CARLISLE, Pa. (WHTM) — The November election is around the corner, and voters will be casting ballots for school board candidates. The Carlisle race is a very contentious one, and voters had a chance to hear from the candidates Monday at a forum hosted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the League of Women Voters.
Ten candidates are vying for five open seats. They have divided into two different groups: Citizens for Carlisle Schools and Team for Change.
abc27 spoke to a few of the candidates ahead of Monday night’s forum.
“Oh, I’ve lived in the Carlisle area for over 40 years,” said Carlisle School Board President Paula Bussard.
Bussard is one of four candidates running to keep their seat on the board.
“My parents believed that public education was our ticket to success,” she said.
She is part of Citizens for Carlisle Schools. The group also includes the other three candidates running to keep their seats.
“What drew us together was the importance of putting student educational needs first, respecting parents and teachers and then working to unite our community, not divide it over partisan types of issues,” she said.
Bussard said she wants to continue working on issues she has prioritized on the board, like consolidating elementary schools to even out class sizes.
She also said Carlisle is a very diverse school district, and it is important to her to continue supporting students dealing with poverty, homelessness or English as a second language.
“We’ve established an at risk counseling position at the high school,” she explained.
Team for Change candidates are focused on improving academic performance.
“I just was really concerned that there were a lot of children that were falling behind,” said candidate Heather Leatherman.
Her fellow candidate Dr. Walt Brown agrees. In 2022, Pennsylvania System of School Assessment results found that 40% of middle and elementary school students in Carlisle were not proficient in reading. More than half were not proficient in math, with middle school students scoring the worst.
“Right now, it’s just appalling at how low those scores are,” Brown said.
Team for Change candidates also prioritize transparency and making it easier for parents and families to have a voice.
“Documents are out there, but they’re extremely difficult to find, and these types of transparency issues need to be straightened out,” Brown said.
Some priorities overlap between the two groups, like raising the graduation rate.
“When someone doesn’t graduate, their opportunities for a quality life are more limited,” Bussard said.
Leatherman said, “I think early intervention is key, is identifying those students early on who are struggling in school and helping them.”
However, Bussard is worried her opponents are backed by what she calls extremist groups like Moms for Liberty and Take Back Our Schools PAC. The Southern Poverty Law Center has explicitly labeled Moms for Liberty as an extremist group.
“Groups that have called for book bans or challenging curricula,” Bussard described.
Take Back Our Schools PAC’s mission is to “take back our schools from the Woke education establishment.” The group has endorsed two Team for Change candidates.
The Cumberland County chapter of Moms for Liberty has not endorsed any candidates in the Carlisle race but has thrown support behind candidates in other school districts, including West Shore and Cumberland Valley.
“What we really want to bring to the table is making sure that parents are in the driver’s seat,” Allison Shipp, chair of the Cumberland County Moms for Liberty Chapter, said.
Shipp said races for school boards matter because school boards are “the ones that set the tone for the community.” She said many parents disagree with policies like allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
Not everyone shares Shipp’s beliefs that “Parents know best, above all. Period.”
For Shipp, and some school board candidates, disagreement is okay — even, they say, welcome.
“We should be able to have a rational, calm conversation about those things,” Shipp said.
Leatherman called for a similar civility in the Carlisle School Board race.
“I want to be a person who can bring different sides together,” she said.
At Monday night’s candidate forum in Carlisle, candidates were able to give opening and closing statements and answer two questions. A recording of the forum is available here.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 7.