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Chester County Press

Oxford School Board member’s ‘toxic’ comments lead to emotionally charged meeting

02/14/2022 10:46PM ● By Steven Hoffman

“Kids First, Progress and Unity,” the motto of the Oxford Area School District, was never more important than at a Feb. 8 work session of the Oxford School Board. If the kids don’t come first in the district, the progress of all children could be held back.

The meeting was moved to the Hopewell Elementary School instead of the district’s administration building to make room for a growing number of parents and children who were calling for the resignation of newly elected school board member Jennifer Kehs following comments she made at a Jan. 18 meeting.

Concerned parents held signs outside the meeting calling for Kehs’ resignation, and a number of school police and local police stood by to keep the growing crowd under control. Not everyone wore masks, which in itself was a hint that it probably wouldn’t be a quiet meeting, and also suggested to some attendees that they could be walking into a COVID superspreader event.

More than 20 people had signed up to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting, and school board president, Joseph E. Tighe told the crowd, “No talking while someone else is speaking. If you can’t follow our rules, we will shut the meeting down.”

He reiterated that statement all through the meeting. 

No one was more impassioned about this meeting than the students themselves.

Ashley Whitman, an alumni of the school, brought a letter signed by 264 graduates of Oxford which said, “Board member Kehs prevented ratification of article #7320 recently amended in alignment with government guidelines, which states that the school must provide an education to all students in the community regardless of their housing status.” The alumni condemned that action.

Two current students also spoke.

“I stand for equality. We (students) embrace different cultures,” Oxford student Ryan Owens said. “Our school is supposed to be a welcoming school for all.”

Another Oxford student, Sabrina Allioto, made an impassioned plea saying, “making a statement like Mrs. Kehs did has a negative impact on our school and causes division and separation in our school. It is toxic. All students deserve an education.”

Oxford alumni and current students agreed that they did not want the same divisiveness that is circulating through the entire country to divide the schools in Oxford.

Kehs listened as the majority of speakers called for her resignation and described her as xenophobic and bigoted in her views.

After the meeting, Kehs was asked if she wanted to comment on the school board meeting and sent the following statement for inclusion in this article:

“As a newly elected 2022 board member of OASD, I was presented with a revised policy on homeless students which had been previously been referenced at the October 19, 2021 school board meeting.  After reading the proposed modifications, I asked questions to understand if the policy was solely referring to impoverished students or if there were other students being included.  As board members, our responsibility is to ask valid questions in order to fully understand policy updates before we vote on them.

“The other separate item that I raised during the meeting referred to academics in our district: I wanted to understand why school property taxes for OASD have increased above other local school districts such as Kennett Square and Unionville, while OASD is seeing lower academic test scores.”

During the Jan. 18 meeting, Kehs asked Superintendent David Woods on more than one occasion, “Shouldn’t we call out the illegal immigrants from the homeless?”

Woods’ replied that the school district was prohibited from inquiring about the immigration status of students.

Tighe also cautioned Kehs about using the term “illegal immigrants” when describing students.

Both the Pennsylvania and the federal laws identify a “homeless” student without reference to their immigration status.( See the McKinney-Vento Act.)

Myra Castilo addressed the school board member’s comments. She said she was the daughter of an immigrant. Castilo explained, “I came to this country with no knowledge of the language. Now I speak Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian. How many languages do you speak? The immigrant community gives more than they take. We pay rent, taxes and buy real estate. I challenge you to see where these immigrants end up. They are doctors, lawyers, teachers and nurses.”

A number of the speakers were also upset with the insinuation that Oxford was deficient in educating its students, and cited their successful education in the school district.

Others asked if Kehs was suggesting that the school board not follow the state and federal laws for school boards. Failure to follow those laws would mean the potential loss of funding for the school district, which is already receiving less funding than most districts in the state.  The lack of funding received by some school districts is currently being analyzed to determine if that deficiency in funds is actually responsible for lower test scores.

While words like “xenophobic” and “racist” were used to describe Kehs, other attendees came to her defense. Carrie Tequinas addressed the school board saying, “There is not a racist bone in her (Kehs) body.”

One resident, Judy Martora asked the school board, “Why did you put that meeting on the website? You are tearing a community apart. “

However, the Oxford School District’s website clearly states: “All Oxford Area Board of School Directors work sessions and regular meetings are available to view at any time on the Oxford Area School District Youtube channel.” The school district did not do anything out of the ordinary by posting a video of the meeting online.

Dee Wiker also raised questions about the federal ESSER funds questioning the health and safety plan required in order to received those funds.

Pennsylvania has received $523.8 million in emergency, one-time ESSER funds. Of this amount, $471.4 million will be directly allocated to school districts and charter schools based on the same formula used for Title 1-A allocations in 2019.

It was unclear whether some of the attendees of the meeting clearly understood federal laws and the obligations of all school districts to follow both federal and state guidelines. And federal and state funding is necessary to educate all children in the district. Jeopardizing that funding that the Oxford Area School District is entitled to certainly would not improve test scores or the education that all children in the school district receive.

The next regular meeting of the school board will take place on Tuesday, Feb. 22 at 7 p.m. at the Hopewell Elementary School.