Editor's Note: This story was updated on Friday May 12 to incorporate the responses of Nickolas A. Braccio, William A. Formica III, Ken R. Keith and Kimberly Wheeler.
Ten candidates are running for five seats on the Souderton Area School Board on May 16. Most are cross-filed for the Democrat and Republican parties.
Andrew Souchet, Kristina Bertzos, Elise Bowers, Rosemary Buetikofer and Scott P. Swindells are campaigning as the group named, “Souderton Area for Responsible Leadership.” While, Mike Barnacz, Nickolas A. Braccio, William A. Formica III, Ken R. Keith and Kimberly Wheeler are running as the group named, “Keep Souderton Strong.” Both Ken Keith and Nick Braccio are incumbents.
The top five of each party will appear on the Nov. 7 General Election ballot.
Candidates were each asked the following questions: Why do you want to be elected to the Souderton Area School District (SASD) Board? What skills will you bring to the SASD Board? What are you currently doing for a living? What do you feel is the top issue facing the SASD?
Rosemary Buetikofer said she believes strongly in public education. “As a parent, I know how much my own children benefited by being Souderton students,” said the retired public school music teacher who taught for over 34 years, mainly in the Upper Dublin School District.
“I know the difference a school environment can make and I want to make sure Souderton remains a source of stability, safety and knowledge for all the children in our community.”
She is graduate of Penn State with a B.S. in Music Education and West Chester University with an M.M. in Education. While teaching, Buetikofer said, she was very active in district committees, and was a curriculum leader, and mentor. She said she has been involved in policy, curriculum writing and administrative search committees.
Currently, she volunteers, she said, with a local food charity and serves on the boards of the Indian Valley Arts Foundation and the Concert Sundaes in the Park “because I want to give back to the community.”
“I have three top issues that I believe the district needs to address. These priorities are to engage with the community, to foster an environment of excellence in a safe environment for students, and to spend responsibly while focusing on student needs.”
Kristi Bertzos said she is running for school director because “I believe in quality, public school education. I want to ensure that all children in our community have access to the educational opportunities and resources needed to succeed.
“My passion for ensuring the health and well-being of children led me to pursue my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Temple University, where I specialized in the research and treatment of youth anxiety. I understand the mental health challenges our children face and how the school environment and policies can impact a child’s development.
“I am currently a director within Johnson & Johnson with the responsibility of ensuring we focus on outcomes that are important to the most critical stakeholder, the patient, when developing new treatments for life-threatening diseases. This experience is directly applicable to public service and ensuring our community stakeholder voices are heard by our school board.
Bertzos said there are several critical issues facing SASD. “These include focusing on reducing the significant budget deficit, fostering an environment where both students and teachers feel respected, safe, and appreciated, and making conscious and deliberate efforts to connect with the community.”
Elise Bowers said she is running because, “It is necessary to have choices and alternatives in elections in order to be able to call our system of government a democracy. It is time for, at the very least, alternatives, but even more so, change. I have not been one to always sit idly by and hope for change, but rather to be active in the change I want to see. We need to ensure a safe learning environment for ALL of our students and respect and trust our professionals and their environment as well. We need to increase the visibility of the decisions being made by the board.”
A homeowner and taxpayer in the district for over 30 years, Bowers said, she ran a very successful financial planning business until she chose to retire from that career to finish raising her children.
“I have been active in my church in various leadership positions, often focusing on financial stewardship responsibilities.” She added that after working as “a trusted sales and customer service professional my entire career,” she is volunteering ... (and) “most importantly, I am making time to be a new member on the SASD school board.”
“There are so many issues that are critical to getting the best education for ALL, in a safe and nurturing environment, for both students AND our professional staff. Freedom to access all materials is essential for a well-rounded and more complete education. Empathy and civil discourse are essential for personal and professional growth and a healthy working and learning environment. Working within our budget and using our resources responsibly in an ever-increasing, difficult financial constraints will continue to be challenging.”
Andrew Souchet said he is running because “My children attend district schools and I am concerned about our district’s academic performance and reputation.
He said he would bring “active listening, empathy, project management and process improvement skills” to the district.
Souchet, who works in process improvement and project management, said, “I work with others to solve business problems within budget and time constraints.”
The top issue facing the district, he said, is “the inability to stay student-focused and fiscally responsible while maintaining close ties to our families and the community.”
