Three Rivers School Board Still Fine-Tuning Racial Justice Statement

Work to finalize a Three Rivers Community Schools (TRCS) statement on racial justice continues. During a special meeting of the Board of Education (BOE) Wednesday evening held to adopt TRCS reopening measures amid the pandemic, the statement came up during closing public comments. Nowak provided a status update, members of the public voiced concerns about the process, and board members shared additional thoughts.

The conversation about the statement emerged during a July BOE meeting when members reviewed a draft prepared by several board members and TRCS Superintendent Ron Moag. At that meeting, Board Vice President Dan Ryan objected to parts of the statement’s language, and suggestions that it might propose curriculum changes, which Ryan said would be best handled by the TRCS Strategic Planning Committee. At the conclusion of that meeting, BOE President Erin Nowak asked for board member input on how to improve the statement’s language. 

At a work session on August 3, Nowak said she received limited comments and feedback. A heated conversation took place between Ryan and Board Member Kevin Hamilton over similar language objections, as well as a rumor that there was back-channel conversation taking place over removal of the Harper Lee novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” from the curriculum. Hamilton said the rumor was unfounded. 

In response to the debate, Nowak said she would develop a new draft statement by the end of last week for board member review, and for adoption at the next regular, upcoming BOE meeting on August 17.

At this Wednesday’s meeting, the topic came up again when a member of the public asked if the board planned to address Ryan’s use of a racial slur in reference to social media during the August 3 work session. Jessica Barth told BOE members she emailed them her concerns and asked if they had read her email. Hamilton told Barth he appreciated her email and shared her feelings. 

Hamilton said he hoped for an apology. Barth said she wasn’t seeking an apology but wanted someone to “explain to me why those actual words were used in a public forum.” Ryan said, “First, I’m sorry if the language I chose was rather harsh and perhaps made some feel uncomfortable. But I think that any discussion of racism, anything related to a discussion of racism has a tendency to create a level of discomfort. You know what, I think maybe it should. How else would we be able to affect real change without creating emotion and striking nerves and stimulating productive discussion?”

On the question of the book, Ryan said, “I remain steadfast and passionate in my objection to even the suggestion of banning books in public schools.” Ryan said Barth’s concern was taken out of context. “I apologize for nothing in what I said, and basically that’s my response. If you’re not satisfied, so be it,” he said. 

Barth said, ““I was just trying to understand why a public leader was using those exact words (from) the social media, which is a totally different context than a board meeting. So you’re saying that we need to create friction to understand racism and what I’m thinking, and that could be out of context, but that’s the way I’m taking it.” 

Other commenters in the chat section of the online meeting echoed Barth’s concerns, though two also thanked Ryan for his stance on “To Kill a Mockingbird.” A third said they supported the book, but not Ryan’s language.

Before discussion moved on to other topics, Nowak said of the statement, “I’ve sent a draft out to all six of my fellow board members, I have heard back from five of them that are very favorable for the letter that we’re going to put out. And that will be addressed, and hopefully, passed by the board during our August 17 meeting.”

As of the start of Wednesday’s special meeting, Hamilton had not yet provided his comments on the new draft statement, but he shared his thoughts with Nowak and other attendees following adjournment. He said the letter hit the points that were in the strategic plan. He said, “I’m not going to lie. I liked the first letter better,” but said he was okay with the new draft.

Hamilton asked when the last time the Strategic Planning Committee met. Moag said he would check his calendar, but he believed the committee last met in December 2019. Nowak said she plans to reconvene the committee in response to the ongoing conversation about the statement.

Nowak said, “we’re not just putting out this letter and then saying, ‘here’s our stance.’ Ron and I have been talking about reassembling the strategic planning committee in the very near future. It probably won’t be until after school starts and we get that stuff ironed out, but (it is) for the simple fact of, we’re putting this statement out and we’re standing behind it, and we want to show that, you know, we’re serious, we’re making action on it.”

Continuing her remarks to Hamilton, Nowak said, “We’re going to be very proactive about this and pull the committee together and talk about the things that have been going on and what we as a district can do to help.”

“Sounds good,” Hamilton said.

Dave Vago is a writer and columnist for Watershed Voice. A Philadelphia native with roots in Three Rivers, Vago is a planning consultant to history and community development organizations and is the former Executive Director of the Three Rivers DDA/Main Street program.

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