Bookmark and Share

PENNCREST polarization

By Mike Crowley


TOWNVILLE — Inside the Maplewood Elementary School library on Monday evening, a bulletin board displayed the sort of positive message typical of such settings.

“Books unite us,” the message read, spelled out in large black letters on yellow construction paper.

In the auditorium down the hallway, books and other issues continued to divide PENNCREST School Board members.

Near the end of what had been, by recent standards at least, an uneventful meeting, discussion returned to the topics that have dominated discussion and fueled polarized commentary from members of the public over the past few months.

A proposed citizens advisory committee on the future of the district and a library materials See PENNCREST, Page A3

Books are seen on display inside the library at Maplewood Elementary School library this week.

MIKE CROWLEY/Meadville Tribune

Continued from Page A1 policy that prohibits books containing “sexualized content” — two issues that dominated much of the board’s attention over the past three months — were briefly revisited, as was the absence of any policy for dealing with petitions submitted by members of the public. But the topic that raised the most ears among both board members and the audience of about 30 people was the question of whether it is appropriate for a board member who stated in an email, “I honestly don’t care what the law says, as long as what I said is right before God,” to serve on the committee tasked with keeping the district’s policies up to date.

‘I honestly don’t care what the law says’

The comment, board member Jeff Brooks explained, came from an email that was among numerous communications recently released by the district in response to a Right-to-Know request.

Addressing board President Luigi DeFrancesco, Brooks suggested that the comment provided grounds for reevaluation of the makeup of the district’s policy committee.

“I know you’re in charge of who’s on the committee,” Brooks said. “Could we work on maybe getting committee members who do care what the law says and make that public in meetings about policies we present?”

Sent hours before the board’s Jan. 9 work session, the email was a reply from board member David Valesky to fellow board member Amber Tyson Wright, who had stated in a previous email that she planned to ask that the controversial library materials policy be tabled so that the language could be revised “to word-by-word reflect the law.”

The policy was up for discussion at the board’s work session later that day and was ultimately approved several days later. Valesky chairs the policy committee that proposed the newly adopted restrictions. Tyson Wright and board Vice President Robert Johnston make up the rest of the committee. All three were staunch supporters of the changes.

“I believe the terms in the policy we presented are clear. I honestly don’t care what the law says, as long as what I said is right before God. They can change the word at any time in state and federal laws,” Valesky wrote in the email, which Brooks read in its entirety at the meeting. “I’m just concerned that if this policy is pulled, then we have a minimum of 3 months until we can vote on it again. The remainder of my time on the board is uncertain at this point.”

Seven of the nine seats on the board, including Valesky’s, are up for election this year.

Brooks said the committee failed to alert the rest of the board “that the policy was written with disregard for what the law says.”

“I think maybe the public would trust our policies more if we had a policy committee that did care what the law says,” he continued.

Continuing friction among board members

Tyson Wright responded immediately to Brooks’ criticism.

“The people on the policy committee did care about the law,” she said.

As evidence, Tyson Wright pointed to the addition of footnotes to the library materials policy. The footnotes, added in the midst of the discussion preceding the board’s Jan. 12 vote on the policy, cite the sections of state and federal law pertaining to visual representations of the sexual abuse of children.

The two footnotes, one proposed by Tyson Wright and the other by Johnston, had themselves been the source of a surprising amount of controversy when they were proposed.

Neither footnote had been included in the first reading of the policy. When they were introduced mid-debate, Tyson Wright and Johnston referred to them by their section numbers in the respective legal codes.

The library materials policy prohibits materials that include “visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts; explicit written depictions of sexual acts; or visual depictions of nudity — not including materials with diagrams about anatomy for science or content relating to classical works of art.”

Other supporters of the restrictive library policy seemed knowledgeable or at least supportive regarding the obscure references, opponents expressed concern at being asked to vote on something they had no previous knowledge of.

Then-board member Jennifer Davis said she supported the revised library policy but described the seemingly out-of-the-blue footnote additions as an “embarrassing” example of board behavior. Davis, whose frustration led her to announce her resignation from the board later that evening, even accused other members of meeting in private outside of the board’s formal meetings “You’re rattling numbers off that none of us even know what you’re talking about,” Davis said. “Are we all supposed to sit here and pretend that nobody’s noticing that you all kind of figured this out before you got here? You’re all doing the right thing, but you’re doing it the wrong way.”

One board member responds, another looks for updates

On Monday, Valesky disputed Brooks’ characterization of his email as suggesting that Valesky did not “care what the law says.”

“It’s one email that was pulled because it was under a Right-to-Know. It was completely out of context when you just pull it aside,” Valesky said. “Like, I wasn’t saying that I don’t care about the law. I don’t think I have to argue that, that’s pretty obvious.”

“I think you do have to,” Brooks retorted, pointing back to the email. “I’m just saying, maybe we could do better on the policy committee if we did care and didn’t say things like that.”

“Yeah, we care,” Valesky answered, “it’s pretty obvious.”

After Brooks disagreed, Superintendent Tim Glasspool jumped in and quickly moved the meeting forward.

Ultimately, however, little progress seemed evident regarding several issues pending before the board.

Regarding Brooks’ ongoing efforts to determine how members of the public can submit petitions to the board and have them officially acknowledged in some way, DeFrancesco said the best course would be for the policy committee to address the issue and establish criteria regarding who would be eligible to submit petitions. The first criteria, DeFranceso said, should be to allow only district to submit or sign petitions to the board.

Plans for a citizens advisory committee recommended last month by the consultant conducting a study of the district’s resources also seemed largely static. Board member Tim Brown said at the time that the committee would likely consist of three residents from each of the district’s three attendance zones — Cambridge Springs, Maplewood and Saegertown — as well as an employee representative from each of the district’s school buildings.

But when Brown asked on Monday where things stood, the responses he received suggested that things stood about where they were last month.

“We can put a citizens advisory committee together if you guys are interested, we can revise the policy or we can just get groups of individuals together for town hall meetings,” Glasspool said.

“Maybe we can stick together a meeting and talk about this,” Valesky said to Brown, “and we can throw cell phone (policy) or whatever in there as well and maybe talk about it.”

Glasspool said a meeting time would be announced at the board’s Thursday meeting, which takes place at 7 p.m. in the Maplewood Elementary auditorium, 32695 Route 408, Townville.

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune. com.

PENNCREST School Board member David Valesky (left) listens to remarks from an audience member during a board meeting Monday at Maplewood Elementary School along with fellow members Fred Bryant, Theresa Croll and Amber Tyson Wright.

MIKE CROWLEY/Meadville Tribune/

Bookmark and Share