Just minutes into Wednesday’s Pennridge School Board meeting and shortly after public comment began tempers flared, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of playground bullying.
Laura Foster, a parent and taxpayer, offered commentary that was critical of the board’s recent decision to enter into a contract with Vermilion to rewrite K-12 curriculum but was quickly shut down.
“Miss Foster, this item is not an agenda item,” acting solicitor Kevin Skjoldal of Eckert Seamans said.
Foster said her comments did relate to the agenda as old business and continued only to be interrupted again by Skjoldal.
Members of the audience began calling out “ask the chair.”
Skjoldal admonished the onlookers and threatened to discontinue public comment if the disruption continued.
“You are out of order,” said Board Vice President Megan Banis-Clemens. “And if you don’t stop, the security is going to come in.” “This is getting ridiculous,” she said, causing the auditorium to erupt and boo while Foster and Skjoldal continued to spar.
“I’d like to call for a recess, please,” Banis-Clemens said to David Reiss, the board president, who made no attempt to gain control of the meeting.
Moments later, half of the board abruptly exited the room, the live video stream was cut and a “We Will Return Shortly” message was provided to those viewing remotely.
Approximately 45 minutes later the board returned to resume public comment but with a new set of rules.
“The first public comment period will be a time to comment on agenda items. Those are items on which the board will be voting this evening,” Skjoldal specified, and repeated the stipulation multiple times throughout the balance of the meeting.
Pennridge Policy 903 states “Comments at the beginning of the agenda are to pertain to agenda items.”
It does not say that comments must pertain to agenda items on which the board will be voting.
Board member Ron Wurz addressed the audience saying “I wanted to apologize again for wasting a half hour of your time. There was no safety issue, there was no reason to stop. It shows a lack of respect for the community.”
Foster, who had been engaged in public comment prior to the board’s hasty recess, attempted to finish her comments but was turned away by Skjoldal.
“I’m asking you now to separate from the lectern so Emily Smith can approach. If you can’t follow our directions, we’ll have to ask security to have you removed,” he said.
Skjoldal then proceeded to interrogate every speaker wanting to make public comment by asking which specific agenda item requiring a board vote they wished to address.
Smith, also a parent and taxpayer, didn’t fare much better than Foster and was interrupted when asking questions about the cost to bring Vermilion into the district.
Smith said her comments related to the budget which was on the agenda and scheduled for a vote.
“Anything that is spent by the school district is in the budget, is it not,” she responded. “The Sunshine Law allows us to comment on anything on the agenda. Not anything you choose to have us comment on.”
Skjoldal continued to challenge Smith and advised that if she interrupted him again he would have her removed. A large security guard then appeared and loomed behind Smith as she finished her comments.
Many of the speakers during the first public comment period focused on the district’s annual budget as well as the negotiation of a new contract for teachers and other educational professionals.
The board continued to work its way through the agenda and voted to approve “Removal of Obsolete Items” that included, in part, the deletion of fiction and nonfiction books from the library’s literary collection.
The district’s form for removing books and published materials, a process referred to as “weeding,” includes a column to indicate if the printed material being eliminated is in “good/fair/poor/outdated” condition but was not used for cartons of books being removed.
Many of the titles on the fiction list including Milk and Honey, Thirteen Reasons Why, The Stranger, Ender’s Game, The Chocolate War, Girl With Pearl Earring, Whatever Happened to Janie, What Janie Found, Heart of Darkness, In The Middle Of The Night, The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, Adam Bede, Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, and Like Water For Chocolate, are frequently found on banned book lists.
Topics of nonfiction books being removed included indigenous people of North America, slavery, the Civil War and assorted topics pertaining to the Second World War including the Tuskegee Airmen.
In addition, Ron Wurz objected to Policy 720 “Use of Restroom and Locker Room Facilities” saying “I’m going to vote against this because the most likely outcome for passing this will be legal action against the district.” His was the only dissenting vote.
Highlights of the second public comment period included questioning the motivation and actions of board members that several speakers described as being disrespectful to teachers, students and the community.
District teachers also spoke, including Tim Deose, who has been teaching social studies at the high school for 23 years and has served as the Teacher Association President four times.
“Pennridge Education Association negotiation team has shared with the entire membership every proposal that has crossed the table from both sides,” Deose said. “They know how your proposal is taking us backwards and they’re not happy. It’s time for this board to recognize the value this professional staff brings to our students and our community.”
Deose also remarked that the Pennridge professional staff has the lowest pay across all districts in Bucks County and implored the board to do better.
James Valletta, a high school social studies teacher and the chief negotiator for the 500 plus professional staff comprising the Pennridge Education Association, also spoke.
“It is time for PEA and school board negotiators to get to work. It has been 40 two days since our last negotiation meeting. I’m glad to report that we plan to meet on May 22,” he said. “It is still not too late to get this right. We have significant work ahead of us to do right by the students and staff of Pennridge … Let’s get to work.”
Following the conclusion of the second public comment period Megan Banis-Clemens addressed the teachers in the audience.
“We have only given one initial financial proposal and that proposal was earlier and higher than any other initial proposal we’ve ever given,” Banis-Clemens said. “It was two percent and it’s almost what we have given historically and what the administration has gotten.”
“A lot of false information was put out to the public and then you delay meeting with us until after the primary,” Banis-Clemens remarked. “If I didn’t know any better, this was politically driven and you tried to stir it up.”
“Just for the record, I never received the proposal that we made,” said board member Jonathan Russell. “We’ve never received the union’s proposal either,” he added. Other board members concurred with Russell but Banis-Clemens disagreed, exclaiming they had received copies.
As the meeting neared conclusion, Jordan Blomgren rebuked comments from the community that power was being abused and said the board is doing what they were elected to do.
Ron Wurz objected to her comment saying some members on the board are following politicians and not listening to the parents to which Blomgren said “we were the suckers to run with you.”
“The veil is off,” said Laura Foster. “[Tonight’s] meeting showed over and over the true colors of our board as they yelled over each other, called each other names, accused each other of betraying party lines, yelling at audience members.”