Kutztown School Board rescinds district equity policy

Dec. 21—Kutztown School District's educational equity policy is no more, following the school board's 5-2 vote to do away with Policy 809.

The final vote to rescind the equity policy was preceded by a debate that has recurred since December 2021, when the policy passed in a split decision.

Proponents claimed the policy extended a vital lifeline to students who need it most, offering the resources needed to succeed and helping create an environment where diversity is valued.

Those opposing the policy said it forced students and staff to accept politically charged ideals, and places undue emphasis on characteristics like race and gender.

Arguments over the policy were ignited again at a meeting Monday, when the school board voted 6-3 to approve a first reading of the rules with the policy rescinded.

The conclusion played out two days later at a special meeting to vote to solidify ending the policy.

Wednesday's roll call mirrored Monday's results, with board members Jason Koch, Erin Engel, Jeremiah Light, Dennis Udicious and Daniel Wismer again voting to rescind the policy.

Board members Michael Hess and Laurel Ziegler voted to keep the policy.

Board members Caecilia Holt and Reba Hoffman were absent.

The policy itself called for a continuous review of school operations and teaching practices, with an eye toward ensuring equitable access to resources and a bias-free environment.

It allowed the district to collect data on the educational outcomes of groups, including race, gender, ethnicity, disabilities, socio-economic status and English learner status.

To analyze that data and make recommendations to the board, the policy called for creating an equity committee made up of school officials, staff, students and community members.

In addition, the policy included commitments to workforce diversity, as well as pledges to promote fairness and respect, reflect the contributions of a diverse society, and promote cultural responsivity.

Debate continues

Those on opposing sides of the policy shared their thoughts before the vote.

Resident Tricia Leiby said the policy forced the district to adopt a victim and oppressor mentality, one that doesn't stop at tolerating others' beliefs.

"It forces everyone to not just tolerate, but value and affirm others' beliefs, particularly about their sexual or gender identity," Leiby said.

Ziegler said the policy's only impacts have been recommendations to the board that benefit students.

"(The equity committee) has identified...reasonable and appropriate actions," Ziegler said. "(Those include) providing pre-K services, recognizing students as gifted in ways beyond just academics, and communicating in languages other than English to our students."

The policy had nothing to do with critical race theory, white privilege, pronouns and similarly divisive concepts, according to Ziegler.

"None of these terms are found in Policy 809, nor in any other policy on the books," Ziegler said. "Unfortunately, we have yet to hear any specific negative outcomes that have been experienced by our students with this policy."

Leiby said school administrators had admitted in the past that the equity policy was also not a response to specific acts of bias in the community.

"There was no discrimination, no bias, no child being failed by the school that caused the creation of 809," Leiby said. "809 was a solution looking for a problem."

Dennis Ritter, a former school board member, said the policy was different from previous versions of the school's equity rules.

The old equity policy, he said, resulted in the raising of valid concerns that were addressed when Policy 809 was designed.

"Unfortunately there were those who chose from the very beginning to create lies about 809, and continue to do so now," Ritter said. "Like it or not, change is coming at an ever-increasing pace for the demographic makeup of our district. Policy 809 could have served to keep us on the cutting edge of that change."

Leiby also said there was no evidence the recommendations issued by the equity committee would not have come about without the policy.

She said supporters of Policy 809 are using fear to convince people that existing support systems aren't enough.

"It begs the question of how Kutztown achieved anything without 809, especially the blue-ribbon school designation," Leiby said. "Allowing the community to believe that without 809 their child's needs will no longer be met is a complete misrepresentation of what 809 really is...Policy 809 is a wolf in sheep's clothing."

Ziegler said the policy wasn't about creating a victim and oppressor mindset, but setting an example for children in the district.

"By rescinding this policy, we are sending a message," Ziegler said. "It is not just about rejecting a document, it's about rejecting a commitment to prepare our students for the world they live in, not the world we grew up in. To those who voted against this policy...you are sending a clear message that you are unwilling to welcome the changing demographics in this community."

Other board members offered no public comment on the vote Wednesday.

Superintendent Christian Temchatin said the administration is looking at options to preserve some of the data collection practices of the policy and plans to present a proposal to the board in January.