Partisan topics need engagement, but they shouldn’t become a distraction

The debate over masking and critical race theory continues to thrive in local school board meetings across the country, and Exeter Township is no exception.

The Exeter Township school board introduced their health and safety plan at the July voting meeting which calls for optional masking in school buildings at the start of the school year this fall.

The plan allows for flexibility on masking rules depending on if the state changes its stance should a rise in COVID-19 cases occur. It also follows the CDC ruling that masks be worn on school buses. Opponents present at the meeting called for the cancellation of mask mandates in both buildings and school buses in addition to the elimination of language that would allow for changes to add masking at a later time.

Critical race theory, also called CRT, has been an area of contention at recent meetings as well. The district’s equity committee has come under fire as opponents closely relate it to a CRT initiative.

CRT has its roots in graduate-level legal studies. Originating in the late 1970s, it attempts to identify systemic racism and its impact on legal systems. Recently though, CRT has morphed into a meaning that covers any subject matter that addresses anti-racist themes. Critics of CRT believe the theory and teachings promote damaging and self-demoralizing ideas to white students and that it rewrites history.

When someone asks my stance on CRT, I often ask to engage in further dialogue. Some believe I’m trying to evade their question, but it’s not a simple yes or no answer as the definition of CRT differs from person-to-person.

To my knowledge, there has been no curriculum implemented in Pennsylvania K-12 schools that advocates the teaching of critical race theory. Also, CRT, in terms of the legal academia from the seventies, is far too complex to be introduced in a K-12 school setting. Most of the bans on K-12 teaching of critical race theory that we’re seeing in other states are vague and appear more like political grandstanding.

In the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis, many districts including Exeter, introduced anti-racism initiatives. On July 21, 2020, the school board passed an anti-racism school climate resolution that specifically referenced systemic racism and authorized the creation of an equity committee.

Critics have called for greater transparency of the committee in recent months.

Dr. Sharon McLendon, school board member and liaison for the equity committee, typically provides an update of the committee’s work at the end of each voting meeting. While there is no requirement that the committee meetings document formal minutes, I think it would allow for a greater level of transparency and help address any criticism.

Lack of transparency is not just an issue with the equity committee though, I’ve often struggled to find good information on most of the school board committees as they typically aren’t recorded and finding meeting minutes and agendas is often a challenge.

I believe these are important issues that need more respectful dialogue between school board members and the community, but we must not let it dominate all conversation.

Case in point, the school board approved five new administrator positions at the July meeting but there was little discussion on why these positions were needed or what they would provide for the students.

The new administration roles are troubling when considering taxes were just increased 1.754%. The community was told the increase was needed in order to eliminate the structural deficit in three years but we’re now introducing new high-salary positions. Granted, two of the jobs are paid from ESSER grant funds through 2024.

The Pennsylvania Election Code of 1937 allows school board candidates to file nomination petitions for multiple political parties. The reason this is allowed is because school board directors are considered to be non-partisan positions.

School board members must strive to be impartial and weigh all the information to decide what’s best for students, families, and taxpayers. Most importantly, they must listen and encourage engagement with the community from all sides.

Conversations around partisan issues may be needed. We just can’t fall short on other school board discussions in the process.

Jason Mell is running for a 4-year term on the Exeter Township School Board. He is a Planning Commissioner for Exeter Township and the former owner of The Exeter Informant. To read more about Jason, visit jasonmell.com.