I know a lot of independent voters. People in the community who vote based on issues and candidates rather than political party, and who-- as a result-- are uncomfortable registering officially as a Democrat or Republican. In fact, I was one of those people until just a couple of years ago.
But then I learned how the Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania have conspired to keep independent voices out of our local school board elections. This changed my mind. And if you are an independent voter, I want to take at least one stab at changing your mind too.
Here I go...
Pennsylvania law requires that school board elections be “non-partisan.” This means that being a Republican or a Democrat or anything else isn’t supposed to matter in school board races. The problem is that this isn’t how school board elections are actually run. In practice, Pennsylvania interprets “non-partisan” to allow only that school board candidates can run as both a Republican and a Democrat at the same time in primary elections-- what is known as cross-filing. Because Pennsylvania also has closed primaries, this means that anyone who isn’t a registered Democrat or Republican is EXCLUDED from voting in these critical school board races.
I say critical because local elections are where your voice makes the most difference as a voter. Critical too because in the East Penn School District, who wins and who loses school board races is almost ALWAYS decided in the primary election.
Do you see what the major political parties have done there? By limiting voting in school board primary races to only registered Democrats and Republicans, they cut out the voice of independent voters completely. And given that primary voters of both major parties tend to be more ideological and more extreme than the general population, this means we get more ideological and more extreme school board members as a result.
Independents, we need your voice back in the process! This is why I urge you to officially register with the state as a Democrat or a Republican. This is the only way to make your vote count. Doing so doesn’t define your identity or how you vote. But under current election rules, it DOES define whether you can vote at all in the upcoming school board primaries on May 16th. This is something I’m passionate about, because I believe we need independent voices on our school board that will make careful decisions based on the facts, rather than simply repeating partisan talking points at local school board meetings.
The deadline for registering-- including officially changing your party status- is April 17th. You can do it easily online right now at: https://www.pavoterservices.pa.gov/Pages/VoterRegistrationApplication.aspx
So, did I convince you? Don’t let the major political parties use your independence to keep your voice out of our school district. Register as a Democrat or Republican today!
I am running again for school board because of my commitment to public education. Over 90% of all American children attend public schools, without which they would not have the knowledge and skills necessary to support and participate in the democratic process. Our public schools are also the foundation of the middle class, giving students the opportunities they need to be independent and contributing members of society. Public schools thus don’t just benefit those with children; they benefit everyone.
These are the principles I think are most important for supporting public education in our community right now:
Our children will live and work in a world transformed by the information revolution. Schools must adapt to the realities of this new world. They need to prepare our children for creative thinking, for work in flexible teams, for adaptation to changing technology, and for interaction with citizens around the world. This preparation must go beyond what standardized tests currently measure, particularly in science and the arts. And it requires difficult, but exciting, changes to how we approach traditional subjects such as reading and math.
I take the responsibility of school board members to be stewards of public resources very seriously. We need to cut waste in our district, reform the education bureaucracy, and get the best overall value for our tax dollars over the long term. Fiscal responsibility means getting taxpayers the best deal possible for excellent, innovative schools. It sometimes means making painful cuts in order to minimize taxes or make resources available for more pressing needs. But it also means avoiding being penny wise and pound foolish - that is, making regular investments and maintenance now to avoid much larger costs in the future. More than anything, fiscal responsibility means finding the right balance between the needs of all stakeholders in our community, including taxpayers, students, and everyone else.
Both our students and our taxpayers deserve policies and choices in our schools that are supported by facts and evidence. Quite honestly, I’ve been surprised how often important decisions are made with little research and even less data to show such decisions will be beneficial to our students or our community. Too often people want to base decisions on either empty political rhetoric or ‘how we’ve always done it.’ I think both are irresponsible ways to decide how to educate kids in a complex world, or how to spend more than $140 million of taxpayer money annually. We need school board members to be pragmatic, creative, and open to new ideas, not using ideological talking points to make decisions. We deserve members with the skills and experience to demand and understand the best research and data before making decisions.
The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing and how they are making decisions. But just as importantly, I believe elected officials can make BETTER decisions when community members are knowledgeable about the issues and their voices are heard in the decision-making process. This is one reason I support making school board meetings available via television or online video. It is also why I continue to write about the concerns facing our district online as well as regularly meet personally with community members to discuss our schools. Over the course of the last four years, I have written dozens of articles, and posted material online hundreds of times, to help keep East Penn citizens informed about the schools, ask for their ideas and advice, and state my own point of view clearly and honestly.
I am asking for your support. I can’t promise you will agree with every vote or decision I make -- nobody can. But I can commit to you that everything I do on the board will be guided by these principles.
