The Downingtown School Board met on March 9 with the intent to discuss the ‘22-23 operating budget—a conversation that was derailed by 40 minutes of anti-trans, anti-DEI public comment.
Public Comment: Intolerance on Display
The meeting began with public comment related to action items (livestream 9:24).
All public comment was related to this item on the consent agenda: “Approval of a contract with the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) for training and implementation of the ASCA National Model Program for the K-12 school counseling department.”
DASD wants to contract for training with ASCA in response to the results of a recent comprehensive mental health audit (link). The ASCA Model can be considered the gold standard for school counselors. DASD wants to train its counselors in the ASCA Model and then receive a certification.
The American School Counselor Association is a major professional organization for school counselors. Their website states “The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) supports school counselors’ efforts to help students focus on academic, career and social/emotional development so they achieve success in school and are prepared to lead fulfilling lives as responsible members of society. ASCA provides professional development, publications and other resources, research and advocacy to school counselors around the globe.”
ASCA also has 49 published Position Statements regarding best practices for school counselors on topics ranging from letters of recommendation to students with disabilities. This list includes positions on anti-racist practices, cultural diversity, gender equity, LGBTQ youth, and transgender/gender-nonconforming youth.
Broadly speaking, these position papers all state that the role of the school counselor is to remove barriers to student success and promote students’ well-being and development.
Back to Public Comment
The people who gathered for the 3/9 school board meeting took significant issue with these position papers. Their top two concerns were that ASCA (1) affirms the existence of historic and systemic racism and (2) respects the wishes and privacy of transgender students.
These are personal beliefs and fringe ideologies, said these folks, and they have no place in public schools. They collaborated on a lengthy position paper that they read in turn, 2 minutes at a time, for a total of 26 minutes.
Their statements began by quoting several ASCA position papers and objecting to them:
- Concern that ASCA affirms the existence of historic and systemic racism, including within public school systems.
- Concern that ASCA encourages its members to reflect on their blind spots and unconscious bias and work to remedy racism around them.
- Concern that ASCA promotes gender equity.
- Concern that ASCA “is vigilant to the harmful effects of stereotypical gender roles.”
- Concern that ASCA “advocates for equitable education and opportunity for all students regardless of sexual orientation or identity.”
- Concern that ASCA affirms that counselors and teachers should use the name and pronouns requested by a student.
- Concern that school counselors maintain confidentiality with the students they see, within the limits of parents’ rights under state and federal law.
- Concern that “each student’s unique situation should be addressed on a case-by-case basis, using a student-centered approach that includes ongoing student and parent engagement as appropriate.”
After reading these positions and stating objections to each one, community members added:
- “The views and positions of the ASCA organizations do not represent the views, deeply held beliefs, and cultural practices of the parents and children in this school district.”
- “These ideologies and belief systems in the ASCA positions on gender ideologies qualify as a religion.”
- “The school has no right or authority to teach or indoctrinate our students with an alternative set of beliefs or morals. No one has a right to challenge our family traditions or customs.”
- “After reviewing this group’s training policies and standards, I can say I believe they will lead to pitting child against child and friend against friend as well as destruction of the family unit and misunderstandings between parent and child.”
- “While no child deserves to have hurtful things said to them, not only are you [school staff] unable to control it, it’s not your responsibility to do so.”
- “It is the parent’s and family’s responsibility to ensure their children are welcoming and loving of other children. If my children were to mistreat another child, it is not your responsibility to assign a cause. It is also not your responsibility to try to alter their belief systems.”
- “Students are not qualified to make decisions about their gender identity or pronouns. Parents are the legal guardians and the only ones who may make that choice.”
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was quoted and ASCA described as in contradiction to Dr. King’s vision.
- “What is “white”? If I am 75% genetically ‘white,’ am I inherently racist, or only if I am 100% genetically ‘white’?”
- “Who are the white supremacist oppressors who walk the halls of our schools? The rich kids? The poor ones?”
- Our families have “a deeply held belief that gender is based in reality.”
- These positions are “baseless radical cultural ideologies held by a small portion of society. The ASCA organization’s mission is to foist their narrow view of the world onto others and should not be in a position of influence over our children. Such ideologies and teachings are contrary to our American philosophy of life.”
Three members of the community took the opposite perspective.
- Two high-school students spoke movingly about their relationships with their school counselors and appealed for DASD to approve the contract to better resource them. “Hearing all of this is kind of terrifying, as a tenth-grader who’s endured a lot this past year,” said one. “Guidance counselors are not teaching politics or ideologies. They are a trusted adult, especially for kids who don’t have that safe space at home,” said the other.
- One parent shared that “counselors provide a safe space where you can speak about your problems and know you are supported. This is why the contract is so important.”
