Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of articles on candidates in local government and school board races leading up to the Nov. 4 election.
Two lifelong educators from Western York County are seeking election to the York school board in the board’s only contested race this year.
Shirley Harris, a retired York elementary schoolteacher and librarian who has served on the board for 16 years, including one term as chairwoman, is seeking another four-year term in the at-large seat.
Harris is being challenged by Diane Howell, who retired in 2013 as principal of York Comprehensive High School after a 41-year career in education.
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Shirley Hamilton, a retired social worker and a certified mental health therapist who lives in Bullocks Creek, also filed to seek election to the seat but said she has withdrawn.
Harris, 68, is an adult-education teacher for Tri-District Adult Education, which serves the York, Clover and Fort Mill districts. She taught elementary school and worked as a school librarian for 31 years in Greenville County, Rock Hill and York schools.
Howell, 63, served as principal of YCHS from 2002 until her retirement in 2013; she led the opening of York’s new high school in 2010.
Howell taught science and later home economics for 24 years, first at Gaffney High School, then at York’s Harold C. Johnson Middle and the Floyd D. Johnson Technology Center. She served as assistant director of the technology center for six years before becoming YCHS principal.
Harris said York does a good job of educating its students with excellent programs, despite an ongoing revenue challenge and a high poverty rate.
“With the money we have, I think we’re doing quite well,” she said. “We had to make some cuts two years ago, and they were necessary. We just didn’t have the money coming in to keep everyone employed.”
Harris served as board chairwoman during 2013, when the school board cut $1.9 million, eliminating 22 positions and reducing the number of workdays for about 20 other administrators and staff.
Board members and administrators said the cuts were needed. They said the district drew about $3 million from its reserve fund over two years after the economic downturn with the hope that state revenue would improve and budget cuts would not be necessary. That didn’t happen.
Harris said managing with limited revenue is one of the district’s greatest challenges.
“York is having a problem,” she said of the need for school revenue. “We are not getting businesses into York, and we don’t get it from the state; we’re only allocated X amount per student.”
She sees her classroom teaching experience as an asset to the board. “I’ve learned that children can do anything you ask them to do if you encourage them,” Harris said.
Harris also said the board “needs people that will speak out, and that will be receptive to the community.”
Howell said she was urged to run by people in the community who have told her they see a need for change. “A lot of people have concerns about the district,” she said.
She said the district’s employees have been its greatest asset, but she’s concerned that more than 60 new employees were hired this year due to what she sees as an unusually high rate of staff turnover.
“We’ve never had that many that I can recall,” she said. “That’s tremendous.”
Howell said there may be different reasons for the turnover, including some retirements; however, she said, “we’ve got some good people that have been very vocal. A lot of it goes back to people not feeling valued, feeling uncertain about their jobs.”
She said the district needs to put measures in place to retain good employees. “We’ve lost a lot of good teachers to our neighbors,” she said.
Howell said she sees a need for improved listening and communication, both to ensure that employees feel valued and that parents or other members of the community understand the reasons why difficult decisions have been made.
“I think we can always find ways to improve,” she said. “I think I can be a link in helping people understand why things are the way they are.”
Howell said she also has applied to the school board for appointment to Seat 5, recently vacated by Melissa Patterson, who moved out of York. Seat 5 includes the Hickory Grove area.
Howell said, however, that because the school board has not yet made a decision on the Seat 5 appointment, she filed for election to improve her chances of earning a seat on the board.
Harris said the district has made a concerted effort to communicate with its staff through meetings on the budget by Superintendent Vernon Prosser every year at each school. Prosser also talked with each person whose job was affected by budget cuts, she said.
“We try to treat our personnel well, and we don’t take them for granted, and we value them for their teaching experience,” Harris said.
She said schools send out information to parents and encourage involvement in groups like PTOs but that many parents don’t come to those meetings, and some are unable to attend.
Harris said Prosser brings strong educational knowledge to the district, “and what he doesn’t know, he educates himself.” He does a good job of keeping the board abreast of changes that affect the district, she said.
Harris said York needs to continue to develop programs to offer students exposure to higher education and the world of work. Examples include its Middle College program at York Technical College, a planned Early College curriculum beginning in eighth grade and programs that give students job experience and technical training.
“There are a lot of opportunities for children to explore the world of work and the world of education at an earlier age,” Harris said, “so take advantage of them.”
She said she would like to see the district hire a teacher for a cosmetology program at the technology center, but she said it hasn’t been able to add a position.
“We need students to understand that these days an education is a necessity,” Harris said. “And we are doing everything we can to provide the impetus and the programming that will help them get through high school and get into something else.”
She said the district is waiting to see whether iPad programs for students at some neighboring school districts prove beneficial.
“If it’s a benefit, and they’ve got studies to show it, we will scrape together the money,” she said. “You won’t see us expending money on something we haven’t seen great gains from. We have to let somebody else try it, prove it, and then we can come in.”
Howell said the district needs to offer another foreign language at the high school. She said it did have French and German classes but now offers only Spanish.
She said she also wants to make sure the district is aware of the effect of decisions on children in poverty. “I want to make sure that our children in poverty are not forgotten, and that our rural areas are not forgotten,” she said.