Turmoil in the Upper Darby School District may lead voters to turn to Republican candidates to join the school board; local activists tell DVJournal.
Candidates are vying for five seats. The Republicans have cross-filed, which is the norm for what are supposed to be non-partisan positions. But the endorsed Democrats and one unendorsed Democrat have not.
In recent years, high school students have fought each other inside and outside the school, leading to some shop owners nearby closing early as school is about to let out. And middle schools have also been the scene of student fights. Other problems include bullying, truancy, and students roaming the hallways at random.
The district also faces a teacher shortage, falling achievement scores, and other issues.
Videos have surfaced online of fights that have taken place, and there is now a “Drexel Hill Middle School Fight Page” on TikTok. A “Sleeping Page” of students sleeping, videos, and photos showing kids vaping in school bathrooms were also posted online but have been removed.
The high school now caps the credits, so students are allowed to earn at 21, leading many students to graduate their junior year and spend their “senior” year at community college.
The GOP candidates believe they can do better.
Republican Kristen Truax, who has been a school nurse at Stonehurst Hills Elementary, hopes to turn things around if elected to the school board.
“I’ve seen so many changes in the past six years,” she said. “We need to treat our teachers and staff differently to retain them.” While other school districts are also experiencing teacher shortages, she said Upper Darby has the most openings in Delaware County.
There is also a problem with student discipline.
“There are no consequences,” she said. “It takes a lot to have a consequence…These kids are getting away with so many things.”
“There’s 10 percent of the kids they can’t control, and the 90 percent of kids are missing out,” she said. She believes more guidance counselors are needed and that each school should have an equal number.
“We need behavioral therapists to come in and help these kids who are having behavior problems,” she said.
Elementary schools need more reading and math specialists to keep kids from falling behind.
She would also bring back the senior year for students and allow students to take more than 21 credits. She said the 21-credit cap has led to problems for some students who applied to four-year colleges that require more credits.
Candidate James Plummer, Ph.D., said he never stopped learning and hopes to bring that love of learning to the school district.
Now administrator for population health with the Delaware County Health Department, he returned to school after a 25-year career with the U.S. Postal Service.
“The thing I’m really passionate about is the safety of the kids,” said Plummer. He is also concerned that too many teachers are leaving the district.
If elected, “we’ll work together to put in safety measures.” The district needs more mental health services for students who are acting out. But most of the students “are really good kids who really want to learn,” he said.
In addition to Truax and Plummer, the GOP candidates are: Pat Benner, Frank Zarrilli, and Joey Mazza. Benner, a former high school principal, is the CEO of Benner Insurance Solutions. Zarrilli served on the school board from 1995 to 2015. He’s retired from the Delaware County Public Defender’s Office, where he served as deputy director for his last eight years. Mazza is an entrepreneur who opened a business coaching and consulting firm. He has been involved in management since college and also shares his time with the nonprofit Upper Darby Collaborative.
“I served on the nearby Springfield Township School Board for 18 years and as president for four years,” said Frank Agovino, chair of the Delaware County Republicans. “During my tenure, we built a brand-new high school, upgraded many facilities, and navigated the complex challenges associated with running a public school system during a global pandemic.
“It is with that experience in mind that I say that I am deeply concerned about the stability – even viability – of the largest school district in Delaware County. It is my sincere belief that the students of the Upper Darby School District deserve better than they are getting from the current leadership. District leaders have recently publicly admitted that they need assistance controlling violent behavior, that the current facilities do not meet the needs of their students, and that continued property tax hikes are inevitable,” he said.
“There must be a real sense of urgency to elect new leaders who have the experience and a plan to address these challenges in earnest. I know our candidates, once elected, will rise to these challenges,” Agovino said.
The endorsed Democrats include three incumbents: Don Fields, Damien Christopher- Warsavage, and Dessiree LaMarr- Murphy. And two newcomers: Kimberly Glenn, an administrative assistant, and Brittney Williams, a teacher. Jennifer Howell, a legal talent coordinator with a law firm, is running as an unendorsed Democrat.
Colleen Guiney, chair of the Delaware County Democratic Committee, said, “The current Upper Darby School Board has made historic investments in the underfunded districts’ infrastructure, curriculum, and social and emotional supports. These important investments were not a priority of previous boards and were greatly needed for the safety and success of their students. The incumbent board members and their endorsed slate members are deeply committed to the success of our students and community.”
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