I don’t want to ask for money. It is, in fact, the part of running for school board that I most dislike. But I need to do it. Would you please make a donation to help my campaign? I will use it to pay for yard signs, print small cards to give to people as I go door to door in the coming weeks, and help defray the cost of my website. No donation is too small to help with these costs, whether it is $5, $20 or $50-- every little bit helps.
I do have the following requirements for all contributions, in keeping with the principles of my campaign:
I will only accept donations from individuals living within the East Penn School District. No outside money. Our community should decide the future of our schools, not outside interests.
I will only accept donations of $50 or less. This is a community campaign for all of us, not just a few big donors.
Will you do your part? You can contribute right now with a major credit card by clicking the “Donate” button below. Or, if you prefer, you can mail a check to Citizens to Elect Munson, 305 N. 2nd St., Emmaus PA 18049. If you can’t make a financial donation at this time, I need a lot of help in other ways too!
I am running for a second term on the East Penn School Board. Over the course of the last three years, I have heard from or sat down with hundreds of you to share hopes and concerns about our school district and our community. These conversations have taught me valuable lessons about how much we all share in common. Like so many of you, I understand the value of public education, the importance of both innovation and fiscal responsibility in our schools, the need for transparency and honesty, and the desire for district decisions based on facts and evidence rather than the talking points of our dysfunctional political parties.
School board members are unpaid volunteers. I am volunteering to serve a second term because these shared community principles are important to me. I find it rewarding to not simply complain about our schools, but roll up my sleeves and help find practical solutions to the challenges we face.
In my first three years, I have been involved in board decisions on debt restructuring that have saved taxpayers millions of dollars, on modifying school schedules that added more than thirty hours of instructional time to our elementary classrooms without raising costs, and on modernizing district policies that in some cases haven’t been changed in decades. As those who regularly attend school board meetings can tell you, I have been a consistent, vocal advocate for our entire community, including children, taxpayers, parents, teachers, residents, and others on a wide variety of issues.
I hope you will give me the opportunity to continue this work by voting for me in the upcoming primary election on May 16th. Please explore this website to learn more about me and the issues in our school district. You'll also find links at the bottom of each page to get more information via my blog, email, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
A group of 5th grade students from Lincoln Elementary spoke at the school board meeting this past Monday. They had worked with their teacher Mrs. Blose to write essays urging the superintendent and the board to allow for early dismissal for elementary students taking the PSSAs, just like the current practice for high school students taking midterms and finals.
It was great to read their well crafted letters, as well as see their poise as they presented the board with their key arguments. They set a great example to everyone for how to get involved in shaping district policies. I hope you'll take a moment to read their letters below (you can click on each for a closer view).
I learned this morning that someone drew two swastikas and the n-word on an East Penn school bus yesterday. A passing motorist took a photograph and alerted authorities. The school district issued a press release this afternoon, saying it "denounces and prohibits this type of racial harassment and is in the process of conducting a full investigation." Our district thus joins others in the area confronting such displays in recent weeks. Southern Lehigh High School has been host to a number of openly racist and homophobic slurs this school year, including students using the Hitler salute. At Saucon Valley, a white student posted a video of a black classmate eating chicken which he narrates using the n-word and series of racist stereotypes. These are a part of a much longer list of incidents that have been reported throughout the Lehigh Valley, both in and outside of schools.
Racism and anti-Semitism, of course, are nothing new. Nor is graffiti such as that witnessed on the East Penn bus. But over the last year these kinds of public expressions have become more common. The FBI reports that hate crimes were up 6% last year, with African-Americans and Jews being the most frequent targets. Anti-Muslim hate crimes were up 67%, the greatest increase in fifteen years.
Regardless of who drew the graffiti on the school bus window or what their motivations were, incidents like this represent a real danger to our community. Words matter. And these kinds of incidents should not be accepted as normal. The swastika and n-word represent-- very directly-- the anti-Semitism and racism that have characterized some of the darkest moments in our history. I have heard some say that we should ignore these kinds of incidents, either because they are petty, or to avoid giving the perpetrators the attention they seek. I agree with this approach in many cases, but not in this one. Sometimes silence is dangerous. The rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s was characterized by the appearance of similar (and also seemingly petty) graffiti. The n-word continues to be used today to incite violence against African-Americans, just as it was closely associated with lynching in the past. The need to confront, rather than ignore, this type of incident is particularly important in our district, where minority students represent only a small fraction of the population (4.2% are African-American) and are thus particularly vulnerable to racial and religious intimidation.
