Bermudian Springs school board talks resource policy, PSERS resolution

The Bermudian Springs school board spent a large portion of its meeting time this week addressing concerns about its proposed resource material policy changes as well as a draft resolution that generated “panic” in the district.

The board held a nearly four-hour long caucus meeting on Monday to discuss its upcoming budget, curriculum committee and other topics ahead of its regular voting meeting on Tuesday.

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Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss asked the board to consider options related to Policy 109 for Resource Materials. The board had asked specifically to review the policy, with some members interested in adding specific guidelines for resource materials.

Hotchkiss said he felt there was a significant disconnect between what the changes were meant to reflect and what they actually conveyed. As the changes were written, it could be interpreted to mean that all resource materials in the district had to be approved by a committee, and could take months for approval, stalling classes.

Hotchkiss used the example of a health teacher focused on diabetes interested in using a particular resource such as a segment from The Today Show. That teacher would be unable to use it without gaining approval.

Board secretary Jennifer Goldhahn acknowledged the mistake in the policy’s wording, but doubled down on the need to add content guidelines.

“With some of the revisions that were put in here, I realized, was pointed out, that it could affect how school runs. How you all run your classrooms,” Goldhahn said.

The policy is intended to apply only to “questionable or borderline” material, but does not specify that in the beginning of the policy, Goldhahn acknowledged. “Borderline” refers to material that is in a “gray area” of the policy’s guidelines for “sexually explicit” material, according to Goldhahn.

Goldhahn said the updates are meant to allow teachers and librarians to use their judgment to use materials in most cases, seeking approval for materials that fall in the “gray area.” The guidelines are intended to establish age-appropriate boundaries for sexually explicit materials.

“But there are some guidelines with some of the materials that are out there that need to be set up, and this is literally just nothing more than guidelines,” Goldhahn said. “And if there is something that falls outside of those guidelines, then it is left to the discretion of the administrator, the building administrator, or whoever Dr. Hotchkiss designates the person to make that decision. If that person is not clear, then it comes to the committee. That’s how that works.”

When asked by Hotchkiss whether Goldhahn intended for the materials to apply to all materials currently within the district or only newly-introduced materials, Goldhahn said the policy would apply only to new materials.

“If it’s going before a student, those guidelines should be applied,” Goldhahn said. “But that falls to the teacher and the building administrator to stay within those guidelines. If anything’s outside those guidelines, then it goes for review.”

Board member Matthew Nelson questioned why guidelines pertaining to explicit or implied sex acts needed to be added, asking whether Goldhahn believed students are currently receiving materials that are not age-appropriate.

“Let’s say a teacher may say, ‘I want to use this library book as a resource,’ because the library books are a teaching resource,” Goldhahn said. “Some of the library books have very sexually explicit content in them. That is what this policy is designed to – we don’t want to expose our children to these sexually explicit materials.”

Nelson said the district already has procedures in place for parents to preview and opt out of materials, but Goldhahn said that parents may not always be aware of the content in the materials their children are given.

Nelson pushed back against the idea of a committee approving materials.

“I just meant that at some point someone has to make that decision, so why is a committee more trustworthy to make the decision than the teachers and the educated professionals that we hired to make those decisions?” Nelson asked.

Goldhahn said adding guidelines does not detract from teachers’ ability to choose material but provides a “concrete, objective measure” for them to use when selecting material.

Nelson noted that some important works such as those by Shakespeare have content that could be considered to contain implied sex acts. Goldhahn said she plans for the policy to include elementary, middle and high school guidelines to differentiate age-appropriate content.

When Hotchkiss asked for direction from the board, he was told to continue with revising the policy as it hasn’t been updated since 2006. Hotchkiss said he could look at a pared-down policy from another district that may be easier to revise than redoing changes to the current one.

The board will continue to review and revise the policy, including potentially adding guidelines for age-appropriate material, over the upcoming meetings.

Hotchkiss also reviewed changes to policies for home education due to updated legal changes. He also highlighted changes to the district’s records management and bullying/cyberbullying policies. The board previewed the changes during the meeting but will not approve it for a first reading until March.

Proposed PSERS resolution

The board also addressed a proposed resolution that caused a widespread “panic” early this week and led to some staff indicating they would leave the district, according to Hotchkiss.

The draft resolution opens with: “The Bermudian Springs school board of directors agrees that the burden of contributing to PSERS should no longer be required by our LEA, and the obligation should be returned to the state.”

The resolution further states that the “hardship of paying retirement expenses… directly conflicts with the main focus of public school districts, which is to provide a high-quality education for all students.”

It goes on to say that about 13% of the district’s budget is used to fund retirement, “which does not benefit our students and their education.”

It calls for the state to take back the responsibility from the local districts, noting that the state has an $11 billion “rainy day fund” that could be used.

“Today this caused a lot of consternation across the district…What I was hearing – I got text messages, I got emails – people saw this and thought you were not going to pay for PSERS,” Hotchkiss said. “And that if we didn’t do it, they would be responsible. This is how quickly it escalated, to the point that people were going to ask for letters of recommendation because they were leaving.”