Did you know? 81.7% of Transgender people have seriously thought about suicide. (source) Using a transgender person’s preferred name and pronouns is incredibly important: “Compared with peers who could not use their chosen name in any context, young people who could use their name in all four areas [of life] experienced 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34% decrease in reported thoughts of suicide and a 65% decrease in suicidal attempts.” (source)
While we personally have no problem affirming that only the person inhabiting a body can tell us their gender, given the statistics, it’s not hard to see why any counselor worth their salt would consider it best practice to use the preferred name and pronoun for the person they are seeing regardless of their personal views.
Frankly, we hope that any human would do the same for any other human. Isn’t it just basic kindness and respect to address people the way they want to be addressed?
Moreover, surely we can all agree that racism is all too present in our world. There surely must be developmentally appropriate ways to include accurate American history in the social studies curriculum, for example. However, suggesting that teachers and counselors would therefore go around telling white-presenting children that they are white supremacists is a bit of a straw man argument, don’t we think? Goodness gracious.
Eventually, public comment ended and the superintendent took over to give her report. She congratulated two students: one for her prize-winning essay, and the other for her award-winning baton twirling. You can see a sample of the baton twirling on the livestream at 45:30. ☺
Operating Budget Proposal
Dr. Lonardi then presented the 2022-23 Operating Budget Proposal to the School Board. For the fiscally-minded, you’ll find the full presentation beginning at 46:53.
The total ‘22-’23 proposed operating budget (not including the capital fund) is $250,313,161.
New staffing requests raise the budget:
- A second communications staff
- An HR generalist
- 3 prevention specialists (elementary)
- 1 gifted support (elementary—this was cut the last 3 years and this year Lonardi marks as essential—all but 1 gifted teacher are currently floating among multiple schools)
- 1 ESL teacher
- A contingency budget for up to 10 new teaching staff—2 low incidence teachers and 8 general teachers between brick-and-mortar and the Cyber Academy. These positions would only be filled if needed, to maintain mandated student-teacher ratios depending on enrollment.
- Support staff in registration, payroll, transportation, facilities, and 2 athletic managers
2021-22 saw the first tax increase in 8 years for DASD residents. This year still sees a $1M projected deficit, which is being corrected by reducing expenditures. Next year’s budget projects a $4.1M deficit, including capital budget.
Some of the budget increase can be met by tax base growth of $143M. However, they reminded, when the tax base grows, it means new construction, which means more families, and more children who will need school services in upcoming years—best to plan for enrollment growth.
To meet the budget needs, Dr. Lonardi proposes a millage tax increase of 3%, from 27.726 to 28.558. They report that for a home with a market value of $400k and an assessed value of $185k, this will come out to $147 in increased tax burden for the year. Because DASD taxpayers enjoyed 8 years with no tax increases, they would still pay less school tax than most Chester County residents, says Dr. Lonardi.
Then came questions from the Board. Dr. MacNeal asked if some admin positions could be reframed as assistants for a lower salary burden. Director Bertone asked about the cost-benefit for Downingtown Cyber Academy. Director Miller asked if perhaps all non-teaching positions could be vetoed this year to minimize expenditure. Director Ross commented that it’s unusual for a district this large to have only one communications staff; West Chester has 3, added Director Gurthy.
High School Updates
The High School Representatives gave updates (at 1:25:12). West’s musical is “Kiss Me, Kate,” running 3/31-4/3. East’s show is “Beauty and the Beast,” running 4/21-24.
Cultural Equity (Director Gurthy)—CETF is hosting events to celebrate women’s history month for March. The next Cultural Equity Task Force meeting is 3/29 on Zoom and it is open to the public. Director Gurthy also took the opportunity to make a statement commending Justin Brown for the incredible amount of progress he has made in just over one year with the district.
DARC (Director Ghrayeb)—DARC summer camps are looking for counselors. All playground camps are now up on the website. Director Miller will be taking over DARC reports beginning next month.
Education Foundation (Director Blust)—Construction will begin this spring on the nature trail at the Marsh Creek 6th Grade Center. Spring after-school programs are online for registration now. The Harlem Wizards are coming 3/24.
Legislative (Dr. MacNeal)—Gov. Wolf presented the new PA budget and it includes spending increases for several targeted categories of education funding. Additionally, redistricting is nearing completion and the 155th district will have new boundaries.
Communities that Care (Director Ross)—The Snowball Shuffle was a successful 5k with over 200 participants. There is a Healthy Youth summit on 3/19. CTC has a new parent podcast.
Dr. MacNeal requested that the ASCA contract be moved to the action agenda. The rest of the consent agenda (pp. 2-6 here) was passed unanimously.
