Education takes center stage at School Board Town Hall

A behind the curtain look at the Town Hall stage.

TOWAMENCIN- Local politics was alive and well last night as the community gathered in North Penn High School for the School Board Candidate Town Hall, hosted by the Knight Crier Staff. With five open seats up for grabs in the upcoming election, the event served as a way to address the issues facing the district and to have the candidates speak on their visions and values.

Over two hundred community members were in attendance, as well as a large viewership across the district as the event was broadcasted live on NPTV. The audience was a diverse mix of students, parents, teachers, and retirees, who wanted to learn more about the issues and the candidates’ positions.

North Penn High School Principal Mr. Todd Bauer was pleasantly surprised by the impressive student attendance in the audience.

“I was shocked at how much of a crowd we had, I was very encouraged. I’m not sure if they were motivated by extra credit, or if they were motivated by certain teachers, or if kids genuinely had interest in what was going to happen. Regardless, of which of those motivations it was, it was impressive. I would like to think that it’s because our students know that things are volatile right now, and they want to get involved, they want to have a voice, and get involved in the process,” said Bauer.

Judy Hamilton, a North Penn parent and Upper Gwynedd resident, was looking forward to hearing the candidates at the event.

“I wanted to hear their credentials and understand their reasons for wanting to serve four years on our school board,” said Hamilton, “You can’t read personalities and passions from a four color brochure.

For the Quality Education Matters group, four candidates are running for the four open four year positions. They are incumbents Josie Charnock, Patrick McGee Jr., and Frank O’Donnell, as well as first-time candidate Thomas Mancini. For the two-year position vacated by late Carolyn Murphy, Michelle Rupp is running on the Quality Education Matters slate. From the North Penn Neighbors for Progress, Christian Fusco, Jonathan Kassa, Tina Stoll, and Mark Warren are running for the four year terms, and Jenna Ott is running for the open two year term.

The event began with a performance of the National Anthem by the cast of North Penn’s fall musical 1776. After the anthem, each candidate had the opportunity to give an opening statement, which they used as an opportunity to speak about their qualifications and goals for the school board.

North Penn Television

The first topic addressed by the candidates was on the issue of facilities improvement and budgetary responsibility. The Quality Education Matters group won the coin toss before the event and had the opportunity to answer the question first. Tom Mancini answered the question on behalf of the group and spoke on the needs within the schools, mentioning plans that are underway in the buildings, including upgrades in air conditioning systems in certain schools. As discussion continued with the opposing North Penn Neighbors for Progress group, there was some debate on which buildings should take priority in being upgraded. Frank O’Donnell, of Quality Education Matters, spoke on the importance of tackling issues within the elementary schools, while Tina Stoll, of North Penn Neighbors for Progress, prioritized the high school building.

“This school has 3,000 kids in one place, and it has a boiler and heating system that is about on its last leg. There are priorities that have to be made, and this high school should come before some of the elementary schools,” said Stoll.

This school has 3,000 kids in one place, and it has a boiler and heating system that is about on its last leg. There are priorities that have to be made, and this high school should come before some of the elementary schools

— Tina Stoll

Pat McGee Jr. closed out the discussion on this topic and addressed the importance of North Penn’s credit rating remaining high, so that the district can continue to upgrade facilities in ways that are fiscally responsible and continue to tackle larger facility issues.

The next question went to the North Penn Neighbors for Progress group and was on the topic of racial, economic, and age diversity within the district. Jonathan Kassa spoke on the need for district wide diversity training, and a new perspective on the diversity within the community by the school board. Frank O’Donnell and Josie Charnock spoke on behalf of Quality Education Matters on the importance of not raising taxes more than necessary in order to support lower socioeconomic groups and people on fixed incomes. Kassa questioned this point by addressing the increase in North Penn community taxes 9 out of the last 10 years. Pat McGee Jr. addressed this statement by pointing to the high credit rating of the district as a success in the boards’ mission of saving taxpayer money.

The next question was on the issue of inclusion and class size in the district. The two groups had a passionate discussion over the class size guidelines within elementary schools. Quality Education Matters defended the board policy and said that class size is strictly monitored and currently is a lower average class size than the rest of the nation. North Penn Neighbors for Progress refuted this claim, saying schools cannot follow these guidelines and that A.M. Kulp and Bridle Path have had classes that exceed the guidelines. Josie Charnock refuted this claim, which was met with a large groan from audience members. McGee Jr. continued to defend board policy, by saying that the “guidelines are just that, they are guidelines”, and that due to late enrollment in schools, there are last minute additions to classes.

The fourth question addressed the issue of school safety. Jonathan Kassa spoke on his credentials and expertise in this matter, and the need for North Penn to implement climate surveys within the district. On the Quality Education Matters team, Frank O’Donnell addressed the changes that have been implemented in the district since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, including security cameras, new communication systems, new buzzer systems.

The next question tackled the controversial issue of charter schools, and how they may affect North Penn. Tom Mancini answered on behalf of Quality Education Matters, and definitively stated the groups thoughts on charter schools. He disagreed with a claim on the North Penn Neighbor’s for Progress website that reads: Republicans would like to stack the board with pro-charter members that will rubber stamp applications, regardless of the will of local taxpayers.” Mancini added that the school board must legally review proposals for charter schools that are presented to them. In her response, Jenna Ott and North Penn Neighbors for Progress, agreed with the Quality Education Matters group that there is no place for charter schools in the district. The back and forth over the validity of the website claim followed in the discussion as the groups debated the issue.

The 6th question addressed full day kindergarten and was posed to the Quality Education Matters group. Incumbent Josie Charnock stated that this issue was addressed on the board in the past year, but it was decided that full day kindergarten is not currently practical for the size and needs of the school district. Jenna Ott, responding for the North Penn Neighbors for Progress, said she is a supporter of full day kindergarten, and the program could be funded by Ready-to-Learn block grants from Pennsylvania, rather than an increase in taxes.

The final topic of the night addressed the issue of drugs and the opioid epidemic within the North Penn community. Jonathan Kassa explained his credentials on the issue, and the need to expand opioid overdose reversing drugs to elementary and middle schools in the district. The Quality Education Matters group answered the question in one of the most memorable lines of the event, as Frank O’Donnell said “If you bring drugs into this school, you will be caught.”

After the closing statements by the candidates and final remarks by moderator Anissa Gardizy, School Board candidates and audience members took time to reflect on the event.

North Penn senior Manasi Nawathe spoke on her motivations for coming to the town hall and listening to the candidates.

As a high school senior, it was important for me to come to the event tonight and learn about the issues facing our community

— Manasi Nawathe

“As a high school senior, it was important for me to come to the event tonight and learn about the issues facing our community and the candidates stances on them. This way, in future elections, I can come back and be an educated voter,” said Nawathe.

Tina Stoll, of North Penn Neighbors for Progress, was very pleased with the town hall.

“I really appreciated the opportunity to have a dialogue with the community, and it was really nice that all these people came out to attend the event,” said Stoll.

From Quality Education Matters, Josie Charnock was excited to see involvement from the community.

“It’s important that we go out and vote. Even though it’s a local level election, they’re still important and still impact everyone in the community. I’d like to see that everyone is involved and comes out to vote November 7th,” said Charnock.

Event organizer and Knight Crier Editor-in-Chief Anissa Gardizy summarized the success of the event saying, “The Town Hall is something our staff has never done before, and I think we handled it like professionals. I hope that the audience got the same feeling.”

To watch the full town hall broadcasted by NPTV, you can go to Election Day is Tuesday, November 7th.