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Crestwood incumbents facing challengers

Overcrowding, budgeting, personnel emerging as key issues in spring primary.

WRIGHT TWP. – Eight candidates are vying to fill four open school director seats on the Crestwood School Board in the 2009 primary on May 19.

The winners will face longstanding contract chasms with support services personnel, a shrinking revenue stream and classroom overcrowding, according to the candidates.

Elected candidates in the November general election will serve four-year terms.

Each is filed on both the Democratic and Republican tickets. Eric Aigeldinger, David Ralston, William Thomas and John Williams are incumbents being challenged by Martin Behm, Norb Dotzel, Bill Jones and Mark Allen.

Thomas, who if re-elected will move into his third term on the board, emphasized negotiating contracts as a priority. Besides the sticky support services union contract, he foresees challenges with the upcoming teachers contract.

“Lack of revenue” makes resolving the contracts difficult, Thomas said. The slumping economy is causing businesses within the district to close, he said. Coupling that with sliding funds from Harrisburg and Washington, Thomas predicts that by 2012 the district will be in a “financial crisis.”

He added the board must make “hard decisions” in the near future to reduce costs.

Mark Allen, who served on the board in the past, sees the contract issues hinging on establishing employee satisfaction. The board and the unions have to also look at “what’s best for the kids,” he said.

He believes the district employs many dedicated staffers. The objective with the contacts should be to strive for agreements that benefit the district and its employees.

Allen said that maintaining high curricular standards supported by well-trained teachers in the district sometimes gets lost in contract discussions.

Allen said he understands the voters’ “resounding” rejection expressed in a February referendum on a $55 million expansion option. It’s time to begin anew and come up with a creative plan that will meet district needs before asking the taxpayers for more money, he said.

Bill Jones, who also served on the board before leaving to try for a Luzerne County commissioner seat in 2007, said when he left two years ago the district had plans on the table to deal with student population growth. Because of a “lack of leadership” the district did not evaluate them enough.

One of those plans could have been chosen, he said, even if it required some “tweaking.” Instead the board spent about a half million dollars for a study that died in the referendum, he said.

The overcrowding issue takes a back seat to the continuing contract dispute with the support services staff and the upcoming teachers’ contract, Jones said. Strikes should be avoided, he added, because “nobody wins.”

Incumbent Aigeldinger, who said he is looking forward to a fifth term, said the board has to find ways to reduce costs. Recently it took important steps, he said, such as authorizing refinancing the district’s debt.

He also plans to continue fighting against unnecessary expenses. It will be necessary to “watch every penny,” he said.

Martin Behm said the district’s current hiring policies top his list of “peeves.” He said an outside third-party should actually take over hiring. The school board should concentrate on setting policy and get out of the business of hiring, he said.

Behm said he supports an expansion project but not the $55 million one rejected by voters. Teachers and students deserve “more than what they have,” he said.

Running alongside Behm, Dotzel strives for more candidness from the board. The current board is “not very open,” he said.

Operating a business for 31 years, he experienced the benefits of good relations with the public, he said. The board should prioritize the way it deals with the people, which will help work out differences, he said.

He opposed the recent large-scale expansion project saying it had “too many frills.” The district does need to expand, he said, and can do so more affordably if the concentration is on education. The district should forget the non-curricular expenditures such as the upgrades for athletic facilities, he added.

Incumbent Ralston will seek a second term. “We have obvious issues,” he said, stressing the support services staff contract impasse since 2001 and lack of raises since 2004. He also touched on overcrowded classrooms.

He said he believes the taxpayers have too many things to worry about with the economic malaise and recent reassessments in Luzerne County. The key issue now is how to pay for what the district needs, Ralston said.

A call made to incumbent John Williams was not returned.

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