Crawford Central meeting riddled with division

Apr. 24—VERNON TOWNSHIP — The Crawford Central School Board meeting on Monday lasted just 30 minutes and featured more than a dozen unanimous votes, but it still packed in plenty of disagreement regarding divisive policies, budget deficits and the future of the district's buildings. Members of the public criticized board members; board members criticized each other; and multiple board members urged patience regarding the recent feasibility study that will influence the future of the district's school buildings.

Disagreement between board members came to a head during the board's concluding remarks.

Board member Jan Feleppa began the comments by returning to the events of the April 15 work session, when members discussed examples of three policies that would create a variety of sex-based restrictions for athletic teams, restrooms and forms of address used in communicating with students. The board's lawyer cautioned at the time that instituting similar policies would likely lead Crawford Central into costly legal battles.

At the end of the April 15 discussion, which was held before an audience of about 60 residents in the Meadville Area Senior High auditorium, Superintendent Jenn Galdon asked board members if they wanted the lawyer to look further into the questions raised by the discussion. While no response from any board members was audible from the audience, at least one member nodded in affirmation. In an email after this week's voting meeting, Galdon confirmed that the district's lawyer is investigating the policies further.

Feleppa on Monday expressed dismay at further energy being devoted to the policies and said she was opposed to the move.

"Regrettably at the time I was left dumbfounded, confused, astonished, aghast — whatever, it rendered me speechless when it was decided that there would be further study or investigation of such policies," she said before citing the projected $4.3 million deficit for 2024-25 and a proposed 5.5 tax increase that were also discussed last week. "I am unwilling to place the taxpayers of this district in a position that has a high potential of raising our tax dollars even more. This is about abiding by the law and protecting our students while also protecting the taxpayers of this district. I find moving forward or pursuing such restrictive policies is legally unsound, fiscally irresponsible and unacceptable decision making."

Board member Ron Irwin, who last week expressed support for policies like those being discussed, spoke next, first recounting discussion at a recent French Creek Council of Governments meeting regarding a program to encourage volunteer firefighter participation. Irwin then began addressing Feleppa directly, accusing her of providing information about Crawford Central taxation to someone who then posted the information to social media.

Feleppa denied making posts such as those Irwin described.

"You didn't post it," Irwin said, punctuating his words with a pointed finger, "you supplied it."

The criticism of social media use from Irwin was surprising: One of the Facebook accounts he uses is identified as an administrator and "top contributor" for a Crawford County-focused group he posts to frequently, and social media played an important role in his campaign for office last year.

"I'm not sure why we're going to Facebook and reaching out to everybody about these numbers," Irwin said in addressing Feleppa directly. "Quite frankly, I don't know where you're coming up with these numbers."

During March discussions about the future of the Cochranton Junior-Senior High football team, Feleppa contrasted the district's spending at Cochranton and the middle school and high school in Meadville. On a per-student basis, she said, the district spends over 20 percent more on Cochranton students. She told board members she had obtained the information from the district's Business Office.

Irwin took particular issue with Feleppa's reference to the budget deficit the board faces for next year.

"I've got to point out the fact that you sat on this board for over a decade, you sat in the chair as president for a considerable amount of that time, so these decisions, these things you are complaining about, as far as prices and what it's costing the district — you was involved in negotiating those contracts, hiring those people. You personally was involved. Now you're complaining about the cost to the district of what you voted for in the past."

The projected deficit and proposed tax increase were also on the minds of residents who addressed the board. Both drew connections between the recent feasibility study commissioned by the board which detailed needed improvements in buildings across the district against a background of declining enrollment and schools operating below capacity.

"We really should be thinking about what the strategic plan for the next five years looks at in terms of consolidation potentially or changes in programming in light of the feasibility study and not just planning to increase the taxes every time that we increase the budget," resident Stephanie Martin told the board. "Is that going to be the plan forever? It seems like it."

Resident Marcia Metcalfe urged the board to provide more information regarding spending plans and criticized forays into policies such as those discussed last week as a distraction from more important matters.

"We as taxpayers cannot continue to just support a school that's over capacity in terms of enrollment. In order to ask us for that money, you need to talk to us about it and explain what your plan is," she said. "The other thing I see is a school board that was elected based on fiscal responsibility, but so far seems to spend much of its time talking about changes in policy that bring your social and political agendas into the school board meetings.

"You're fiddling while Rome burns," Metcalfe added.

During the board members' concluding remarks, Tammy Silvis stressed that board members themselves are taxpayers and share similar concerns. The feasibility study and the decisions it will influence are an ongoing project, according to Silvis.

"We're not trying to keep everything from the public at all," she said. "We don't have the answers right now, but when we get them, we'll give them."

Vice President Jeff Rose said responding to the feasibility study would be "a long process" and pointed out that potential major decisions stemming from the study, such as building closures or consolidations, would take more than a year to implement. In the meantime, he added, the board has to pass a budget for next year — and doing so, he added, often requires a tax increase because of the district's limited sources of revenue.

"I didn't get on this board however many years ago hoping to raise taxes every year," Rose said.

"But our property values don't get changed every year and the only way for the district to increase its income to match outgoing expenses of increased salaries and increased costs of goods and services that we consume is to raise taxes a little bit every year," he continued. "It's a sad fact but it is something that has to happen."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at