Though Not on Agenda, DEI Occupies Focus of March School Board Meeting.

March Pennridge School Board Meeting Recap

March 21, 2022 - The Pennridge School Board general meeting that took place on Monday, March 21st, was uncharacteristically short, but not without its notable moments, mostly surrounding DEI and the nearly complete dissolution of the ad hoc/CommUnity committee.

The beginning got off to a quick start with no public comments related to the agenda. This allowed President Joan Cullen to head right into her report and address the fate of CommUnity. Scheduled meetings for CommUnity were removed from the district calendar following the upheaval and subsequent total breakdown of the most recent meeting in February, when a public commenter specifically targeted a CommUnity member and his family.

Given the open disdain nearly every current board member has expressed for DEI efforts, it should not come as a surprise that the committee is being, for all intents and purposes, put out to pasture before its members have even had the chance to vote on a mission statement. Cullen, who’s been part of Community, said it “makes sense to hand over what we’ve done, or, you know, what information has been gathered, to the district personnel,” because, “really everything that has been presented so far is something that has a committee or district department that coordinates to that” (the examples she gives can be found at 3:08 on the livestream video). She did not specify what the committee has had the chance to do or what information has supposedly been gathered that can be “passed on.”

Superintendent Bolton was given a moment during the president’s report to speak about academic data gathered regularly by the district (5:04). He claimed that the achievement gap between white and non-white students has been significantly reduced since his tenure began in 2018, and that the district’s focus is now turning to Spanish-speaking students where the gap has yet to improve. He did not cite specific numbers regarding either of these, nor did he or Cullen at any point acknowledge that academic performance is only one small piece of the larger picture that Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion aims to address.

Cullen concluded her report by explaining the apparent plethora of ways in which Pennridge already meets the expectations of all things DEI, and that while “nothing’s ever perfect…we always accept suggestions,” though she did not say that the board would respond to or heed suggestions. She said that the CommUnity committee would be kept as one that can be recalled, possibly with new members, if there is something for the committee to consider, but she did not indicate what such a thing might be. To close, she cited her own five children as concrete evidence that “when new initiatives on the national level come along…it doesn’t mean that those kinds of activities weren’t already occurring in this district.” She explained that her children have received “quite a good education from Pennridge in terms of being exposed to a lot of things…in their music and their art…it really was from a wide variety of cultures…and they are taught in class about different cultures and people’s history.”

She added that she feels that “it” (presumably DEI) “kind of discredits the efforts that have already been made by the district,” even though DEI, when it was being implemented, never interfered with any of the committees, departments, or art and history courses she mentioned.

At no point did she address counter examples brought up by numerous Pennridge families of hateful, discriminatory, phobic acts that negatively impact countless students of various backgrounds, nor the importance of being sure that the many cultures currently represented in district curricula are handled in a fully accurate, appropriate, non-discriminatory way – all things that DEI committees and initiatives would aim to determine and act upon.

While the rest of the meeting was both brief and relatively routine, issues related to DEI took front and center again during the second period of public comments.

Two Indian residents from Hilltown Township spoke about names that were skipped for public comment at the last board meeting because they were too difficult for the district solicitor to read or pronounce. (This was especially awkward after Bolton admitted during his superintendent’s report that he forgot to acknowledge Diwali this year.) “I know these may not be anglo-saxon names,” the first speaker, a father of two Pennridge students, said, “but I can confidently stand here today and say that there’s hardly anyone in this room that cannot pronounce Mr. Patel, who was here, who was not called up to make public comment” (45:02). He added, “Diversity enriches the educational experience… [It]challenges stereotype misconceptions. It encourages critical thinking, and it helps students learn to communicate effectively with people of diverse and varied backgrounds. So I would like to encourage the board to think through diversity and inclusion and what that looks like.”

The second speaker, whose name was also skipped by the district solicitor during public comment last month due to it being difficult to read, said she “felt the bias,” and that it seemed as though “the other board members were completely okay with it; they were just spectators and were perhaps okay with someone representing them displaying non-inclusion of some community members” (47:27). Joan interjected to say that the reason the speaker was actually skipped was that she had written Chalfont as her municipality, so they believed she was from Central Bucks and therefore could be denied permission to speak. (This is interesting not only because residents of Central Bucks have been permitted to speak at meetings in the past, but also seeing as Cullen herself has a Souderton mailing address and should be aware that not all Pennridge mailing addresses are within its eight municipalities.)

Most of the several remaining speakers addressed DEI in some form, including one member of CommUnity, who said she’s emailed every board member asking questions about the direction of the committee, and has “not gotten a single evidence-based response, just opinions and beliefs,” (55:14), and another who wanted to know why the data Dr. Bolton had just spoken of had not been made available to the committee right at its inception. Three other residents expressed similar sentiments about DEI, citing the board’s denial of the existence of systemic racism, and board member Christine Batycki’s comment at the last general meeting that celebrating Martin Luther King Day in our classrooms shows that Pennridge is not a racist district, which the speaker called a “condescending, arrogant thing to say,” (1:00:57).

Only two speakers spoke in defense of the district’s stance on DEI, one of whom is a Pennridge graduate who said she’s never seen problems in the district. “Just because they say it, doesn’t make it true,” she said of people who have shared stories, experiences, and statistics on racism in the months since DEI was shut down. Her comment very much harkened back to Cullen’s assertion that because her family has had no problems in Pennridge, there must not be any.

The next school board meeting will be on Monday, April 25th, 2022.