Goldhahn said the resolution was meant to indicate that the district feels the state government should be responsible for PSERS, not to reduce the amount teachers receive.

“By kicking this back up to the state, it saves this district money and allows us to have more financial resources to better serve you, the students, the families and the community as a whole,” Goldhahn said. “Now, I’m sorry if it didn’t come through as though it was well-written for everyone to read the same way. I’m sorry if it upset people.”

Goldhahn seemed to indicate that those who worried the most could have also responded better.

“Quite frankly, if there was a question, it could have just been a simple email: ‘Is this what you’re doing?,’” Goldhahn said. “But it seemed like it kind of spread like wildfire through a rumor mill where, ‘Oh, that they’re going to take our money.’ Never in a million years would anybody ever want to take any kind of money from anybody who works here.”

During the time for public comment, some individuals voiced disapproval with the idea of having a committee approve materials in the resource material policy’s “gray area.” One questioned how it would affect texts used in College in the High School programs and how the committee members would be trained on selecting materials.

Another wondered how it would affect instruction in biology classes and speculated that teachers with shelves of books might remove their own materials for fear it would not be allowed under the policy. They also criticized the wording of the PSERS resolution, which uses the words “burden,” “hardship,” and “strain” referring to the expense of funding retirement accounts.

One individual said they understood the intent of the draft resource policy updates and supported shielding children from sexual material. Another person voiced concerns about the district’s tablets, citing mental health and safety concerns.

Goldhahn responded to some of the criticism. She said “biology is biology” and would not fall under the “gray area.”

Goldhahn reiterated that the a committee will not go through district materials to retroactively apply the policy changes, but then said classroom teachers could go through their personal libraries to see if they meet the guidelines.

“As far as existing resources: we are not going to get, as stated before, we are not going to go through every single resource in this district. That’s already been addressed,” Goldhahn said. “Classroom libraries – when teachers bring in their classroom libraries, books into their libraries, do you have books that meet these guidelines? If you’re not sure about a book you have in your personal classroom library, then go through it and see if it meets the criteria. If you’re not sure, then take it to the building administrator or the superintendent or designee.”

2024-25 budget

Business manager Justin Peart provided a budget update to the board, and will do so each month until the final budget is approved in June.

Peart said that Gov. Josh Shapiro’s recently published proposed budget is attractive for Bermudian Springs and other local school districts, but he voiced doubt that it would come to fruition due to political strife.

He also reminded the board that the adjusted Act One Index for this year is 7.2%. It is the maximum percentage the board can raise taxes.

Peart showed the board five scenarios, ranging from a 0% increase to the 7.2% Act One Index, to give the members an idea of the revenue they could generate.

Peart also provided an overall budget including local, state, and federal revenues, but warned that the numbers could change. The local revenues, for instance, were calculated using the 7.2% increase, and a vote for a smaller – or no – increase would mean less revenue.

The state revenues are also difficult to predict as the state budget likely will not be finalized until after the district budget is due in June. The anticipated state funding was calculated using the 2023-24 numbers.

That said, Peart pointed to several positive notes within his budget, including a 5.03% increase in earned income tax (EIT.)

“The thing that I will continually stress: We had all expectations from Covid was that the EIT would plummet, we would see a significant decrease,” Peart said. “EIT, again, is measuring the earned income for our community. So for all six municipalities, that is one of the main factors that we look at to see what effect the economy and things of that nature are having. We have seen continual growth from before Covid, through Covid, and outside of Covid.”

Currently, Peart projects a 2.24% increase in the 2024-25 expenses over the current year’s expenses due to a rise in medical insurance costs and a higher need for contracted services, including special education services. The cost of hiring a school security officer as well as higher legal fees due to the district’s policy review project are also contributing factors. Students, teachers and staff are also taking more trips for field trips and professional development than they did during the height of Covid.

The increase could have been much higher.

“That’s great news because of the inflation that is existing in everyone’s life that’s dealing with every other expense – school districts are not immune to that,” Peart said. “We feel the exact same inflationary pressure as residents do, as you guys do, as I do, so, that’s the one thing. We are not immune from that.”

While a budget shortfall of $886,625 is predicted even if the district raises taxes to the Act One Index, the shortfall is far less than has been predicted in recent years, Peart said. He also hopes to see additional funding from the governor’s budget, but couldn’t factor in figures that are far from finalized.

Peart said projections still show budget shortfalls continuing through 2027-28, but at a much gentler rate than in previous years.

If the district receives the amount listed in the governor’s proposed budget, it would see $933,000 from the basic education subsidy and $35,000 from a special education subsidy.

“Obviously, he was very friendly, if you will, to public education again, which is great for us, but as you know, we have a Democratic governor, a Democratic-controlled House, a Republican-controlled Senate, so there’s a lot of things that don’t happen because they don’t play nice,” Peart said to temper expectations.

The $8,000/student statewide cyber/charter tuition rate would also realize “significant savings” if passed.

Altogether, should the governor’s proposed budget be approved, the district would realize a positive budget of $1,463,675.