Expenditure items related to personnel (dental insurance for staff), finance (22-23 capital budget), facilities (new boiler at East Ward) and technology all passed unanimously. Director Houghton abstained from the technology vote as she has a professional relationship with the vendor.
Then came the ASCA contract per public comment. There was a robust discussion starting at 1:59:00 spearheaded by Dr. MacNeal, who asked several questions to the Director of Pupil Services, Meghan Dennis. Here is a summary:
The ASCA contract is one outcome of the mental health audit performed by the CCIU and recently reported to the Board and available at this link. The contract is for consultation and a day of coaching for DASD counselors. ASCA’s position statements are distinct from the ASCA Model. The Model that will be presented in training has four points:
- Identify students who might require counseling services
- Providing small groups: direct vs indirect
- Assessing effectiveness of programs
- Managing programs
The goal is that school counselors will ultimately spend 80% of their day student-focused, and only 20% on managerial tasks (e.g. writing letters of recommendation). The goal of the training is to create this four-pronged structure. The expectation of counselors will be to implement the Model. It is not related to counselors’ points of view or personal values.
Counselors do spend instructional time with students. However that curriculum does not come from ASCA. It is created in DASD and based on the PA work and career standards and learning outcomes. This curriculum is not related to the training. Director Bertone confirmed that parents may access the curriculum to review it if they would like.
The confidentiality position for DASD counselors is to pursue confidentiality to build trust, in balance with federal and state mandates regarding parents’ educational rights. Oftentimes counselors are in fact helping students to communicate with their parents (and vice versa). The goal is to foster positive family relationships.
After about 20 minutes of discussion, Director Gurthy moved to vote, Director Ghrayeb seconded, and the ASCA contract passed unanimously.
Open Public Comment
Public comment resumed at 2:11:57 on the livestream.
Four high school students came out to speak about mental health. They requested better and more direct teaching about mental health and suicide prevention.
There was a comment about making schools more neighborhood-based in response to the mental health audit showing spikes in mental health reports in 6th and 9th grades.
A commenter was thankful to Justin Brown for the improvement in DEI around the winter holidays. Her kindergartener had a positive experience seeing Hanukkah represented at school (alongside Christmas) compared to when her 3rd-grader was in kindergarten.
A parent thanked the Board and Justin Brown for restoring the 3 banned LGBT books to the library shelves at West and ordering them for East.
Then came several commenters who continued objecting to the ASCA contract, the reality of racism, and transgender accepance more broadly.
One said: “I have some really strong beliefs, moral and religious beliefs, that it is my role as a parent to instill in my children.”
Another said “An adult may speak to her own 5-year-old about pronouns and transgenderism. However this should not be in schools. It’s not okay for this to be spoken about in school without parental consent. The [Communities that Care] event put a focus on transgender kids, making them feel accepted, making it normal. I understand we should love our neighbors and not discriminate against them, but this has no place in the schools. Why can’t we focus on teaching children to love themselves the way they were born?”
A third was upset that parents might not be attuned to everything happening with students at school and specifically that a child could request to be called by a different name without the parent’s permission.
A fourth described the above-mentioned LGBT graphic novels as “disgusting, vile books” and was upset that they were back in the library, while a selection of books denying racism are not given a place on the DASD shelves.
Racism in America is a hard topic. The subject touches an emotional chord for everyone. The fact that many white people were raised to be “colorblind” and pretend not to see race only makes it harder to affirm and celebrate racial diversity. It is okay to have worries about how children will learn about the harder aspects of American history—just as I want my children to learn about the Holocaust before they graduate, but maybe not in kindergarten.
The thing is, when white people say “racism is not real,” we are in fact denying the testimonies of people of color. The white person is effectively saying “my perception of reality is more valid than yours; you don’t have anything to teach me on this subject.”
While white parents often avoid discussing race with young children, parents of color often begin talking about race from a young age (here’s one example on YouTube of Black parents teaching their children how to respond to the police—a video that might be relevant in light of Wednesday’s news about Ryan Coogler, the director of “Black Panther,” being mistaken for a robber and handcuffed while accessing his own bank account).
As a reminder, racism is only one form of discrimination in America. It is also very hard to be poor, or disabled, or a survivor of adverse childhood experiences. But it’s even harder to be poor and Black than poor and white, or to be disabled and Black, than disabled and white.
But regardless of the undeniable truth of racism in America: Is this what school counselors are teaching? Is there a secret agenda? No. School counselors are focused on offering mental health support for struggling students and helping students transition into college or careers. Let’s give them all the resources we can for this essential job.
The School Board will meet next on March 30 (as Committee of the Whole) and then again on April 6. If the public commenters summarized here don’t speak for you—if you want to make sure all students are supported and included—we hope you’ll make a point to come out to one of these meetings to make your voice heard in support of diversity, equity, and inclusion.