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Municipal Primary 2023

Direction of Pennridge schools is on the ballot


Eleven candidates — including three incumbents — are running for five open seats on the Pennridge School Board. Of the 11, six are cross-filed for the primary election; five are running for the Republican nomination only.

With longtime directors Megan Banis-Clemens and Joan Cullen deciding not to seek re-election, leadership is up for grabs in a district that has been roiled in controversy over the last several years, creating what some have called a “culture war” pitting conservative ideology against a progressive mindset. Currently, eight of the nine members are registered Republicans.

Here is a look at the candidates:

Cross-filed: Leah Foster-Rash, Chris Kaufman, Bradley Merkl-Gump, Carolyn Sciarrino, Bob Sellers and Ron Wurz (incumbent).

Seeking GOP nomination only: Joshua Hogan, David Reiss (incumbent), Jonathan Russel (incumbent), Barbara Vees, and Jim York. Hogan, Russell, Sellers, Vees, and York have all been endorsed by the Pennridge Area Republican Club.

Foster-Rash said she is running because “Pennridge has been sliding in the rankings while the board is tilting at windmills.” Over the last few years, she said, the board has been making decisions “with little or no research…not working with trained experts…[and] ignoring established and accredited research,” based solely on their personal beliefs. She said she wants to focus on building curriculum, encouraging innovative instruction, and collaborating with the community.

A statistical programmer in the pharmaceutical industry for almost 30 years, Foster-Rash said she has “logical problem-solving skills and a keen ability to trim the fat to ensure a process or policy is purposeful and effective.”

Hogan said he chose to run to keep “the focus on students.” He said there is a growing number of competing interest groups “who vie for power, money, or influence” over public education.

“These interest groups often seek to advance their own agendas at the expense of what’s best for students and without consideration for the importance of the parent-child relationship,” said Hogan. “I plan to address this issue as a common sense conservative by respecting parents’ rights, expanding educational pathway options, promoting transparency, and protecting the shared community values that make Pennridge such a great place to live.”

A Marine veteran who works in information technology, Hogan also co-founded ReOpen Bucks in 2020, largely to advocate against pandemic-related school closures, lockdowns and mask mandates.

Like Foster-Rash, Kaufman said he has noticed the district’s reputation being harmed by everything from “in-fighting between board members to outlandish policies that are proposed with reckless abandon.” He decided to run “to bring a semblance of moderation back to the board,” said Kaufman, a journeyman electrician and electrical foreman.

Most of the issues currently facing the district could be resolved with strong leadership, says Kaufman. “Unfortunately, we have seen time and again that the leadership in the district is the core problem. The plummet in academic excellence, an exodus by teachers, irresponsible spending on political pet projects, and the general disregard for legal peril (at taxpayer expense) are all issues that can be fixed at the polls through new leadership.”

Merkl-Gump, a 2005 Pennridge High School grad and a middle school American History and Civics teacher in another district, said he is running because the current board has chosen “to play games with our children’s education by putting politics ahead of the needs of our kids.”

“Misappropriated leadership” and the board’s ability to “push through policies that do not always reflect the values of the whole community” are the biggest issues facing the district, says Merkl-Gump, a Perkasie resident with two school-aged children. “There is a growing lack of trust in Pennridge and we need to bring back a sense of unity instead of division between everyone.”

Reiss, the current board president, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Russell has served on the board since 2021 when he was named to replace Ryan Gerhart, who resigned. He said he prefers a collaborative approach to board engagement “which invites people to work with and not against each other.” A 20-year Pennridge resident and father of four, Russell said his experience as a trial attorney for three decades has given him the skills to “resolve issues, even with those with whom I disagree.”

Russell says the district is facing looming financial challenges, with a teacher’s contract expiring in June and a support staff deal to be negotiated the following year. At the same time, the district is facing the loss of emergency funding during the pandemic. “Facing these issues as a common sense conservative, I believe it is important for us to honor parental rights; value our community; equip students for success; promote a culture of transparency; and maintain fiscal responsibility,” Russell said.

Sciarrino said she chose to run “because it is clear we are in desperate need for a positive change on the board. Our students and community are suffering because of the current board’s dysfunctionality, financial irresponsibility and frivolity, lack of transparency, and total indifference to the voices of students, community members, teachers, and administrators.”

Standing up for children “has always been my passion,” she says. Sciarrino spent 15 years as a social service advocate, working with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, in foster care, with Big Brothers Big Sisters, and in school-based programs.

“Our school board directors have chosen to forget their role and have decided to make choices and changes based on personal and political views,” says Sciarrino, the mother of four. “Our district deserves better and that can be done by our community voting on candidates not party lines.”

Sellers, a Bucks County native and decades-long resident of Pennridge, says he has the “skills to professionally and collaboratively work through the issues to navigate solutions.” Recently retired after a 37-year career in marketing and facilities management with Merck, Sellers says it is important that school board members “listen, value and celebrate the essential role of parents, teachers, students, and the community.” If elected, he said he will be a commonsense conservative focusing on the basics of “reading, writing and arithmetic” and will promote and support “the teaching of civics, citizenship, and America’s founding documents and history.”

Wurz, who recently changed his party registration from Republican to Democrat, says he considers himself a moderate. The owner of a company that specializes in industrial real estate development, Wurz says he is running because the current direction of the school board “has been seriously flawed.”

The most challenging issue facing the district, Wurz says, is stopping “the slide in our rankings and return(ing) our school to its potential. As a board, we should be focusing on improving the outcomes of our students and not on politics. We need a razor-sharp focus on improving the education we provide to our community.”

Vees said the district needs “to get back to basics to make sure our youngest learners are proficient in…reading and mathematics. She said the district needs to enact policies “that respect the rights of parents, value the community, and remain transparent, all while remaining fiscally responsible.”

Retired after 35 years in the printing industry, Vees said she is a firm believer in grassroots efforts, a self-starter, and a team player with a commonsense approach to problem-solving. “Getting involved as a school board director is something I feel compelled to do as a taxpaying community member,” Vees said. “Making sure our young people are enlightened about the world around them starts with a sound educational foundation.

York says he is a “commonsense conservative” who is running to “give back” and serve the next generation of students and our community. “I believe that the most important current issue facing our district is the need for strong functional leadership from the board that creates an environment where problems are resolved fairly, productively, and transparently resulting in lasting positive change and continuously improving education for our students,” says York, a civil engineer and division manager at a local heavy construction company.

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