Retired state police corporal to fill CASD Board vacancy

Public voices dismay as James Hills beats out Robert Beckershoff, 5-3

By Kyle CarrozzaStaff Writer, The Times

James Hills takes his oath to fill the vacant school board seat. “The children are my biggest passion,” said the mentor and retired state police corporal.

James Hills takes his oath to fill the vacant school board seat. “The children are my biggest passion,” said the mentor and retired state police corporal.

CALN – The Coatesville Area School District Board of Education voted in James Hills to take the vacant school board seat during a special meeting Saturday afternoon.

Hills, a retired state police corporal,  works as a mentor with the Backing Our Young Sons (BOYS) and Giving Girls Guidance (G3) programs. As a mentor, he said that he spends many of his days volunteering at various schools in the district, where he interacts with students, teachers, and administrators on a regular basis.

“Our kids deserve an education that will compete against any other education in the nation,” he said during public comment before the vote was taken.

In the 5-3 decision, Diane Brownfield, Neil Campbell, Jim Fox, Laurie Knecht, and Rick Ritter voted for Hills while Stu Deets, Kim Mammel, and Deborah Thompson voted for Rob Beckershoff, the candidate who finished second in District 1 during November’s elections.

Hills said that he is an independent thinker who will not make decisions that are influenced by other school board members.   “I talk with the principals, I talk with the school teachers, I’m working with the kids now, one to four days a week,” he said. Between Tuesday night’s original vote and Saturday, he said he spoke to two board members who wanted to know more about him.

He also said that the ongoing conflicts between the residents and the board have caused him to avoid school board meetings for the past few months. “I knew with all this tension going on it wasn’t something that I wanted to be a part of,” he said.

Many of the residents in attendance voiced support for Beckershoff before the vote and disappointment in the board’s subsequent decision.

“The people have talked. The people have listened to you. I do not understand why you refuse to listen,” said Alain Foster.

Fonz Newsuan said that the board should have considered the results of November’s voting as the voice of the residents. “Our vote is the only way we can tell people what it is we want,” he said.

After the vote, many people were not shy in expressing their disapproval with one audience member calling Hills “another puppet” and the board members “cowards.”

“I pray that you’re not influenced by anybody on the board and you do the right thing for the people,” Linda Lavender Norris said to Hills during the second public comment session. She then asked the board, “Do you consider the people at all when you’re making your decisions?”

Jane Ventrilla said that decisions like Saturday’s are the reason that many people do not come to school board meetings. “It’s like coming here and banging your head against the wall,” she said.

Brownfield, who voted for Beckershoff on Tuesday but then switched her vote to Hills on Saturday, said that she was prepared for the public’s displeasure. “I knew what the decision would mean today. I knew what would happen,” she said. Stating that she changed her mind without the influence of any other board members, Brownfield noted that Hills has turned students around with discipline.

Confronted by residents after the meeting, Knecht said that she understood that the public wanted Beckershoff, but she thought Hills was a better fit. “You don’t know all of the factors,” she told residents. “I wanted to give us someone who would give us someone similar to what Paul Johnson did.”

Knecht, who talked to Hills on the phone between Tuesday and Saturday, said that his experience in law enforcement could help clean up the district. She said that on Tuesday, she was not sure whom she was going to vote for, but after seeing Beckershoff at candidate forums, she decided that he was not the right person for the job. Once other board members abstained, she opted to follow suit.

“It was done alphabetically [the vote], and I was not going to vote for Beckershoff, and I saw what the others were doing,” she said. “They said ‘abstain’, so I said ‘abstain.’”

She also said that between Tuesday and Saturday, some of the board members “talked a little bit to see who was where.”

Midway through the meeting, in response to a comment by Newsuan, Board Members Campbell,  Thompson and  Brownfield all apologized for the behavior of former Board Member Joe Dunn, who made derisive comments to a resident at a meeting in November.

“I, too, recognize that was a very bad time for this board, and I do apologize,” said Campbell, the board’s president.

Thompson said that she values public comment, and residents should be allowed to call out board members’ wrongdoings. “I will not be offended; I should be accountable for my actions,” she said.

Brownfield agreed, saying that anyone should be able to say what they need to say during their three minutes of public comment.

Anthony Taylor, husband of former Board Member Tonya Thames Taylor, addressed some of the accusations of nepotism made at Tuesday’s meeting. On Tuesday, Greg Wynn and Thompson both said they had evidence suggesting that Tonya Thames Taylor worked with former Superintendent Richard Como to get Taylor’s relatives hired.

During public comment on Saturday, Anthony Taylor said that it was “merely a coincidence” that his family members were hired, pointing out that none of them were blood relatives of his wife. He also said that his wife knew nothing of the website agreement between his company and the district.

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