Coatesville school board names Hills to open seat

Posted: January 20, 2014

The Coatesville Area School District's board elected a new member Saturday who has never publicly said he wanted to run, passing over the runner-up in November's election to fill its vacant seat.

In a 5-3 vote, the school board chose Coatesville resident James Hills, a retired 26-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police who volunteers with district students, to fill the seat representing Coatesville and Valley Township. The seat was left empty when board member Paul Johnson died Dec. 20 at age 82.

Hills was not among the more than 10 candidates who participated in candidate forums and campaigned for a place on the board ahead of the November election, but he said he planned to run in a few years.

Former board member Tonya Thames Taylor, one of three people in the running for the empty seat, withdrew her name ahead of Saturday's meeting, writing in an e-mail that she wanted to devote more time to her human-rights advocacy. Taylor, president of the Coatesville chapter of the NAACP, was decisively voted off the board in November, receiving 11 percent of the vote.

Some district residents blamed Taylor and other board members for delays in the handling of the district's texting scandal, in which the superintendent and an athletic director resigned after discovery of their racist and sexist text-message exchanges about students and staff.

Taylor's decision to submit her name for consideration for the open seat caused uproar among residents. She said the district asked her to submit her name.

A vote to fill the seat at a special meeting Tuesday evening was tied, with four members abstaining and four voting for Coatesville resident Robert Beckershoff, who won 34 percent of the vote in November.

According to Pennsylvania School Code, the board had until Sunday to fill the seat with a majority vote, or Chester County Court would decide.

District residents had been calling on the school board to elect the second-place finisher - Beckershoff - in November's election, calling it the will of the people. The board had no obligation to do so.

Several board members who had abstained Tuesday said they did not know enough about Hills at that time but were able to find out more since then and liked what they saw.

As part of a Coatesville-based mentoring program, Hills said he works with district principals, teachers, and students, and visits schools several times per week.

"I know what the kids need," said Hills, an alumnus of the district. "That's my agenda."

Immediately after the vote, half of the roughly 70 people in the high school auditorium got up and left, some saying they would march and campaign and calling the outcome "so sad."


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8105 @MichaelleBond

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