So how can we use this incident to help our kids and our community do better? I'm no expert here, but I'll tell you what I'm going to do with my own kids:
#1 Give them information:
We might all be forgiven for wanting to shield our kids from the harsh and brutal truths behind these symbols. But I think kids need more information, not less. Kids lack much of the background and context needed to understand why such symbols are provocative or shocking or dangerous or scary. Simply telling them they are taboo is not enough; giving them knowledge helps both strip the symbols of their power and make sense of a complicated world. I'm going to explain to my kids the historical significance of these symbols, and what kinds of groups use them today.
#2 Give them tools:
I am going remind my kids that if you see something, say something. This is the phrase used by the Department of Homeland Security to encourage reporting evidence of terrorism. But the same idea applies in the far more common circumstance of witnessing acts of racism, anti-Semitism, or other forms of hate. I will remind my kids that saying something can be hard, because calling out such ugliness can be socially awkward and invite retaliation. But it is precisely the silence that allows a wrong to continue and grow. I’ll highlight for my kids the good example set by Sonia Tapiarz, the woman who reported the East Penn bus incident to authorities. She could have easily just shook her head in disgust and went about her day. But instead she took the time and effort to document what she saw and alert us. As a result of her saying something, positive change can perhaps now come out of the incident.
#3 Give them empowerment:
I am going to ask my kids about their opinion of the graffiti incident. I'm going to encourage them to ask lots of questions, and help them them find answers on their own. I want them to know that they should not stand by passively as events in their community unfold. I want them to a part of those events, bringing their own values, perspectives, knowledge and skills to the table.
#4 Give them examples:
I am going to tell them about the steps I am taking in response to this issue. Step one is sharing this post with the larger community. Step two is writing the East Penn Superintendent, Dr. Mike Schilder, directly. I am going to share with him my belief that students in our district will learn important lessons from how he leads the district in its response to this incident. I am going to remind him of his responsibility as the most visible educational leader in our community. And I'm going to ask him to use his expertise as both an educator and leader to teach our students about what swastikas and the n-word represent, how they can be dangerous, why incidents like this are happening now, and what concrete steps the district is taking to confront them.
#5 Give them resources:
I am going to ask my kids to find a community organization devoted to addressing the issues of racism and anti-Semitism to which we can make a donation of our time or money. They will see how our family can work with others to make such incidents less likely in the future. I want my kids to gain experience advocating for some of the core values that serve as the bedrock of our community-- chief among them the fundamental humanity and dignity of us all.
We should not put our heads in the sand when it comes to issues like this, or dismiss the significant concerns they raise as just “political correctness.” As the conservative philosopher Edmund Burke famously said, "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." I would add that evil doesn’t come all at once; it sneaks up on us, little by little, with many of those involved not even aware they are caught up in it.
The most frequent target of censorship attempts in 2015 was John Green’s Looking for Alaska. The year before it was another young adult novel, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Censoring books, whether in the form of keeping them off library shelves, off reading lists, or outright bans, does not help us maintain our values or protect our children. Quite the opposite.
Freedom of expression-- and the free exchange of ideas-- are at the foundation of our community’s strength. Young adult author Laurie Halse Anderson puts it this way: “Censorship is the child of fear and the father of ignorance.”
Like most people, there are many books whose content I find appalling; books I hope my children never read. But those books should be protected too. That is the very meaning of free speech. As the prolific Neil Gaimon has said, “The same laws cover the stuff you like and the stuff you find icky, wherever your icky line happens to be: the law is a big blunt instrument that makes no fine distinctions...you only realise how wonderful absolute freedom of speech is the day you lose it.”
“It’s not just the books under fire now that worry me,” says Judy Blume (you know, of Super Fudge fame), “it is the books that will never be written, the books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.”
I’ve written about the censorship issue in our own community before. I’m sharing these thoughts and quotes from famous children’s book authors today in support of the American Library Association’s “Banned Books Week,” which raises awareness of the continued problem of censorship in our bookstores, libraries and schools. You can find the top 10 list of most frequently challenged books in 2015, as well as lots of other information, at their website.
So please, the next time you discover a book that is offensive, overly sexual, sacrilegious, racist, or otherwise objectionable-- don’t call for banning it. Trying to hide such ideas never works. Instead, just return it to the shelf and help your kid-- or yourself-- find something better.
Here is John Green’s response to having written the most challenged book of last year. He is far more articulate than I in making the case that banning books just doesn't make sense-- a great 3 minutes:
Previous posts on the issue of book censorship:
Please consider applying for the open position on the East Penn School Board. Longtime board member Francee Fuller resigned at the last meeting, leaving an open seat on the board. A (short) application is due by October 3, and board members will appoint someone after public interviews on October 10.
