The following is excerpted from the ExPRESSion’s interview with newly-elected school board member James Read, which took place on January 18th, 2018.
We are really excited to get to interview you. A lot of people in the district don’t necessarily know a lot about the school board members, so we were hoping you could tell us a little bit about yourself, how long you’ve lived in the area and what you do for a living.
I’ve been in the area for about 28 years. I’m originally from the Philly area. Born in Sunbury but basically grew up in Philly, the Philly suburbs. I went to South Valley High School outside of Aston, Pennsylvania. After graduation, I joined the Marine Corps, and I spent four years there. I spent the first year at the Marine barracks. I was part of that, I was a presidential security guard at Camp David for a couple of years. After that I went overseas for a year. I was a marksmanship instructor over there. I got out of the Marine Corps, got married, settled in West Chester, Pennsylvania and worked in a factory for a while. Then I spent about ten years, eight years, as a youth pastor working with teenagers. I really enjoyed that. And once I left there, I came up to Lancaster county in 1991 and I’ve been here ever since. I got a job at Wenger Feeds as a driver, initially as a driver, and spent about 18 years between driving and toward the end of that time period supervising. And then I was supervisor for about five years. And currently my position at Wenger Feeds is Training and Development Coordinator. I do, I’m involved with hiring drivers and getting them trained and then overseeing them after they’re trained to make sure they are following procedure and policies and so on. I do some supervision. I’m safety, accident investigation etc. And that’s kind of it. I was challenged to run for election for the school board back in February of 2016... 2017?
2017, yeah, wow, the years go by. They really do. I had never been in, we actually homeschooled our kids, but we were involved in the Elizabethtown School District. We were accountable to the administration here. My wife was actually a teacher, graduated from Millersville as an elementary school teacher. So she was qualified to teach and we just thought it would good because I was working night shift. And I could be home with my kids during the day. So yeah we decided to homeschool for that reason. Our kids did very well. Two of them graduated from Bob Jones University and one is a teacher, actually, and she is currently substitute teaching up in the Pottsville area and she got married in September. My other daughter graduated in music and she was a piano instructor. A very good piano instructor. And she is currently married in November and currently living in Waldorf, Maryland. My other son is married and living in North Carolina and I have two other sons at home, so we have five children altogether. My youngest is adopted. He was adopted when he was two weeks old and we’ve had him ever since.
You talked about your being challenged to run for school board. Were you asked by the Republican Party?
Actually by my representative, Dave Hickernell. The reason why that is— I currently work as the constable at our voting precinct. And I’ve been doing that for the last 8 years or so. I got to know Representative Hickernell very well because [that was basically] where he hung out during the day during voting so we got to know each other very well. And he said, “So, we’re looking for some good people to run for school board. Would you consider it?” And I had never considered it before. And I thought, you know, let me just see what it’s all about, which I still am learning about what the school board is all about. It’s a lot more involved than I realized but I thought once my kids are grown, I need to do some kind of community service so this would be a good opportunity. I never would have considered it otherwise, but since I was challenged with it, I thought there was no reason why I should say no and so I decided to run for the school board, not knowing what the outcome would be as there was actually quite a few running.
In running for the school board did you have a campaign strategy? Did you work with anyone?
No. I just put my name in, bought a couple signs, put them out and just let the chips fall where they may. Basically. I’m not a campaigner in that sense. I just thought if it would be for me to be on the school board, it would happen, if not, it wouldn’t and I wasn’t too worried about it.
So even though representative Hickernell asked you, you didn’t work with the local party? Did you have communication with them?
Oh I did. Actually Chris Leppler the head of the Republican party. Yeah, I did now that I think about this. I handed out some brochures, more actually - more at the fair, gave out a couple brochures at the fair. I don’t know if it was for me or for, just generally, the Republican ticket; I think it was just for that than for me personally. I just happened to be on that ticket, but since I was running they wanted for me to be a little bit involved. Kind of hard if I’m working 60 hours a week with my current job, hard to be too involved, but I did what I could for the little time that I had. But I wasn’t really campaigning for myself, I thought, again, if it’s my, if it’s in the plan for me to be on the board, it’ll happen, if not, that’s fine with me too. I was okay either way. Just so happened I got elected.
So it sounds like you didn’t put a ton of thought into issues that were forcing you to run, it was more that you felt the opportunity for service.
I’ll tell you the truth, and I told this to the current Superintendent, Michelle Balliet - Dr. Balliet. I told her I haven’t really been involved in the school and community politics. I’m politically minded more on the national level and the state level more than the local level. I haven’t been really involved and I have a lot to learn. But since I’ve been elected and since I’ve been attending the school board meetings, I’ve been very impressed with how things are run. I really like the attitude of what I’m hearing of the administration and their concern for the kids and “everything we do is for the kids.” From pre-kindergarten all the way through the high school and even beyond that to the LCCTC and the CTC, I’ve been very impressed with it. And I told her I have a lot to learn: I’m open. I like to contribute where I can. That’s kind of where I am at this point. If that makes any sense.
Yeah. So one of the topics that we’ve heard [about] from all the other members that got elected, that they feel like they have a lot to learn about, is the property tax elimination bill that is currently at the state level-
I do. I do.
Do you have any opinions, as it stands, on the elimination?
It’s a good question. To be honest with you, until I was challenged with the school board-- you pay your taxes I don’t even see them they come out of my check automatically; I don’t pay much attention to it, much to my shame and I told that to the business administrator. I happened to sit next to him in the meetings and said, “You know, much to my shame, I have not been real involved and really paying much attention to the community, political climate so much.” My kids are out of school, kind of more concerned about my job and my family and other things, hobbies and so on. So I haven't been real involved but I’m learning. I don’t know if that really answers your question? Did I answer your question?
