The lack of a teacher’s contract and the “weeding” of books took center stage during public comment on Monday when the Pennridge Facilities and Finance Committees met, followed by a Special Board Meeting.
“I am speaking tonight on behalf of the teachers, counselors, librarians, specialists, and other professional staff to urge the school board to finalize a tentative agreement that both sides can vote to adopt as a new collective bargaining agreement,” said Lydia Ramer Hunter, a district math teacher and president of the Pennridge Education Association.
The district’s contract with the teacher’s union expired on June 30. Initially, five of the school board directors offered members of the union a two percent salary increase. The four other school board directors, until very recently, were kept in the dark and excluded from negotiations.
“The prospect of starting the school year under the cloud of uncertainty and worry of an unsettled contract is not good for our teachers, our students, and our community,” she said. “We, the professional staff of Pennridge, look forward to the bargaining session scheduled on Thursday evening and reaching an agreement with the Pennridge School District prior to the beginning of school.”
Stephanie Regina of East Rockhill spoke twice on the topic of book weeding during the meeting’s public comment period.
“I’m trying to understand some of the book weeding stuff going on,” she said.
“Weeding” is a term synonymous with book removal. Included on the evening’s agenda were lists of books from schools across the district. Little explanation, except reference to Policy 109, was provided as to why these books were being purged.
“This idea that you’re not the ones removing them, you design the policy that puts the onus on the librarians to remove them or else they’ll lose their jobs,” said Regina.
Melissa Kunakorn, a guidance counselor in the district, addressed book weeding in her public comment. “The topics that are being weeded out of the library are very concerning to me,” she said. “Trying to not acknowledge the experiences of different kinds of people, racial groups, genders, like people who are from LGBTQ families, people who have experienced trauma, it’s really concerning to me as a guidance counselor.”
Kunakorn went on to point out recently adopted and proposed policies hinder her ability as a guidance counselor to help students. “I will support all of you, if you are bullied, if you are made to feel as if you shouldn’t exist, I will support you,” she said.
The weeding of books is not a new topic. At the June board meeting Director Robert Cormack commented that many people are requesting additional information regarding why certain books are being removed.
“We are looking at books that have been “poor and outdated,” he said and referenced Mark Twain. “It’s not completely eliminated from the library system but it will be replaced,” he said two months ago although Cormack didn’t say which book of Twain’s was removed.
Board Director Ron Wurz had taken issue with the books being removed from the high school in June.
“They promised that we would get a list of every library book and why it was removed. I realize we can’t do that quickly but I don’t think we should approve this [removal of weeded books]… and sweep it under the rug.” Wurz said.
The board then voted to exclude the books proposed for removal from the high school in June. All board members affirmed except Megan Banis-Clemens.
Cormack announced at last evening’s meeting that he had received a report regarding books being weeded from the high school and that, aside from books being in poor condition or outdated, the weeding was to comply with Policy 109.
A review of the lists from the high school does indicate why each book is being removed, however none of the reasons provided relate to the heart of Policy 109: ‘Age Inappropriate Sexualized Content’ for which the definition is so broad and vague that even a kiss could warrant a book’s removal.
The reasons provided by the district only include (1) obsolescence, (2) physical condition, (3) number of available copies, (4) coverage of the content by other materials, (5) value to the total collection, (6) changes in curricular emphasis, (7) infrequent use, (8) insufficient space, and (9) more age-appropriate alternative.
Some of the books currently listed for removal include: The Great Gatsby, Lord Of The Flies, One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Water For Elephants, A Time To Kill, Catch-22, and The Color Purple.
According to the district’s catalog, at least two copies of The Color Purple still exist however, if you click on “Details,” it becomes apparent that the books are no longer in circulation.
The book Looking For Alaska doesn’t appear to be in the collection at all.
The approval of a slate of personnel issues stalled momentarily when Director Joan Cullen asked that position 118, an instructional coach in math, be removed from the roster and that the employee not be reassigned to teach a math class at the high school.
Cullen said that students still require this coaching due to Covid losses and that she recalls being promised by other board members that the renewal of the coaching position would be addressed.
It was revealed that removing position 118 from the roster would eliminate the employee’s job until the board could re-approve the instructional coach in math.
“So I just want that on the record that that’s how this board majority operates,” Cullen said. “That they force you into these situations so that we have to do something that we don’t really want to do, but we have to do it because if we don’t do it, tomorrow they’ll say, isn’t it awful that they took away that woman’s position? So I’m going to just let you know now that’s how we have to vote tonight.”
Prior to the last public comment period, Mrs. Cullen announced that she would like to respond to Director Jordan Blomgren’s August 10 guest opinion in the Bucks County Herald.
Referring to the hiring of curriculum consultant Jordan Adams of Vermilion Blomgren wrote “there was a direction to ensure we have a rigorous unbiased and nonpartisan curriculum where students are presented the facts and taught to think critically and come to their own conclusions rather than being told what to think.”
Cullen blasted Blomgren and four board members, Banis-Clemens, Chaikin, Cormack and Reiss who have been operating in the shadows and excluding Batycki, Russell, Wurz and herself from board business essential to the district’s functioning.
“They have consistently refused to provide information on important matters and repeatedly blindsided teachers, administrators, and fellow board members. They’ve also refused repeated requests to allow thorough research and development and consideration of a number of issues, but most recently, the Vermilion contract, which they see as a crowning achievement,” Cullen said.
Questions posed by Cullen regarding the Vermilion contract included how the five came to the conclusion that Jordan Adams provided a quality product, why other consultants weren’t considered, why the contract contains no scope of service and who initiated contact with Adams.
“Even more disrespectful,” Cullen said, “they didn’t think their constituents’ deserved answers to those questions. They claimed the opposition was only from a small group of partisan community members denying the reality that the people we heard from were representative of all ideologies.”
She also addressed the apparent hypocrisy of Adams by comparing what he said at the Moms For Liberty Philadelphia summit in July versus how he has interacted with four members of the Pennridge school board. She also noted that when she asked Adams who on the board had initiated the relationship, he declined to answer.
“Mister Adams used the word accountable repeatedly throughout his summer conference talk. He told the audience not to accept ‘baloney’ excuses and stonewalling. He characterized himself as ‘the fox in the hen house’ and those who raised objections to his work as simply partisan goons,” Cullen said and recommended the need to terminate the Vermilion contract and that the district needs an interim superintendent. Both suggestions were met with applause.
Director Ricki Chaikin then addressed earlier public comment that teachers do not want to come to Pennridge.
“We have 2,094 applicants right now for 68 open positions. That’s 31 applications for every single position, so people do still want to come to Pennridge,” she said and then attempted to tie that information to the Vermilion contract.
“Teachers aren’t leaving and, if they are, I understand some people don’t like the Vermilion contract. Everybody who goes to work every day has something in their job they don’t like. You don’t quit because a consultant was hired that you don’t like,” she said, and accused Cullen of playing both sides of the aisle.
After stating that the dismantling of the district’s DEI program was due to Mrs. Cullen, Chaikin said “Pick one side. I don’t even care which one. Just pick one instead of continuing to divide the community,” causing the audience to jeer.
It is questionable if there will be a meeting of the minds between the now fractured board who need to address pressing issues including a teacher’s contract and the hiring of new staff, as suggested by PEA President Lydia Ramer Hunter.
“For the sake of the families and students we serve, it’s time to get this finished,” Ramer Hunter said earlier in the evening.
School for the 2023-24 school year begins in less than two weeks on Monday, August 28.