School board debates issues of commercialism and residency requirements
By John Chambless
Two of the thorniest policy issues -- commercialism in schools and residency requirements -- were discussed at length by the Unionville-Chadds Ford School Board on Nov. 18 in a policy committee meeting.
After agreeing last year that allowing advertising or naming rights on school property would be a good source of revenue, the board and district administration have wrangled over interpretations of what kind of advertising is appropriate. At Monday night's meeting, district superintendent John Sanville brought examples of ads that had appeared in past school publications, such as playbills, and asked whether they would be deemed appropriate under the new commercialism policy.
That new policy, 913.1, appoints the superintendent as the judge of whether advertising is appropriate. "What I've been hearing from some members of the board is that there are concerns with how the administration is interpreting the policy," Sanville said.
He distributed a list of scenarios for the board to consider. In one, a local church wants to advertise in a music department program to wish students good luck. If they included times for their church services, would it be allowed? If they did not wish students good luck, but simply listed the times and dates of their services, would the ad be allowed?
Other issues concerned local wineries that might want to advertise. What should be included in the ad? What if they promoted adult-only events, such as wine tastings? Should beverage distributors be allowed, even if they sell beer? Should convenience stores be allowed, even if they sell tobacco products?
In the case of the beverage distributor, the school district has previously eliminated the word "beer" in the list of products they sell, Sanville said.
"I personally wouldn't mind if the ad said 'beer,'" said board member Gregg Lindner.
Board member Keith Knauss agreed. "Beer is not illegal," he pointed out.
Kathleen Do, who heads the curriculum committee, pointed out that the commercialism policy specifically prohibits advertising which "promotes gambling, alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, political candidates, products or services which advocate the use of drugs, firearms, adult-themed entertainment, and religion or religious organizations."
The board agreed that the list is a slippery slope. As written, the list prohibits businesses such as restaurants from advertising, because they serve alcohol. It also bars churches from advertising some specifics, although they would be able to simply congratulate students.
Much discussion centered on the word "promote," which is part of the policy. Sanville asked the board how they interpreted the word.
"I don't feel that a beverage distributor congratulating the football team goes against the policy," Do said.
"So, if we're good with alcohol and religion, what about guns?" Sanville asked. "Walmart sells guns. Should they be allowed to advertise?"
"I have no problem with Walmart advertising," Do said. "As long as they don't say, 'Come and buy guns.'"
Sanville said the policy, as written, "draws a hard line. And it's easier to enforce because it's clear. ... I was fine with the policy as written, but some members of the board were not."
There was discussion of changing "promote" to "violates community standards regarding the promotion of," but that raised the issue of what those community standards might be.
"You can nitpick on any level," said board member Jeff Hellrung, "but we want to interact with the community, and give legitimate businesses a chance to advertise appropriately. We can all discuss special cases, but I have no problem letting the administration determine the appropriateness of our advertising."
In a vote, the board members split 4-3 on whether to change the wording of the policy. The superintendent is left to interpret the appropriateness of advertising, for now.
Sanville noted that the meeting was the third one centered on interpreting the policy, "and we'll be back around to this again," he said. "I will talk with the three incoming members of the board and see which way they're leaning on this issue. ... In a way, this board is representative of our community," he added, saying that he had gotten complaints occasionally about why some advertisers were allowed and others were not. The board will discuss the issue and try to reach a concensus at their January meeting.
In the case of the policy regarding the enrollment of students, Do acknowledged the controversy sparked recently by the issue.
Board member Holly Manzone abruptly resigned last month, largely because a family that lives outside the district had been observed sending their children to Unionville-Chadds Ford schools, and avoiding paying school taxes. That resignation has prompted questions of whether other families are getting the benefits of an education in the district without paying.
Sanville said the language of policy 200, regarding the enrollment of students, "was taken from the West Chester Area School District policy, and from the school code."
Do said, "We've been dealing with some residency issues. I don't see how this policy addresses those issues. Based on this policy, the family in question was fine."
The policy states that to enroll a student in the school district, a parent must submit proof of a child's age, documentation of immunizations, a sworn statement saying whether the student has been suspended or expelled, a completed home language survey, and "proof of residency," which can be a deed, lease, current utility bill, current credit card bill, property tax bill, vehicle registration, driver's license, or DOT identification card.
"Well, families may have that stuff. Somebody could have a legitimate driver's license at one address, but still spend most of their time in another location," Do said. "So how do we determine if a family actually resides in the district?"
Sanville pointed out that, under the law, a family may register in only one school district, although they could be eligible for more than one district. "The parents sign off, under penalty of law," he said. "We trust people to tell us the truth. The Pennsylvania Department of Education spells out what we can ask for to prove residency."
Issues of non-residency commonly are discovered when bus drivers report that they pick up students outside the district, Sanville said, or when a mailing comes back to the school office with an undeliverable address. "I also get anonymous letters and phone calls," he said. When issues of non-residency occur, "we do engage private investigators on a number of cases," he said. "Some cases are founded, and some are unfounded."
The policy committee will look at toughening the proof of residency requirements, possibly specifying a minimum number of nights a student spends in a home within the district. There will be a first reading of the updated policy at the board's February meeting.
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