Board president to teachers: Charters still an option

John Joyce

York City School Board President Margie Orr told an audience composed mostly of York City teachers at Wednesday's three-hour school board meeting that it was still within the board's discretion to charter the whole district, meaning no more public schools, if it so desired.

York City School Board member Margie Orr. Bill Kalina photo

Orr's comments came in response to a protest of sorts — several teachers banded together to wear all black both to their respective schools during the workday and then to the board meeting Wednesday night — with other teachers and with the students in their schools who truly do want to learn.

Orr said the choice of color concerned her and said it was probably not the best decision for the teachers to show up dressed in all black to their classrooms filled with young children.

"I don't know what their intentions are," Orr said. "And it does not sit well with me."

Toward the end of 2014, a state recovery officer recommended making all the schools in the district charters, but that plan was dropped when Gov. Tom Wolf took office in January 2015.

Overflow: Only about two-thirds of those who showed up to the York City School District Administration building, 31 N. Pershing Ave., were allowed into the  6:30 p.m. meeting. More than 30 people, some of whom said they were teachers while others identified themselves as city residents, were prevented from entering the building by York City School police officers, who told them the meeting room had reached capacity.

"When one person comes out, one of you can go in," an officer told the crowd.

Back inside, the teachers, represented by York City Education Association president Ira Schneider, waited until the public comments section of the meeting to voiced their concerns to about 75 people in the room, including the board members. The concern centered mostly around safety and the inability to sufficiently deal with disruptive and disorderly students.

Schneider downplayed the significance of the teachers wearing all black, calling it a "sign of solidarity" rather than a protest or demonstration.

"It's a simple gesture of support," he said after the meeting.

Schneider went well over the two minutes allotted per speaker and at one point suggested the board meet with him individually to address some of the concerns he and the teachers were seeking to have addressed. Orr, who seemed content to let Schneider speak at length, instructed him that Sunshine laws prevented such a meeting, to which Schneider conceded.

The conversation volleyed between a contentious back-and-forth and a civilized dialogue. None of the board members denied that teacher safety is an issue, but some suggested it was up to the teachers to take back control in their classrooms.

Trauma: Board member Michael Breeland, a retired teacher who works as an intensive therapy counselor, said he sees firsthand some of the environments York City students return to once they leave school. He said for some students, being at school is the safest part of their day, and later said that the behavior of those students when they are disruptive is a "symptom of a larger system."

"Hurt people hurt people," he said.

Schneider said he agreed, and both sides said they understood the sociological issues that surround the schools — high rates of poverty and crime are abundant in the district — are to blame for much of what intrudes on the classrooms and curriculum of York City schools.

A handful of other teachers took turns addressing the school board, reiterating their struggles in the classroom with disruptive students, against whom threats of being sent to the principal's office or suspended fail to hit home.

Teachers dressed in all black attended Wednesday's York City School Board meeting to address concerns of safety and discipline in schools

Solutions: Some suggested implementing an in-school suspension (ISS) room in each school and to staff each ISS room or school with at least one professional whose job it would be to work with repeat offenders on corrective behavior practices.

The board repeatedly cited a lack of funds for such measures.

Superintendent Eric Holmes said the district's disciplinary model is outdated — it's 25 years old — and needs to be updated, but again cited a lack of funds.

"It doesn't work. It needs to go, and it will," Holmes said. But what will replace the old guidelines has yet to be determined, he added.

But no resolution can be reached without working together, Orr stressed, which led to her comments on chartering the district.

Ultimatum: "It's not completely off the table. My reason for doing that was because we were out there fighting with the teachers," she said, referring to the charter proposal at the end of 2014 and the resulting turmoil among the staff in the district.

"The board can do it. We have the authority to charter the entire district," Orr said. "We're either going to try to work this out together or, I mean, for anybody who feels that they can't, well, there is another option for them also."

— Reach John Joyce atjjoyce2@yorkdispatch.comor on Twitter at @JohnJoyceYD.