Fighting For Important Causes In State And Federal Courts
June 28, 2011 4:16 AM
by Adam Smeltz
Anti-bias policy proposals introduced Monday night by State College Superintendent Michael Hardy may fulfill some key equal-treatment demands in a recent federal complaint.
Hardy, the school district’s acting top administrator, said the district administration developed the proposals “in response to requests from students, faculty, staff and community members.”
The measures would ban discrimination on a wide variety of fronts — notably including sexual-orientation- and gender-identity-based discrimination in the schools’ employment and contract practices.
Asked if the proposals are a direct response to litigation initiated last month by district employee Kerry Wiessmann and her partner, Beth G. Resko, Hardy said they are not.
Rather, he said after a school-board meeting, they are more broadly an answer to calls from a number of local residents.
“The goal of these policies is to further protect students and employees in a safe, healthy and nurturing learning environment,” Hardy said earlier in a prepared statement.
Still, it appeared that the proposals could well satisfy the primary demands outlined in Wiessmann and Resko’s litigation. The women, supported by local attorney Andrew Shubin and the American Civil Liberties Union, have argued that the district’s current employee-benefits policy discriminates illegally.
Their federal case, filed in May, targets a specific rule that keeps school workers’ same-sex domestic partners from qualifying for the same benefits made available for opposite-sex domestic partners.
Wiessmann and Resko have sought a reversal of that rule.
Comment from Shubin was not immediately forthcoming late Monday night. Hardy limited his remarks largely to his prepared statement, read to the school board just before the nearly three-hour meeting adjourned.
“The proposed policies are consistent with federal law, state law and local ordinances, and are consistent with (Pennsylvania School Boards Association) policy,” Hardy said in the statement.
Specifically, he went on, the “new policies under consideration would expand the district’s current anti-discrimination practices to include race, color, age, creed, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, ancestry, national origin and handicap/disability.
“The policies will address conduct inside and outside the classroom, on district property, and encourage students and employees to report incidents of discrimination to the designated administrator,” Hardy said.
Hardy underscored that the policies — designated district Policies No. 103 and No. 104 — would be new. It was not immediately clear how much of their language may be carried over from existing district policies against discrimination.
Policy 103 would address establish nondiscrimination standards in school and classroom practices, according to district documents. Language in the proposal includes assurances that students will have equal access to course offerings, extracurricular activities and other services.
In addition, it encourages students to report discrimination. And it outlines procedures for how such reports should be handled.
The second new measure, Policy 104, would address nondiscrimination standards in employment and contract practices. Like the proposed Policy 103, it outlines procedures for how violations should be handled, as well.
Hardy said the proposed policies will be posted for public review on the district website.
Board members did not offer immediate comment on the proposals, but they’re expected to take up the issue for discussion at their next meeting, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. July 11.
At the last board meeting, on June 13, Harris Township residents Bonnie and Peter Marshall presented the board with a letter urging the district to incorporate “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” more fully and equitably into district policies. Bonnie Marshall said then that a growing number of residents believe the district isn’t doing enough to protect all its employees.
In other news at the Monday school-board meeting:
As expected, board members formally voted 6-3 to pass a $110.8 million budget for 2011-’12 school year. The spending plan includes a 2.65 percent tax increase, or an increase of $66 a year for the average homeowner.
Members who voted against the budget plan are Ann McGlaughlin, Richard Bartnik and Jim Pawelczyk. All have advocated for tighter cost controls as the district faces a rocky and uncertain financial outlook.
The budget includes a number of cost-control measures, including some job cuts, already approved by the board. (Earlier coverage is posted here.) Depending on how state-budget negotiations unfold in Harrisburg, the district may see an infusion of better-than-anticipated state support in the coming weeks. If that happens, administrators said, the board may reopen the budget to decide how to allocate those funds.
Curtis Johnson, a State High principal, provided an update on the Academic Support Center at the high school. Designed largely to help students reach their potential, the center has contributed to a decline in State High’s drop-out rate over the past several years, his report suggested. The rate fell from 1.1 percent in 2007-’08 to 0.95 percent in 2010-’11, according to the district. State High also has seen a decline in the number of students failing one or more major classes; that figure fell from 90 in 2007-’08 to 49 in 2010-’11.
Two other State High administrators, Craig Butler and Sharon Perry, reported on prospects for a ninth-grade academy within the high school. The concept, still in the works, could bring an academic-team-style approach to some elements of the freshman experience, making the high-school transition more effective, they said. Perry said school administrators would like to test some limited-scope academy ideas before attempting to deploy the concept on a wider-scale basis.