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Christina voters will head to the polls in bizarre school board race next week

Two-term incumbent John Young is facing off against a challenger in the Christina School Board election, but this year’s election isn’t so black-and-white.

Voters will head to the polls May 14, between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. Many of the district’s schools will act as polling places, as will Quaker Hill Place Apartments in Wilmington. Though the elected official represents District D, anyone 18 or older who lives in the Christina School District is eligible to vote.

Young, 49, is facing Katie Hegedus, who announced in April that she does not plan to serve if elected.

Hegedus explained that shortly after she filed, “unexpected and very serious family health issues” arose. Due to that, she would be unable to serve on the school board if elected, meaning that the school board would appoint a replacement member for a year.

However, she decided to keep her name on the ballot in order to give voters a choice.

“Since the incumbent is the only other candidate to have filed for this seat, the election would be canceled if I remove my name from the ballot,” she said in a prepared statement. “A cancelled election would not give Christina School District voters an opportunity to influence our school district’s governance. Rather than letting my personal circumstances negate the upcoming election, I have decided to leave my name on the ballot.”

Even though Hegedus won’t serve, her supporters explained why they will be casting their ballots for her – which really means voting for an unknown board member.

“It really is about change. And there is a certain leap of faith that people are going to have to take,” said Mary Schorse, a parent and member of Friends of Christina School District, a group of parents and community members who advocate for the district.

If elected, Hegedus would resign from the position. According to board policy, the board would then accept applications and select a new board member. That person would serve for a year until the next school board election, when voters would elect someone to fill the remainder of Hegedus’ five-year term.

“So it’s one year of a potential unknown or a little bit of uncertainty, a movement toward change. Or a third term for an incumbent who hasn’t really demonstrated, to me, a commitment to bringing change to the district,” Schorse said.

Claire O’Neal and Eve Buckley, district parents and FOCSD members, noted that they share some of Young’s values. O’Neal noted that she has voted for him in the past.

“I do agree with some of the things that he has said, but there’s enough stuff now that I don’t agree with that I would like to have some change on the board,” O’Neal said.

They all agreed that Christina has to be collaborative with other entities, something they believe Young has been resistant to.

Schorse said that there is a need to develop “ties and linkages with external entities,” such as other districts and other institutions in the private and public sectors.

“He’s very smart. He has a lot of good ideas. He does not have the relationship building skills that I think our board needs,” she added.

Buckley called it a “precarious moment” for Christina. The district needs to build community trust, and Young’s “brinksmanship grandstanding strategy” is not helpful, she said.

“It will not generate more community trust, it will not build the alliances the district needs, and the district is in a very precarious situation,” she said. “So it seems to me that it’s particularly a moment when what the Christina district needs is people who are collaborative, who are deliberative and thoughtful, and will try to work together as a board toward some steps that can put the district on a more secure path in various respects. John doesn’t seem interested in doing that.”

Michele Lobo, a parent new to the district, noted that the vote is about the position, not the person.

“We want somebody professional and constructive, somebody that is going to help make tough decisions,” she said. “I don’t want a yes person. But I want somebody that can hear other perspectives and come to group consensus.”

While Hegedus has faced criticism for forcing an election that will cost the state upward of $35,000 to run, O’Neal said that the fact Hegedus decided to stay in the race “speaks volumes.”

“Why is she still in it knowing that people are going to point fingers at her and accuse her of being manipulative of the system if she doesn’t believe that there’s a reason why she’s doing this? It’s certainly not for her own personal gain,” O’Neal said. “And, in fact, it’s completely the opposite of that.”

Young, who said he was sympathetic to Hegedus’ family situation, has criticized her decision to stay in the race knowing she cannot serve.

“It’s a difficult situation, yet there is a clear, moral choice,” he said after her announcement in April. “I am hopeful she will consider the costs involved rather than proceed with this attempt to ‘game’ the system by remaining on the ballot while knowing she will not serve.”

Young, who has a background in retail and consumer financial services, said he was first prompted to run in 2009 due to his son’s involvement in the Delaware Autism Program, which is a Christina program. Young said that his family sought out the district years ago so his son, now a student at Christiana High, could take part in the program.

In his decade on the board, he said that the district has been affected by funding issues at the local and state levels. With that, he added, comes the problem of what to do – or not do – with the funding.

“That has defined Christina’s opportunities and challenges to try and make ourselves a destination district or a place that families want to send their children,” he said. “I think that Delaware’s educational landscape is really unique in the choice aspect, and the funding formula certainly makes for an interesting conundrum at times on how to govern, because you have to make decisions that in theory will be strategically attracting students, and sometimes those decisions don’t really help you in the moment.”

Young said he views the “inefficient reaction to capacity issues” as one of the biggest issues facing the district.

“We’ve got buildings that have excess capacity that we’re not maximally efficient with, and our ability to kind of rethink the way we deploy our assets to serve the students, over my entire time, the board has not always been the most efficient,” he said.

He said he would like to see the district do a comprehensive study of the capacity in the schools, adding that there has been a lot of talk about closing a high school.

“Closing high schools is fraught with deeper challenges because communities and graduate bases are far more connected to their high schools than they are other schools, so that you run afoul of community sentiment,” he said.

But, he said, Christina could potentially close a middle school and convert two of the high schools to accommodate grades six to 12.

Looking toward the future, Young said he’d like to see Christina be more streamlined, as well as more transparent with taxpayer dollars.

Though board meetings can sometimes be passionate, Young said he believes board members should model the behavior they expect of their students.

“I think that when you’re talking about what’s best for children, if you’re passionate about it, and there’s a recommendation made that you have done research on and you believe is maybe not the right way to go, for example, then I think you have a moral obligation to speak up and speak your mind and make your case,” he said.

With that, Young acknowledged that his style has been described as “abrasive.”

“I honestly kind of wear that as a badge of honor, in some respects. Certainly not in the sense that somebody should be abrasive in a manner that is disrespectful, but abrasive in the manner of having enthusiasm for the right reasons and the right things,” he said.

Young said, after two terms, he still has that enthusiasm to improve the district.

“I’m still energized to continue to make the experience the absolute best it can be, and to make sure the taxpayers, who are funding all of this, have a voice. I think that’s really important, too,” he said.

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