in the last three years, Ellison cites streamlining the Accreditation For Growth (AFG) by eliminating the director’s position and cutting back on the more expensive, labor-intensive parts of the program for teachers  while still improving the continuity in curriculum between grades and schools. “The value of AFG is the ability to identify a lack of flow in curriculum between grades. For instance, you might have kids arriving in the next grade for chemistry class, who have never learned the Periodic Table when the textbooks for the next class assume they already know it. We have highlighted and addressed these issues and are well on our way to correcting and improving them. We now have consistency across the elementary schools--their performance has proved it as they have been progressing in to the middle-schools--Paxinosa even got an award.”

When it comes to finding ways to decide on cuts and save the district money, “we have an obligation to provide a quality education. Extracurricular activities are important, but we need to find more creative ways of supporting these activities.”

“We also need to be more regimented in our oversight from top to bottom to address issues of discrimination before they become costly lawsuits to the district. We need to hold people accountable and address these issues through an evaluation process.”

With regard to future goals, Ellison would like to, “identify the descriptions for each position and make sure that they are all being evaluated in a fair and consistent way.” She would also like, “to do a critical analysis of the finances for the district…to see how we can better perform our educational role at a rate affordable to taxpayers.” Lastly, says Ellison, “we need collaboration and partnership with local corporations and agencies in the community that are grant-funded to work together to alleviate the burden on taxpayers. We need our local community to buy-in to the education of our young citizens.”

The only meetings that Ellison has missed have been for a series of surgeries to remove a benign tumor from her brain behind her eye, and to remove and correct tissue that has been disturbed during numerous skin grafts. Even during recovery, she has attended meetings via conference call, propped up on her couch. But she doesn’t let it deter her commitment to the job. “My physicians are doing a great job, and with any luck, this may all be over by the end of this month. We all have challenges in our personal lives outside the positions we hold. I feel public education is so important as a part of our community’s well-being…I hope that anyone in this position will meet their personal challenges in a way that allows them to remain committed to such an important part of our community.” In the meantime she jokes. “It’s ridiculous!” she laughs sitting on her couch, one side of her head visibly swollen. “The pressure on my eye has distorted my vision temporarily, so I literally have to use a magnifying glass to look over these line items!”

I’d like to see all our board members committed enough to take a magnifying glass to our district’s budget this year.


Anonymous said...

How did Kerri vote on the teachers contract about three years ago where the teachers got such a great deal?

I am in Region III but voters may be interested in how other regions incumbents voted .

noel jones said...

My post outlines that specifically--did you read it?

At her very first meeting as a new board member she was handed the contract 5 minutes before the meeting started. As her first act as a new board member, she motioned to table it, in opposition to Kish, who was trying to ram it through, but was outvoted. They were forced to vote on it, so she abstained out of principle, and Jodi Hess abstained because her husband was a teacher and she didn't feel it right for her to vote on it. So it passed with 7 votes to 2 abstensions.

It takes me a long time to write these articles, so please read them before asking questions!

noel jones said...

This from ET's election results live chat:

Comment From Colin McEvoy
The county is now reporting 100% on the EASB Region 3 race, and unofficial results indicate what we've been expecting: Frank Castrovinci has won the Republican race and Kerri Leonard-Ellison has won the Democratic race. They will face each other in November.

May 17, 2011 11:13 PM