COVID-19 won't last forever. School board candidates say these issues will be priorities

Amber South
Chambersburg Public Opinion

The COVID-19 pandemic will affect the world of education for the foreseeable future, but the people vying to become members of local school boards will need to work on issues that came long before mask mandates and virtual days. 

Budgets and property taxes, building projects, what should be in the curriculum, instructional methods, extracurricular activities, school policies - these are just some of the big issues school boards have always and will always tackle. Candidates running for seats on school boards around Franklin County talked to us about what their priorities will be, beyond the pandemic. 

Budget, property taxes and capital projects

“Children First” is the slogan of Greencastle-Antrim School District. Hal Myers thinks taxpayers should be a priority, too.

He pointed to grandparents, like himself. Many are retired and living on set incomes and have to pay more and more for property taxes.

Myers, a Republican who was previously on the board from 1989 to 2006, decided to make another run for the board after learning that Greencastle-Antrim Middle School has been in need of a new roof for years. A friend approached him the very next day about running, and it seemed like fate.

"There are three other major buildings there. If you can't do a roof what else isn’t done correctly?" he said. 

The school board accepted a bid for the roof project this summer, according to meeting minutes, but a bigger project will need to be addressed soon. Other Greencastle-Antrim school boards over a number of years have discussed how to accommodate a growing student body in aging facilities. 

Myers said he is on board with the proposal to build an addition connecting the high school and middle school, but he would want to look over the plans before voting on it. 

Municipal election:Franklin County candidates face contested races for school board, borough council, mayor

In Tuscarora School District, school board candidate Mary Sue Hartman is in a similar boat as Myers. She is concerned about taxes being raised ever higher to cover the costs of some upcoming projects.

“It’s not cheap. They want to raise (taxes) again a certain percentage over the next three to five years. I want to make sure the public has a say in it. If they keep raising taxes, they will have people leave (the district),” the Republican said.

A problem in Tuscarora is the lack of industry. The area has not seen economic development like most of the other districts in the county. A smaller tax base means higher taxes.

Hartman is hopeful that Herbruck’s Poultry Farm and a planned Tractor Supply Company will boost revenue a bit, but she knows it won’t fix the issue.  

On the flip side, Cameron Schroy wants a tax abatement program intended to kickstart development in Greencastle-Antrim school district to come to an end. 

Some argue the Local Economic Revitalization Tax Assistance program did just what it was supposed to. Its approval in 2012 was followed by an explosion in commercial growth at Interstate 81 Exit 3. Whereas the raw land generated $20,000 in property taxes every year for Greencastle-Antrim, in 2019 property tax bills for the same area came to $450,000 collectively - and there's been more growth since then.

But Schroy is among opponents who think the commercial growth would have happened without LERTA and the district could be making a lot more tax revenue. The Democratic candidate said LERTA needs to be allowed to expire in 2022 in order to slow property tax increases in Greencastle-Antrim. 

"...we easily let hundreds of thousands of dollars go uncollected every single year because of LERTA. We don't give any special tax relief to seniors on a fixed income but for some reason we think profitable corporations deserve big breaks.

"Every dollar we don't collect from the warehouses is a dollar the property owner has to make up." 

Property taxes will keep on rising as long as state lawmakers fail to change Pennsylvania's school funding formula, said Schroy, who graduated from Greencastle-Antrim High School in 2014. Greencastle is particularly affected by a provision called “hold harmless”; it ensures districts don’t receive less funding even if their enrollment drops, but growing districts such as Greencastle have no such advantage.

Curriculum and instruction

Sherian Diller, a longtime educator who effectively won the Region 3 seat on Chambersburg Area school board in the primary, wants to focus on remedial education and the impact being away from classrooms much of last year is having on students. 

"I'm very concerned about the reading levels for (kindergartners through third-graders). Students who leave third grade not being a confident reader can struggle through the rest of their schooling," the former superintendent of Waynesboro Area School District said. 

Diller pointed to a decision by the Chambersburg school board to restructure a group of reading teachers who worked in small groups with students needing remediation, saying these remedial students now get less direct instruction. The start of this school year - following months of virtual instruction due to COVID-19 followed by summer vacation - was the "worst" time to make such a change, she said. 

Other school board candidates want to make sure the curriculum in their district doesn't promote what they see as political agendas. 

Tuscarora board candidate, Hartman said it should be up to parents, not schools, to educate children on topics including sex and gender identity. She said teachers and educational materials should be unbiased, not aim to persuade students one way or another. She is concerned that kids will grow up without learning important parts of history or how to look out for themselves without the help of a computer. 

"I want the kids in this area to grow up with an appreciation of this country like I did," Hartman said. 

In Greencastle, Myers said he would make it a priority to keep critical race theory out of the district. 

Critical race theory:Some Greencastle-Antrim parents say it doesn't belong in schools

He said he does not think many people know what it is, "and I'm not 100% sure what all it is, either." 

You can find a range a descriptions online if you search "critical race theory." According to EducationWeek, "Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies."

This summer, a group of parents went to the Greencastle school board to speak out against critical race theory ever being taught in schools. Superintendent Lura Hanks told a reporter at the time that the concept is not part of the district's curriculum or instruction. A later statement emphasized the district's commitment to diversity, equity and inclusivity. 

Myers described his experiences as a young adult in the 1960s and seeing Black people fighting for civil rights. Traveling while in the Navy, he said he made friends of other races who he would do anything for. He talked about an experience in Saudi Arabia, at a restaurant that had different entrances for men and women/families, which he said showed him what it may have been like for Black people during the Jim Crow era in the American South. 

Back then, non-white people were oppressed, "but it doesn't occur today," he said. 

Asked if schools should include race and racism in lessons about the development of the United States, Myers said he believes it always has been. He pointed to lessons on slavery and the Civil War. He added that lessons on American history should start at 1776. 

Municipal election is coming up Nov. 2

Voters will select candidates for school boards, borough councils, mayor, township supervisor, and other municipal and precinct-level offices on Tuesday, Nov. 2. 

Polls will be open 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For information on where to vote and other election topics, go to franklincountypa.gov. 

Amber South can be reached at asouth@publicopinionnews.com.