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Chester County Press

Fallout from Kehs' comments continues in Oxford

03/01/2022 02:37PM ● By Steven Hoffman

When the Oxford School Board met on Tuesday, Feb. 22, it was necessary to hold the meeting in the Hopewell School multipurpose room, rather than the District Administration Building, because of the size of the audience. Although there was no display of violence, the board was prepared for the possibility with Oxford Borough police or security positioned at each of the three doors to the room.

Many of the crowd members wore T-shirts with Oxford maroon lettering proclaiming “Kids First,” while others sported buttons that declared “Resign Jennifer Kehs.” 

Newly elected in November, Kehs took her place on the board in December and soon generated controversy. In January, she made comments concerning changes to district policy on homeless students, connecting that designation with students she characterized as illegal immigrants. She also appeared to draw a correlation between increasing numbers of these students and falling test scores in the district.

Kehs’ comments sparked television news coverage, a firestorm on social media and petitions calling for her resignation or removal.  In addition to parents and community members being outspoken in their opposition, students have joined the movement against her.

After her regular report on recent and upcoming student activities, the board’s student representative, Victoria Milburn, referenced the benefits of diversity within the district. 

“I am proud I have learned in an environment that promotes diversity,” she said to a resounding round of applause from the audience.

During public comment there were other high school students who came to the microphone to express their support of their fellow students who are learning English as a second language, and the value they add to the educational experience. 

Public sentiment was demonstrated most dramatically when resident Jim Shan was admonished for directing personal attacks against Kehs and her family. At that point, he opted to use the remainder of his allotted 5-minute comment period to stand in silent opposition. Roughly 90 percent of the audience joined him to stand in silent solidarity in opposition to Kehs. 

The wave of audience members stood silently for over three minutes in spite of a call to the board from a Kehs’ supporter in the audience, objecting to the demonstration.

In spite of the overwhelming show of opposition to Kehs, the public comment was not all on one side of the recent issues.

A Kehs supporter later in the comment period characterized the period of silence as bullying by Kehs’ opponents. Each side accused the other of using social media to spread unfounded accusations, to manipulate facts and to bully.

On a similar note, resident Ronnie Lutz began her comments by serving board president Robert Tenga with a letter of intent to file a claim against his surety bond for violating 13 legal codes including gross misconduct and incompetence relating to the health and safety plan and the district’s policy on homeless students. This is a tactic that right-wing activists are using to target school board members across the country. Its effectiveness, at this point, is very much in question.

The policy on homeless students appeared on the agenda for a first reading, but it was a motion to amend the district’s Health and Safety Plan that began a new level of conflict on the school board itself. 

A Health and Safety Plan that addresses a list of specific issues is required in the application process for federal ESSER funding. The district is set to receive roughly $6.4 million in ESSER funds

In other business there were several voices raising questions as to whether proposed revisions to the district’s health and safety plan would endanger the district’s ability to receive $6.4 million in federal ESSER funds. There was some concern from the audience that the change could jeopardize the funding. 

Superintendent David Woods explained that most of the proposed changes would still leave the plan in a form that would qualify for ESSERS funding, but he asked that some language detailing methods and procedures for virus mitigation be included. 

Kehs expressed her opinion that the district should not be taking the federal funds. “The money still has strings attached to it,” she said. “I still feel strongly that we should not be accepting this money in exchange for our rights and freedoms. The freedom of our students should never be for sale.”

In particular, Kehs objected to references in the health and safety plan that refer to following recommendations from the Chester County Department of Health. “During the pandemic they relinquished their rights to the state,” she said. 

Board member William Kloss asked that the proposal to revise the health and safety plan be tabled until it can be discussed and worked out, then made public before coming up for a vote. “We’ve red lined this whole document and put in ambiguities. All I see here is red flags,” he said. 

Kloss let his frustration with Kehs show. He complained that attention is being focused on the controversy over her comments while educational issues are not being addressed. The school district’s facilities need work and students are facing real issues. 

“We’re not addressing any of it because of this B***S*** she brought up,” he said. “I’m completely frustrated. We’re not getting anything done.” 

Kloss also leveled comments directly at Kehs. “You can save your partisan politics for outside this school district,” he said.

The health and safety plan was tabled to be discussed in executive session following the next board meeting on March 8.