Candidates interviewed for Keystone Central board seats

Decisions to be made in September

MILL HALL — Two open school board seats and three interviews… Candidates for Keystone Central School Board vacancies were questioned Thursday evening.

Tracy Smith, of 36 Mill Hill Road, who is pursuing the Region V seat left by the July resignation of Albert Jones, was interviewed first.

Smith was contacted by conference call, as she was out of town on vacation.

Katelyn Hendershot, of 81 Fairview St., Beech Creek, and Billie J. Rupert, of 613 Maple Ave., Beech Creek, were then interviewed for Greg Strouse’s Region III seat. He resigned in June.

Superintendent Kelly Hastings asked the candidates a list of questions, with several other questions coming from board member Debbie Smith on behalf of fellow board member Charles Rosamilia, who was absent.

The first question was, “What made you interested?”

Smith replied she had originally been interested before Jones ran, but she had a lot going on in her personal life at the time.

“Once I heard that Albert was running, I was like, well, let’s let him take care of it — he’s a great guy.”

Now, with Jones stepping down and Smith’s life having settled somewhat, Smith said she wants to “make sure that our kids are getting the best experience they can.”

She also fielded questions on her experience and qualities she brings to the table, responding that she is “honest, and very impartial when it comes to the district,” referencing that she doesn’t have any relatives who serve as teachers or administrators for Keystone. She also stressed her ability to listen to other people’s viewpoints and take them into account when making her decisions.

When asked, “What is the role of a board member?” Smith responded: “For one to take into account everything that’s being thrown at the district from exterior sources,” as well as to “serve as a liaison between the community and the schools.”

Smith stressed this section, expressing that she really wants “to see the community become more involved once again in both how the district is run and also in how it communicates with the public.”

On the subject of the relationship between board members and the superintendent, Smith stated that although the superintendent is hired to do his or her best to run the district, there have to be “some checks and balances,” and that the board needs to constrain the superintendent somewhat.

Hastings then asked Smith how she would handle receiving an individual complaint. Smith replied she would be “forthright and honest with the information I personally had, and that if I didn’t know myself, I would bring it to the other board members and superintendent to ask for clarity.”

She also noted many people seem to get their information from rumors as opposed to the school board meetings, and said she would attempt to get more community members to attend the meetings to receive answers to their questions firsthand.

She cited the current budget crisis as one of Keystone’s biggest challenges when prompted, as well as once again characterizing the lack of community involvement and disgruntlement voiced in public opinion as major issues.

Hastings next asked her to complete the following question: “My greatest hope for the future of KCSD is…?”

Smith’s answer: “To provide our students with a quality education so that they can become productive members of our community, or if they go elsewhere, in whatever community they settle in.”

When asked about the board’s role in budget preparations, Smith responded with an emphasis on being fiscally responsible, but also cautioned, “Everything changes, and we need to be able to fund those changes and keep up with the demands of society.”

The superintendent’s final two questions were on the subjects of confidentiality and social media. Smith said she used to work in the medical field and is comfortable with the constraints of confidentiality due to HIPPA regulations. She also said on social media, a board member should “keep everything as positive as possible,” citing her belief that the school board is the link to the public.

Board member Debbie Smith then posed Rosamilia’s questions:

r Does a board member have the right to question the administration?

Smith replied “Absolutely,” referencing her earlier comment on the system of checks and balances. She affirmed, “If I see anything that will have a negative impact, I will speak up and question it.”

r When should the board raise taxes?

Noting the hardship that raising taxes causes the elderly, Smith said she is generally against it, but did acknowledge sometimes it’s necessary in order fund programming to keep moving forward with the education of the district’s children.

r What kind of person would you look for when searching for a new superintendent?

Smith said she’d actually been thinking about this recently.

“Due to our current budget situation, I would like to find somebody with a business background if possible,” she said. “I would also like somebody from out of this area — fresh eyes. We live in a small area, and we need someone who hasn’t already formed opinions.”

The board and Smith thanked one another for their time, and then it was Hendershot’s turn.

Hendershot was asked the same questions.

When asked why she was interested, Hendershot provided a long and passionate response, stating she had been afforded many opportunities at Keystone, ranging from music and sports to the CTC program that allowed her to graduate with her cosmetology license. Working as a hairdresser in State College, Hendershot said she hears “so much about the public schools failing, programming being lost,” and she wants to try to keep people from feeling they need to look into alternate schools or leave the area to find a better education for their children.

She also stated she was the youngest person in the room by far, which she viewed as a strength: “I can draw on new perspectives and not keep using the same things that have already failed.”

Another strength she brings to the table, Hendershot noted, is she’s good with numbers and is interested in the district’s business side — “I’m not the most experienced, but I want to bring more ideas forth. So many people say yes or no, but there’s no grey… there’s no why,” she said.

When asked about how she would deal with complaints, Hendershot said she would “write it down so I wouldn’t forget it, but then not share too much information at the time until I had a better idea of what’s going on.”

One of the biggest challenges she said she sees the district facing is low public opinion.

