Monday’s community forum featuring candidates vying for a spot on the School District of Lancaster school board was full of something not often found at a political event: mutual agreement — and respect.
“I’m sitting at this table with some amazing people,” Ole Hongvanthong, a 35-year-old entrepreneur, said. “All of them deserve the opportunity to serve on the school board.”
But on the May 16 primary ballot, voters much choose only four of the six candidates — all of them Democrats.
The candidates: incumbent Harvey Miller, along with Hongvanthong, Salina Almanzar, Mara Creswell McGrann, David Parry and Brandon Way Sr.
Each stated his case before voters during the forum, hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Lancaster branch, in collaboration with the Crispus Attucks Community Center and South Ann Street Concerned Neighbors.
Among the topics discussed were kids missing out on school breakfast and not having enough textbooks, a disproportionate number of black students being punished, community organizations not paying their fair share in taxes and what the state Legislature could do to lessen the burden off of school board members and taxpayers.
“It’s exciting to talk about SDoL,” McGrann, a 45-year-old marketing director and parent of three, said. “I have a passion for public education and I have a particular passion about this school district.”
Often, she said, people’s “jaws drop” when she tells old friends that her children attend schools in the city. They’re not aware of the “amazing things” happening in the district, she said.
School District of Lancaster is home to some great programs, echoed Miller, 71, a current board member and lawyer. Its music program, for instance, has been recognized nationally for seven consecutive years, he said.
“I think our negative stigma is a racial issue,” the 25-year-old Almanzar, currently a graduate student at Drexel University, said. “When we’re talking about the stigma or the ‘bad’ school district, it’s code for something else.”
Each of the six candidates explained why he was better suited to navigate around that stigma and serve Lancaster’s diverse group of students.
Parry, a 41-year-old college professor, said that he wants to equip students with everything they need to overcome barriers, regardless of their background.
Hongvanthong said he hopes to inspire others to not only be more engaged in the goings-on of local politics, but run for office and influence change directly.
Hoping to represent Lancaster city and its students, Way pointed out that he attended their schools and knows what it takes to maintain and improve the quality of education.
McGrann, with her family in the audience, said that her past and present community involvement makes her the best choice to make Lancaster “a model of urban public education in the state of Pennsylvania and perhaps the nation.”
Mentioning his experience as a board member, Miller said he hopes to continue to build on the district’s successes.
Almanzar, the youngest among the candidates, said she’d seek out-of-the-box solutions to lingering problems.