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Settle Advances in School Board Election

Samuel Settle might be the most polarizing figure at Penn State.

As president of the campus branch of Young Americans for Freedom, he’s been front and center in the group’s incredibly visible — and equally divisive — rallies, most in front of the HUB. I, for one, have had run-ins with Settle on more than one occasion; it’s the very nature of those events that they capture the attention of virtually every passerby and, often, of the media.

Yet, for his latest venture, Settle has expanded his reach beyond this university, instead focusing his energies on a campaign for a seat on the board of the State College Area School District.

If it seems odd to you that a Penn State student from Philadelphia — someone who’s only been in the area for less than three years — would seek such a position, you’re not alone. In fact, that’s been a common complaint from much of Settle’s competition in the 7-candidate field. But it’s not hard for him to dismiss that criticism.

“If your opposition is based on the fact that I’m a relative newcomer… do you really not have a better talking point than that?”

For now, Settle’s neophyte status hasn’t hurt him much. Each of the candidates, who are vying for five available seats, advanced from the primaries last Tuesday to the general election, which will be held in November. Though Settle received the fewest votes of any on the ballot, he still said he felt “vindicated” to receive over 2000.

“On the whole,” Settle said, “I’d say that I was pretty pleased with the election results,” especially given the fact that he recognized he would be waging an “uphill fight.”

In fact, it’s not only his newness that poses an obstacle to his election, but also, ironically, his earlier endeavors that made him such a prominent figure in the local political scene.

“There’s been some opposition from people who don’t share my political beliefs, and who have been out to make this about my beliefs,” Settle said.

“My past has probably hurt me a little bit.”

That opposition encompassed the Centre County Democrats, who sent out emails and Facebook messages advising constituents not to vote for Settle — a move that surprised him, as he “thought the local party would leave us alone.”

That message, which Settle forwarded to me, included the following information, and linked to a speech he gave at CPAC, a convention of political conservatives:

Remember in the State College School Board race even extremist Republicans will appear on the Democratic Ballot!

If you like Rick Santorum you will love Sam Settle!

And yet, Settle has mainly chosen to stake his campaign on issues that lack a clear ideological positioning. In fact, Settle said that he chose to run for the position after witnessing “inappropriate” behavior on the part of school board members at meetings, which Settle says he has been attending regularly since 2009, after meeting then-president of the board Rick Madore.

During deliberation over a calendar proposal in 2010, the school board quickly chose the plan put forward by then-superintendent Richard Mextorf, despite the vocal objections of a number of  parents, who were “shouted down” by the school board.

“I didn’t see it as particularly appropriate to be treating constituents this way, Settle said, “or that nobody on the board was stepping in and stopping it.”

He also regrets that the school board hasn’t been proactive in its finances. “We haven’t been doing anything to address that debt issue for years now, and you can put it off for some time, but eventually you get screwed from the interest,” Settle said.

“Had the board been doing more long term thinking in addressing financial problems, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now.”

That situation is a difficult one, but quite simple to understand: the school district has greater expenditures than revenue. And while Settle says that the customary way to raise revenue is to raise taxes, that’s not, in fact, the only option.

“We do have a private fundraising arm,” Settle explained. “There are several parent groups dedicated to fundraising and they don’t get a lot of publicity at board meetings.”

In fact, at recent meetings, Settle said that there had been talk of cutting those groups, which would be “self-defeating,” because they “could be potentially very lucrative.” Settle cited a number of school districts, especially in the Midwest, which received significant amounts of their funding from private initiatives.

Settle was also vocal about a lack of focus on simple maintenance of school district properties. According to Settle, Panorama Elementary School — which will be closed in favor of the new Mount Nittany Elementary — “wasn’t in good shape because of poor maintenance.” And Memorial Field, where the high school plays football, amongst other sports, has “significant portions below code,” due to neglect, he says.

And so, perhaps because he’s taken relatively apartisan stances (he said there was “no reason” why this should be decided by partisan voting), or perhaps due to the mundane nature of the position, Settle doesn’t see this election as a stepping stone in his political career.

“It’s an unpaid, volunteer position,” he said, laughing off the idea. He also recounted a conversation he had with Vice President of the school board, Jim Pawelczyk.

“You’re signing yourself up to be a punching bag,” he told me. “No matter what you do, you’re going to get yelled at. So from my perspective, this isn’t a launching pad.”

“I don’t really anticipate this being a great move from the perspective of ‘let’s make a lot of friends in the community,'” he continued, “but I do see it as a chance to have a positive impact”–building off the volunteer work he says he’s been very prominent in doing since arriving in State College.

For now, he’ll regroup after a successful result in last week’s primary. That campaign had been a purely grassroots effort, replete with door-to-door campaigning, and a schedule filled with meetings with parent and advocacy groups, such as Parents for Equality in Math Education, and the Music Boosters. He set up a campaign website — SettleForSchoolBoard.com, and asked supporters to write letters to the Centre Daily Times, taking advantage of a policy which invites endorsements from members of the community, while stifling criticism of candidates. But the plan is to keep his foot on the gas until November.

He’s “trying to organize a couple of debates to bring the issues to the forefront,” which should help differentiate the candidates after a very “biography-oriented” primary campaign that, when it focused on issues, rarely touched on the important ones.

For instance, much was made over Settle’s support for school vouchers, but under the current plan, not only would State College “not be seeing them for a couple years,” but “they wouldn’t have much effect here.”

“It’s not very germane, but it makes for great soundbytes.”

But most of all, he plans on continuing his commitment to accessibility, meeting with more parents and groups, to hear what they have to say.

Despite all that, though, it would seem Settle’s fighting a losing battle. After all, he did receive the fewest votes of any candidate last week–about 700 behind the 6th place finisher, and in a town that leans to the left, his outspoken right-wing positions won’t engender himself to a large majority of the population, even if they arne’t particularly relevant. How many voters, too, are going to be excited to vote for a 20-year old, who’s half, or a third their age?

So in six months, could I be really be writing the story “Settle Elected to School Board”?

Well, stranger things have happened. But suddenly, that idea doesn’t seem as farfetched–or as disturbing–as it did a couple weeks ago.

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About the Author

Devon Edwards

Devon is a 2012 Penn State graduate and current law student at NYU. Devon joined Onward State in January of 2011, after a lengthy stay in the comment section. His likes include sabermetrics, squirrels, and longs walks on the beach, and his dislikes include spelunking, when you put your clothes in the dryer and they come out still kinda damp but also warm, and the religious right.

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