“When I ask State College students if they like their school and they say yes, that’s just so much different than what I hear here,” she said.

Her greatest hope for the district is “all the students should be happy to go to school here. I want teachers to stay here, too. I’ve only been out of school for seven years, and so many of my teachers are no longer here. Why? Why are so many people unhappy and what can we do to fix it?”

With regards to confidentiality and social media, Hendershot said, “Confidentiality and integrity go hand in hand,” and sometimes the best interests of the district, the board, and the students require discretion. She also expressed concern with the dangers of social media: that they just allow someone to put an individual opinion “out there,” and that “anyone can take that opinion and manipulate it.”

To Rosamilia’s question about board members and the administration, Hendershot replied, “Questioning is a right that everyone has. We shouldn’t be taught just to listen, we should be taught to ask.”

On the subject of taxes, she was empathetic to the plight of taxpayers. “My husband and I pay lots of taxes, too,” she said, stressing the importance of getting the community on board with raising taxes if it needs to be done, and making sure the community understands why it’s necessary at the time.

On the subject of searching for a new superintendent, Hendershot said she wants “somebody who listens well to everyone — a good team member,” as well as someone with a history of success and a positive attitude.

Hendershot also had several questions for the school board members. She asked, “From your point of view, what is the mission of the board?”

President James “Butch” Knauff replied: “to oversee the operations of the district by hiring the best qualified people and then letting those people do their job.”

Board member Jeff Johnston added, “We create policy for the district. We set the policy for all of the employees to follow, all of the students, and anyone else involved with the school district. We also handle contracts and budget negotiations.”

Also expressing their opinions were board members Wayne Koch and Debbie Smith, who echoed one another in emphasizing the challenge of being a “balancing act between two groups of constituents. One group would be the students. We want to provide the best education we can in all respects. But at the same time, also the taxpayers — they’re the ones who foot the bill.”

Hendershot also asked about the individual responsibilities of board members.

Knauff answered, “We are a collective. We don’t have any individual responsibilities. But to do this, we need to prepare ourselves in any way we can. Daily emails, education for board members. Knowing everything that goes on takes a lot of time, spending hours studying and reading for how we can make our district the best we can.”

Koch stressed the importance of having the time to be available to the constituents.

After that, it was Billie Rupert’s turn at the desk.

Rupert said as a lifelong resident of Beech Creek and Blanchard, “You’re always concerned about what’s going on, as a taxpayer, parent, and community member.” She also stated she hadn’t given much thought to running until she was asked and then began asking herself, “Why don’t I run?” She mentioned she is aware the job of board member is often a thankless one, but said she is “used to working with a tough clientele, after being employed by the Department of Corrections for over 20 years.”

When asked what she will bring to the table, Rupert mentioned her expertise as a trained negotiator. She said she offers courses at the Department of Corrections on working with people effectively. She also cited her experience in middle management, with years on the housing unit, managing up to 20 officers, as well as counselors.

Rupert sees the role of a board member as being defined by listening to those in the community whom the member represents.

“Listen to those who have been around and know what will work, but ask if it will continue to work,” she said. “Look at things objectively.”

She also stressed the importance of the board and the superintendent being able to listen to one another and cooperate.

“They’re the boots on the ground,” she explained, “but you also need to ask if there’s anything else going on.”

As for complaints, Rupert said that there is no “one-size fits all” solution. “Sometimes you just need to let them vent,” she said. “But also encourage them. Say that you hear what they’re saying, but they should come before the board and voice that.”

The biggest challenge Rupert sees facing the board is the budget, she said, but she also sees a large problem with public opinion.

“It’s a problem when you hear the kids express that they’re embarrassed to say where they’re from,” she said. “I see stuff disappearing — clubs, vocational, etc. And sometimes we lose sight of what’s going on.”

Her greatest hope for the district is “for the kids and parents to get their pride back.”

On the subject of confidentiality, Rupert explained she already deals with similar situations in her career.

“Lots goes on behind the scenes, and while I believe that a lot should be made public, there are personnel issues that should just not be shared,” she said.

In response to the social media question, she laughed saying, “I just joined Facebook four months ago — I post animals and food.” She also said, more seriously, that nothing should come from board members, but rather “the board has to work as one,” and the board should make united statements if social media is used at all.

To Rosamilia’s questions, Rupert answered she “absolutely” believes administration should be ready and willing to be questioned.

She also believes the board should raise taxes as “little as possible.” She acquiesced, “It’s a fact of life that taxes will go up sometimes, but it’s the job of the board to exhaust every other option before raising taxes. Everything else should come first.”

For the new superintendent, Rupert expressed her desire for “someone confident and willing to learn, someone who is open to discussion. Nobody knows everything, so I would encourage them to be a person who is willing to work with the board, while still being knowledgeable in what they’re doing.”

The school board said they hope to have decisions made by September’s regular meeting, with an eye toward having a full board again soon.

Keystone needs all hands on deck quickly, with the quest for a new superintendent looming ahead of the district. Hastings will retire in March 2018, in the midst of the school year.