I was just wondering, at the state level, in the November election there was a resolution that passed and it’s non-binding but it’s forcing action at the state level.
Well I’ve been reading up on that with the material that has been supplied to me by the administration here and it seems like it could either be - from what I’m reading - it’s not really a win for the taxpayers as much - I’m still learning about that - [but] I’m not sure why at this point. I’m still gathering information and trying to absorb what I can. I don’t know if it’s a loss for the school or a win for the school; I don’t know, to be honest with you, I don’t know. If I had an opinion, I would tell you, but I’m still in the fact-finding part of this. I know we discuss it at length in the school board meetings and I’m just listening to what I can gather and learn from it. I wish I could be more help to you on this. But I don’t really have an opinion right now. Initially, my thought was, ‘Oh boy, we’re not paying any taxes. That’s great,’ because I’m a property tax payer, obviously, and I thought, ‘Boy, we could eliminate the property taxes - that’d be a great thing.’ But then your taxes will come from another source. So whether it's going to be a net gain for the taxpayer or a net gain for the school, or a net loss or a loss for the taxpayer, I’m still trying to figure that out. So I don’t really have a position yet at this point.
So relating to school board funding, we’ve heard that recently a move was made by the school board for the budget for next year asking the high school to cut a million dollars from its budget.
We haven’t seen the budget yet. We are just getting to the budget right now. I’ll tell you, Nat, I was reading through the budgets last night and I told the current owner of Wenger Feeds, who used to serve on the board, and I just saw him this morning, and I told him, “I’ve just been looking at these budget figures and I’m having a hard time deciphering what they all are about,” because I’m not a financial person, and he said, “Welcome to the club.” He said when he was on the board it took him about a year to really understand how to read the budgets and so on. In fact, he said that I could actually see our financial HR person and, I don’t know, get some schooling on how to read those budgets. So I haven’t done that yet but I’ve been pouring into them trying to decipher them. I’m not a financial guru. I’m not, but I want to learn.
Well even if you are a finances person, it’s so many different - Mr Rigglemen mentioned the salt for the sidewalk, and it’s things like that that you don’t even think about when you think about schooling that are a part of this enormous, multimillion-dollar budget. And then you get down to the minutia of the plastic cups that the science teachers use...
I mean, when you read that budget it gets down to $29.42. Really, we’re that detailed. It’s good but really at the same time, when it’s that detailed it’s hard to absorb it all just by looking - I mean there’s how many budgets we have to read through and I’m having a hard time [determining] which is for what? I’m just being honest with you. I’m having a hard time deciphering all that. Not having a financial background, it’s kind of hard. I mean, it’s a citizen school board, you know, and it’s regular Joe Smith citizens coming on board, and now we have to get into all this minutia about finances and all this. It’s a lot, and I told Dr. Balliet I’m just going to keep my mouth shut for a while and learn for a while until I can really contribute something that I think would be a positive contribution to the board. And I’m kind of relying on the people on the board. I’ve been getting to know George Longridge very well, and I’m starting to earn some trust and he’s starting to earn my trust, actually, and I’ve really come to respect him and I kind of trust the administration. And everything I hear is what they do is for the kids’ sake. Now where can we cut? We have to decide that.
There’s a lot of talk at the meeting I attended about opportunity cost within the district and trying to figure out how to best serve the students.
Right. And that’s what it’s all about, it really is. I told George, I said, “Much to my shame I haven’t been involved in all this and now I’m trying to catch up.” So that’s what I’ll be doing for the next ten months or so. Just trying to catch up on things.
Get a grip on the whole conversation.
Yeah that’s what I’m working on doing.
So it sounds like in saying that you’re going to keep your mouth shut that you don’t have a goal necessarily that your working toward now?
Any specific goals that you have for the budget or the school?
No, just to learn what I can learn. And if something makes sense - Some things are kind of obvious - but other things aren’t and I’m just trying to take a common sense approach to it. If I hear something where I have a question, I will question. But right now, I don’t know what questions to ask. I’m just - like I said - getting into it and trying to learn what I can learn. And I may not have a lot to offer for this next budget, I may not have a lot because I’m still learning. But it’s a four-year term, and we’ll be working on budgets for the next year and year after that and hopefully by then we’ll have a pretty good grasp on things and be able to contribute a little more than I am now. It’s only been two months, since we started in December.
A month really.
Yeah, not much. So I’m doing what I can. I want to contribute where I can, but I’m not going to speak up for the sake of speaking up. You know, that’s not the point.
So one final question. In your opinion, what is a school board member’s responsibility in determining curriculum?
Okay. That’s a very good question. And I was wondering what our role would be as well. Because I wasn’t given a whole lot of information prior to running for this - I just went in blind. I would like to see what the curriculum is all about. I know everybody has a view on certain things, like history and science and all those. I’d like to see what the kids are learning. I’d like to kind of take a look at that. Not that I’m going to make any major changes, but I think if there’s something I would like to see changed, I would say it. Not saying that what I would say would make a difference, but it might. I got on the site and I can see the general curriculum but not any details. What are they actually learning in history? What are they learning in science? I’m a conservative, okay, politically and otherwise. Socially, religiously, all that. Born-again Christian, and I come from that viewpoint, but it doesn’t mean I can’t have a discussion with people from other opinions and other viewpoints. I think it’s actually fun to talk about those things. I do. Not that I’m trying to change anyone's mind. That’s not my job. But my job is to try to be as truthful as I can be, and if I’m asked a question, I’ll give an honest answer. So that’s kind of where I come from. I learned a lot from the military, as far as being upright and honest, and integrity is a big deal to me. It’s a major character issue for me, and I would expect others to be as honest and forthright as I would like to be with others.