WILKES-BARRE — With only one incumbent opting to run and four open seats, Wilkes-Barre Area School Board is sure to see an infusion of new blood regardless of Tuesday’s election results.
The board is also poised to pick a replacement for Maryanne Toole — who resigned because she is moving out of state — so the nine-member board could conceivably end up with five first-time members in December.
The odds of that are slim, though, as incumbent Christine Katsock won on the Republican and Democratic ticket in the primary and is thus almost assured of a win.
Two other candidates won on both ballots in the primary and will likely get on the board: Joe Caffery, a retired district teacher and guidance counselor, and Denise Thomas, currently employed in the district as a part-time attendance officer. If elected she would have to resign her paid position in the district.
That means the odds are good the real race will come down to retired district teacher and principal Ned Evans, who won the Democratic nomination in the primary, hospital lab information systems coordinator Kathy Grinaway, who won the Republican nomination and frequent board critic Sam Troy, running as an independent.
Katsock has been touting her independence and performance as a watch dog, stressing that she was the only board member to initially question legal fees from then-solicitor Anthony Lupas. A Times Leader review showed that Lupas bills had increased sixfold in three years, and explanation of charges were often fuzzy or even non-existent.
Lupas resigned as solicitor and was charged by federal prosecutors for allegedly running an investment scheme unrelated to his school board work. The board paid for a forensic audit of legal bills that criticized the lack of detail in the bills, but also noted that lack made it impossible to verify if charges were valid.
School security issue
Asked their top goals, Thomas, Evans and Caffery all cited school security as one issue they felt could and should be addressed quickly.
“My first priority is to get walk-through metal detectors at every school,” Thomas said, adding that her research showed it could be accomplished for less than $50,000. “With a$102 million budget, I think we can fit that in.”
Thomas said her second priority is “better communication between parents, teachers, schools and the school board. We’ve lost all communication and that’s very important.”
Evans also said metal detectors would be a high priority and that he’d look for federal and state grant money to fund them. He also said he believes standardized testing in schools has become excessive.
“We’re robbing our children of a fully rounded education,” Evans said, conceding a school board member has little immediate say in tests mandated by state and federal law, but adding “it’s got to start with someone, it’s got to start with an elected official.”
Caffery cited metal detectors as something the board should look into but said he would look for a broader approach, talking with the district security head “tomake sure we’re doing everything we can to ensure student safety to the best of our ability.
Caffery said school security cameras need to be reviewed “to make sure all school entrances are secured, not just the main entrance.”
Grinaway put revamping the hiring policy at the top of her list. The board has taken heated public criticism for hiring or promoting relatives, most recently when Board Member Louis Elmy’s wife, a long-time district employee, was moved from a part-time position to a full-time position providing health insurance coverage.
“We need to hire outside the pool of relatives,” Grinaway said.
Troy has been sharply critical of the board’s spending. In an interview after successfully gathering enough signatures to get on the ballot, he accused the board of being oblivious to taxpayer struggles while doling out “outrageous salaries and benefits to its administrators, solicitor and many other employees.”
Troy also promises to revamp the hiring policy and eliminate nepotism.
Other candidates said the controlling spending is important as well.
“The only way a lot of our children are going to get out of poverty is a good education and I want hem to have the best,” Grinaway said. “But we have to remember we have elderly population, we have to look for ways to save money.”
“Annually we have to decide what are the things we have to spend money on, and how can we be fair to the taxpayers,” Caffery said.
Caffery, Thomas and Evans all said voters should not see their work history in the district as a negative. All three said they would use that experience to do what’s best for students and taxpayers.
“I don’t think it would be a good thing to have a board of nine educators, I think you’re looking for a mix,” Caffery said. “But I believe there is a place for former educators. I think you have a sense of what’s going on in the day-to-day business.”