Scott Swindells said he has “always wanted to give back to the school district that has given our family so much. ... In addition to being a parent and longtime resident, I have also been a teacher for 22 years, and education is my area of expertise. I will bring a perspective that has been missing from our very homogeneous board for the past few decades, and our team will make a more well-rounded cross-section to represent our entire community.
The high school English and Creative Writing teacher said he served as Learning Coordinator for English 7-12 and Technology Education in North Penn and “oversaw very large budget lines for these departments at five different schools.”
“... Creating a responsible and responsive budget is heavily rooted in listening. I will make it a priority to listen to our community, where I have always been heavily invested and involved.”
Regarding the top issue facing the district, Swindells said, “Our teachers are wonderful, but they are not being supported well enough from our elected school directors, particularly in areas where health and safety are concerned.” He said bathrooms frequently have no soap or paper towels (or are closed altogether), hand sanitizing stations are often empty, and air quality in the high school pool is poor.
“These are issues we can solve by working together and ... (working) towards better communication with more transparency. Also, among my top priorities are attracting and maintaining a diverse and talented workforce and supporting district administration to bring our district’s academic ratings back.”
Barnacz, a martial arts instructor turned stay-at-home dad, is the father of three children in the Souderton Area School District. He is involved in his church and volunteers with an outreach program that feeds the homeless in Philadelphia.
"The future of our community depends on our public school’s ability to prepare children for the real world, by teaching them how to think, and not what to think," he said. "It’s important for children to develop their ability to think critically and engage in civil discourse with their peers. That’s my vision on how we bring this community together."
He said he wants his children to have a full and enriching experience at Souderton.
"But, just as important, is supporting their life-long peers in the same way," Barnacz said. "This is the best way to make an impact for the future of our community. It will be my honor and privilege to support our next generation of leaders."
Braccio, a 12-year incumbent who chairs the technology committee and sits on the operations committee, said he's always had a passion for volunteering and serving and wants to continue on the board to play a role in shaping future leaders.
"In my time on the school board, I have appreciated the profound impact we can make on all students," said Braccio, a veteran of the construction industry. "Through my support of the PATHWAYS program, I am proud to have witnessed hundreds of Souderton High School graduates become successful members of our great community."
He also credits his school board experience with leading him down a path to service as a volunteer with the Special Olympics.
"I believe that all students in the district, especially students with special needs, should be prepared to attain educational and career goals after graduation" Braccio said. "At Souderton, we do this through providing access to an excellent education that is personalized to the child’s needs."
Formica said he is running to use his financial background — he founded First Financial LLC in 2007 — and maintain low taxes and preserve the quality of life in the local community.
"Importantly, I want to ensure that your children are being taught the necessary skills to flourish in our society," Formica said. "I want to protect the rights of parents and protect your students from indoctrination."
The top issue facing the district, he said, is combatting outside influencers' priorities and ideologies and focusing, instead, on what the community wants for its school district.
"Students have a right to a balanced and unbiased education," he said. "Parents should be assured that their children are learning factual and bipartisan content. As a school, it is our duty to keep politics and employee viewpoints out of the classrooms and maintain a level of respect for all students and staff members.
Keith, a 14-year incumbent and the current board president, said he wants to continue the important work of getting students back on track post-pandemic, advancing STEAM initiatives, reforming charter school funding model and fighting for the safety and success of all students.
"Throughout my career, I have consistently excelled and honed my skills in leading teams, championing key projects, effective budgeting, strategic planning, and strong communication," said Keith, who is vice president of consulting services at a firm where he and his team work with pharmaceutical companies. "I have proven to be bold in making decisions that have positive outcomes in our school community."
The top issues facing the district, he said, are student safety and rebounding academically post-COVID.
"I believe we can accelerate the rebound by focusing on key academic performance measures and by continuing to incorporate best practices along with input from the community, parents, and guardians.," he said. "SASD has already shown to be a leader in getting kids back on track while supporting their needs."
Wheeler, an entrepreneur and business owner, is the mother of a student with an IEP and saw firsthand the value of maintaining in-person education during the pandemic.
"If our schools only offered virtual or hybrid learning, my child would have been set back years in his education and social development," she said.
She said she would prioritize helping each student get the education that he or she deserves.
"It is essential to thoughtfully use our resources to afford the best possible preparation and experiences for all children," she said. "The current number of instructors required for learning assistance is overwhelming, but we must strive to serve students equitably at all learning levels."