Central York candidates forum largely silent on issues of censorship, book bans

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Several subjects were conspicuously absent from Monday night's Central York school board candidates forum.

The eight candidates — of the nine running — who attended the event hosted by the district's Parent Teacher Organization weren't asked about the district's book ban or the proposals that emerged following the removal of two books from the high school library.

But it wasn't from a lack of trying.

Marie Damiano, herself a former school board member, said she'd submitted several questions — including a discussion of censorship, diversity and the rights of LGBTQ students — that weren't addressed during the forum.

“I think [the issue is] critical,” Damiano said. “That has come up time and time again.”

Students wearing red as a way to raise awareness about book banning at Central York High School in Springettsbury on Friday, March 24, 2023.

The PTO asked for questions from the public in advance of the event, but it wasn't clear Wednesday how event moderators chose the questions asked. Representatives from the PTO did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Only one candidate, Douglas Bolinger, was absent from the forum. 

Five seats will be up for grabs in this board’s election. Four of the five incumbents did not file to run for another term: Kyle King, Jodie Grothe, Vickie Guth and Daniella Allison.

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The district has faced a number of recent challenges, including developing new curricula for various grade levels as well as grappling with the fallout from a 2021 book ban and a the subsequent ban of two other books.

Coming on the heels of the 2021 ban on various teacher resources that predominantly targeted works by creators of color, the removal of "Push" by Sapphire and "Court of Mist and Fury" by Sarah Maas from the high school library has drawn protest from students.

In recent weeks, five students who spoke out publicly against the ban said they faced intimidation from administrators. Last week, they were pulled from class into a meeting in which they said they were yelled at by school officials. Superintendent Peter Aiken told The York Dispatch that he spoke "sternly" to the five students but did not try to infringe on their right to protest.

School board President Kyle King, left, and Superintendent Peter Aiken confer during Central York School District’s regular board meeting at Central York School District Educational Service Center in Springettsbury Township, Monday, April 24, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

During Monday's hour-and-a-half-long forum, the candidates did not directly address any of the recent controversies. But several candidates — Amelia McMillan, Eric Oliver, Michael Stewart and Benjamin Walker — did make a point of voicing their opposition in the context of other questions related to diversity and curriculum. The other candidates did not mention the issues.

Other key topics: The candidates were asked about school safety and issues of student mental health.

Walker said the issue was top of mind because he has a first grader in the district. National news about school shootings terrify him, he said.

Central York High School students, from left, Favor Gabriel, 17, Naomi Smith, 14, Laura Littlejohn, 17, Zachary Smith, 18, and Tristan Doud, 17, speak about a recent meeting with school administrators during an interview in Springettsbury Township, Monday, April 24, 2023. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Another candidate, Clair Weigle, said he'd work with the district's buildings departments to try to budget building upgrades.

Yet another, Faith Casale, emphasized a need for what she described as more discipline within the schools. It was a point reiterated by Jennifer Hartman and incumbent Wendy Crane.

McMillan and Oliver, meanwhile, emphasized the need for additional mental health resources in the schools.

"Kids have problems, too," Oliver said.

Diversity addressed: A general question about diversity in the schools drew a range of responses from the candidates. Given the size of the field, each was limited to one minute per question, limiting the depth of their responses.

Casale emphasized a need for "respect in all things," but it wasn't clear what that meant in the context of diversity.

Crane suggested that the board needs to work closer with the community to determine what needs are.

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Oliver, who is Black, said he’s been in times where he’s the only one in the room that looks like him. 

“Representation matters,” he said. “And not just to people that look like me, but people who don’t look like me.”

Specifically, Oliver said the district needs to commit to hiring from a more diverse pool of potential coaches, teachers and support staff.

'Worrisome issues': While the event organizers didn't seem to prioritize the school's recent book ban, a number of audience members openly questioned the absence of such a discussion.

Peggy Baum, a retired teacher who worked for the district for 35 years, said that topic was one of the reasons she attended the forum.

“I came out tonight because I think we have some worrisome issues in our district and therefore we need a very strong board who are not afraid to take on some of the problems,” she said. 

Baum said the book bans have damaged the district's reputation.

“Our reputation took a hit, and we need to get it back,” Baum said. 

Panther Anti-Racist Student Union organizer Edha Gupta speaks at rally outside the Central York School District Administration offices before a school board meeting there Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. The rally was in opposition to a banned resource list instituted by the district, which demonstrators say targets minority authors. District officials added formal discussion of the ban to Monday's agenda. Gupta is a Central York High School senior. Bill Kalina photo

Stewart, a school board candidate, agreed with that assessment, noting that the book bans are at the top of the district's Google search results.

"Putting Central York back on the map for the right reasons" is important, he said, noting that his daughter was among the student activists who opposed the 2021 book ban.

Damiano said she's troubled by the partisanship she's seen on the school board in recent years, with several of the more conservative board members embracing the Republican Party label in campaign advertisements.

“This is a school board,” Damiano said. “It should not be about politics. It should be about our children, our teachers and our community.”

You can watch the forum in its entirety below:

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.