Peart showed a slide with quotes from Republican leaders reacting unfavorably to the Shapiro’s proposed budget.

“The numbers that are proposed – I’m not saying they’re not going to increase funding at some degree, but the numbers he put out, they are very aggressive and it’s almost, it’s over $1.5 billion additional to public education,” Peart said. “So again, what is proposed and what actually becomes real are two totally different numbers. We will continue to monitor it.”

Girls’ wrestling

Athletic director Jon DeFoe provided an update on the possibility of adding girls’ wrestling to the district.

DeFoe initially presented the idea to the board last fall, before the newest board members had joined, and provided them with background information on the conversation.

DeFoe said that girls’ wrestling is a rapidly growing sport and he had received permission to learn whether there was much interest for it in Bermudian Springs. He has since met with individual classes to discuss the possibility with students.

Officially, Pennsylvania does not recognize a school sport until 100 schools sanction it, according to DeFoe. Due to the rising popularity of the sport, that threshold was soon reached and about half a dozen schools in the York-Adams League have approved it.

While no seventh-grade Bermudian Springs students expressed interest to DeFoe, 14 sixth-grade students did.

“I feel really certain at the secondary level there’ll definitely be some kids in the program,” DeFoe said. “At junior high, with zero 7th-graders and all the 6th-graders and all of the questions I got there, and the fact that none of them have wrestled before, I wasn’t so sure.”

If the board approves it, DeFoe said he would likely begin by adding a varsity team. DeFoe estimated it would cost about $2,000 for the district to start, not including the expenses of coaches and tournament fees.

DeFoe requested that the board vote on the issue in about a month to allow time for him to begin hiring a coach.

College in high school provider

Mike Brooks, principal of Bermudian Springs High School, presented the proposed 2024-25 course selection guide to the board.

Brooks said the biggest change was switching College in the High School program providers from Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) to Seton Hill University. As a newer principal to the area, Brooks said he intentionally avoided making multiple large changes.

Among other benefits, changing to Seton Hill would allow the district to have an easier time finding staff certified to teach the courses and would save students money, according to Brooks. While HACC charges $83.50 per credit, totaling $250.50 for a three-credit course or $334 for a four-credit course, Seton Hill charges $230 for both three- and four-credit courses.

Advisors for the senior class gave a presentation on the desired senior class trip to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens in May.

Due to the presentation being given less than 24 hours in advance of the regular board meeting, Hotchkiss was unable to put it on Tuesday’s agenda for a vote. The advisors were given verbal, informal permission to begin paying deposits and booking the trip. It will appear on the March agenda for formal approval.

Regular meeting

During the board’s regular meeting on Tuesday evening, Daniel Chubb, president of the school board, appointed board member Chad Mowery as the third board member on the newly-created curriculum committee.

Goldhahn and treasurer Ruth Griffie were already on the committee.

Chubb said multiple board members had asked to be considered for the committee position, but with Mowery’s 19 years of teaching experience and experience in curriculum writing, he seemed like the appropriate choice.

As some have questioned the reason for the new committee, Chubb took the opportunity to clarify.

“I’d like to state again for everyone: the purpose of the curriculum committee is to provide oversight and guidance in the development, implementation and evaluation of the curriculum within the school district,” Chubb said. “The committee shall work collaboratively with the administrators, the teachers, the parents and the community members to ensure the curriculum meets the needs of all students and aligns with state standards and district’s (standards).”

The board approved a handful of resignations, including that of Ethan Sentz, the elementary school assistant/acting principal, effective Friday.

Among those hired was Brooke Shaffer, who will serve as the director of special education. The role was previously filled by Brian Booher, who resigned.

Travis Mathna and Matthew Nelson were approved as the representative and alternate, respectively, for the Adams County Technical Institute board.

The 2024-25 academic calendar, 2024-25 high school course guide, and 2024-27 comprehensive plan were all among items approved on the consent agenda.

The dual credit agreement with Seton Hill University discussed the previous night during the caucus meeting was also given the green light.

Eight extracurricular contracts for 2023-24 sports were approved, as well as a contract for the spring game manager. Several volunteer coaches for varsity baseball, junior high volleyball, junior high girls’ soccer, varsity softball, and junior high track were also approved.

Three director positions for the upcoming 2024 kindergarten, literacy and STEAM summer camps, were filled.

During the time for public comment, one individual, who had spoken the previous night on the same topic, related concerns about the district’s tablets, citing safety concerns, worries about them affecting students’ attention span, and more.

Another person told the board they felt its sentiments about supporting teachers are outweighed by its actions indicating otherwise, saying teachers have spoken up about supporting LGBTQ+ students and feeling devalued the previous evening. The individual also voiced concerns about the plan to create additional committees and the time they would require from administrators.

Before concluding for the evening, the board went into executive session to discuss personnel and contract matters.

The board will hold its next caucus meeting on Monday, March 11 and its next regular meeting on Tuesday, March 12. Both meetings will begin at 7 p.m. in the administration office board room and are open to the public. Meetings are also livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel.

Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist.

Website | + posts

Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.

You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.

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