My chief focus in the selection process will be finding a volunteer who understands the critical role public schools play in our democracy. I hope we have applicants who can be both a strong advocate for our schools and a frank critic of policies and procedures that can be improved; someone who can make decisions transparently, based on facts and evidence rather than reactionary emotion or political ideology. It can be a tough gig, but also very rewarding! You can get more details by clicking here.
My post on the trumped up transgender bathroom controversy at Emmaus High School got a bigger response than anything I’ve ever put on this blog. If you're like me, you probably didn’t grow up around many people who were openly transgender and very well might not have friends or family who publicly identify as trans. One of the chief sources of uncertainty, fear, and controversy around transgender students in our school district stems from this lack of knowledge and familiarity. Here are the most helpful things others have sent me to help overcome such uncertainty and fear...
A short but moving description from a mother of a trans girl who makes clear that the issue is about the dignity and worth of our children, not political correctness:
A father-- Republican, National Rifle Association member, and military veteran-- discussing the difference between his twins, one of whom is trans:
An explanation by a trans girl helped me walk a few minutes in her shoes:
A more local perspective is provided by a recent feature story by the Morning Call, which profiles the journey of two Lehigh Valley trans students and offers some helpful definitions of different terms used in discussion of sexual identity.
One doesn’t have to agree with everything the speakers in these videos and article say to agree with the hope that all our children have the right to claim their own authentic identity and not have one forced on them by outside social norms or peer pressure.
Okay, I’ll fess up and say that I don’t know if there are seven things to be learned here, or twenty things, or three. But if you’re like me, you certainly learned something.
The bathroom wars have sadly come to our schools here in the East Penn School District. A fight has been raging nationally for over a year now, as opponents of extending civil rights protections to transgender men and women have focused public attention on public bathroom use in places like Texas and North Carolina. An East Penn family has now made our schools a part of this national political debate by insisting that transgender students be excluded from the locker room their daughter uses at Emmaus High School.
Regardless of your knowledge of our district’s transgender population or your views toward transgender civil rights, let me suggest that this is a manufactured controversy, for three reasons.
Reason #1: Current district practice is the result of our own policy, not that of the Obama administration.
The U.S Justice Department, under the Obama administration, issued a letter this past spring indicating that districts must not discriminate against transgender students in any school facilities, including bathrooms and locker rooms. The letter set off a firestorm of controversy nationally, with opponents of President Obama citing it as an example of legal misinterpretation and federal meddling in state and local affairs. The family here in East Penn have cited the letter as a chief motivating factor in bringing the controversy to our district.
But here’s the thing: The practices of our district toward sexual minorities such as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students were in place long before the letter from the U.S. Justice Department. The district’s Nondiscrimination in School and Classroom Practices Policy (#103) was passed on February 23, 2015-- more than a year and a half ago. Moreover, the policy was developed after collecting input from local school administrators, local teachers, our own local school board, and local student groups. It was presented multiple times at local school board meetings, where it was available for public review and comment by the local community.
This is not an Obama issue, a Republican vs. Democrat issue, a liberal vs. conservative issue, or a federal vs. local issue, and nobody in our community benefits from attempts to make it part of such battles.
Reason #2: Our children should not be used as pawns in political battles.
This leads to the second important reason. We should, of course, have vigorous debate over President Obama’s policy initiatives and legal interpretations. But we should not use the children in our schools as pawns in this debate.
Through my own conversations with students, teachers, and administrators, I understand that students are almost always able to easily and amicably come to terms with transgender students and their full participation in school life, just as students have come to terms with women in schools, with racial minorities in schools, and with gay, lesbian, and bisexual students in schools. This does not mean that students don’t have questions and concerns, nor does it mean that they all agree with one another. But they are ready to respect one another and respect that we live in a diverse community that values equality between different people.
The trouble arises when our kids return home and discuss these issues with the adults in their lives. Some adults too quickly hitch the many different student identities to larger political debates and battles. This is wrong, no matter what side of the debate you happen to be on. Don’t make children in our local community the foot soldiers in national partisan fights.
Reason #3: ALL children at East Penn have access to accommodations
And this brings me to the third and most important point. All our students-- including the student of the family who has ignited the controversy-- deserve to feel respected and feel safe in school. Nobody is forced to undress or shower under conditions that make them feel uncomfortable. Students routinely use bathroom stalls and other private areas. Students who are uncomfortable changing in the locker room or using restrooms are offered further options, from changing in a nurse’s bathroom to taking summer gym.
So this is ultimately a manufactured controversy, fueled by a lack of knowledge of actual school policy, unfair in its use of students as pawns in a national political fight, and fueled by a desire for the public spotlight rather than easy, pragmatic accommodation of one family’s beliefs.
Let’s get our focus out of the bathrooms and locker rooms, and on to ways we can improve our schools for everyone.