The superintendent forum last night for CASD was a great way to establish communication between the community and the district

January 10 — Following the first ever superintendent forum with Chambersburg Area School District Superintendent Chris Bigger yesterday, participants felt a sense of being heard. 

This is the first of apparently more forums to come where Bigger gives community members a chance to ask questions of the district. 

The entire forum is on the NewsTalk 103.7FM Facebook page for those who were unable to attend. 

Attorney Clint Barkdoll said, “I thought he did a good job and I was pleased to hear this sounds like it may be the first of other public forums to get input. He emphasized upfront what we’ve been talking about the past week, this is a venue that may be just more comfortable and more conducive for some back and forth versus a formal school board meeting. Unfortunately, the weather was not very cooperative yesterday. So I think even he believed the turnout may have been more, but to the extent that there were citizens there, parents, non parents, taxpayers. I think there was some good feedback provided and I think they’ve laid the groundwork for just some successful strategies going forward. These may be very constructive for policy making, too, I mean to the extent they’re going to get feedback, pros and cons, at these kinds of forums, might that translate then into action that the board would take after the public forum?”

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM noted, “I certainly agree that I like this transparency. I liked that he kind of saw that there’s flaws in things like climate surveys, and he wants to get more direct surveys done.” 

Climate surveys look at the atmosphere in the buildings between the teachers and students — it’s not about green initiatives. 

Barkdoll said, “My boys have received these climate surveys over the years and a lot of it is just pros and cons about instruction, about the school environment. Do they feel safe? Do they feel there’s problems with bullying? All sorts of other things that maybe are good or bad or that could be improved. There’s even an opportunity for input from the parents’ perspective. In theory the schools are aggregating that data to see if there are any trends or issues that they can identify to address?”

CASD Board Member Stephanie Harbaugh said, “From all accounts, (the forum) was very positive. Everyone got to speak at the end and they got to talk about the things that they liked and many of the people talked about they just appreciated the forum, to be able to come in and to have their voice heard. They appreciated the attempt at transparency and to be able to talk about issues that they were seeing. Last night they were talking about the survey that they had conducted earlier, and talking about different issues that people were having, students, staff and situations like that, the climate survey and I thought Chris did a really good job of allowing people to break out into smaller groups so that everybody can have a little more time to speak to each other and then bringing it back to the bigger group. I think that’s an effective way to manage. Then there was a portion at the end, where he had it split into things that were helping the district, things that were hurting the district and then ideas that the public had, that they would like to share to maybe help some of those issues that were hurting the district. I thought the way that it was run, I thought it was very, very well done. I’m hoping that they continue and we get to have some more participation but I was really pleased with how it went last night.”

Jansen agreed, “I really liked the way he conducted it. I did like when he made us go and sit in small groups and he purposely said don’t cluster together with the people you know. I don’t want the school board members to be all together, go talk to someone you’ve never met before. That was smart because we do want people to engage with people who have different ideas, who maybe don’t fall exactly in their camp because that’s the way we get beyond the kind of ridiculous divisions we see right now between the so called culture wars. I was a little disappointed when two gentlemen, Mike Hayduk who’s a school board member and Barry Williams, who’s a coach there, repeatedly made the comment that we have to have more teachers that look like students. I kind of regret that I didn’t say something at the time because that constant message I feel is actually creating the very problem that these gentlemen would like to solve. I’d like to ask them, do you not think that sometimes, constantly telling students that message will actually have the effect on students of color, for lack of a better term that they can only respect or admire somebody that looks like them? Isn’t that the problem that we’re trying to overcome from decades ago when supposedly there were white people who only cared about, gave privilege to or only treated well, people that looked like them. I thought that’s the message we’re trying to get away from and I really found it disappointing that that was spoken about more than once.”

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM wondered, “Are either these guys familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the content of character, not the color of skin? Are we still teaching that? I mean, I know we have MLK Day coming up here. Are we still teaching that or did they miss that class?”

Harbaugh said, “I actually heard those comments as well and I reached out to Mr. Williams and asked him if he’d be willing to sit down and have a conversation with me, because to be honest, they have different lived experiences than I do and I would like to know what drives that thought process because I’m not going to be able to have a conversation if I don’t truly listen to where other people are coming from and and I don’t truly listen to what their thought process is behind it. So in my desire to make sure that I’m getting as much information as possible, I did reach out to Mr. Williams and I’m hoping that he’ll give me a call so we can have a discussion so I can speak with him about the comments that he made last night.” 

Jansen suggested, “The idea, again, a chicken and an egg problem, I’m afraid. Are students really feeling they can’t admire or respect and get something from again? I have to say a white teacher if you’re talking about it, because they were obviously referencing non white students. I almost feel like that’s a little bit insulting to the white teachers that somehow you can’t be someone that all the children would admire and look up to. I think the fact that teachers are people who go into this profession because that’s what they want to do, they want to inspire and teach children. It shouldn’t matter what race you are in terms of a child being able to learn and respect, admire, and be inspired by you. I’m afraid we’re actually teaching children to look at color first, by making such a big deal over exactly matching students to teachers in the numbers supposedly they exist in the school. We’re getting away from Martin Luther King’s message.”

The climate survey showed that teachers are doing a great job. 

Harbaugh said, “They’re seen as positive, they’re seen as helpful. They have good relationships with their students and their parents. That was something that was pretty broad as far as something that was positive about the results of the survey and experiences that people had. The flip side of that is the part where he was asking about the hurting or some of the issues where the general consensus seems to be that there are many teachers who feel unsupported and unappreciated. I think that that’s where the board needs to come in and we need to dig into that a little bit to find out what is causing that. Because we talk about teacher shortages. We talk about staffing shortages, and one of the things that we need to understand I think, as a district and I’m sure people do but just to re-emphasize that if you have a culture where people feel unsupported and unappreciated, they’re less likely to tell people to come work here and Mr. Bigger did touch on that last night where he said, that’s how you get word of mouth out there because the way you get people to come in and fill these positions is because you have teachers and staff in the district saying this is a great place to work. You should come work here.”

Ryan asked, “What’s the participation rate? So if there’s teachers that are saying they don’t feel supported, we all have been in atmospheres where if you just pull them aside and you have a one on one conversation, and you go, well, is this a problem? No. Is that a problem? No. Is it another problem? Well, I guess not. I mean, what’s the participation rate of the teachers?”

Harbaugh said, “There were 487 staff members that participated in those responses.”

Ryan asked, “That includes everybody. I mean, that’s not just isolated to teachers. Is it?”

Harbaugh said, “I don’t believe so. But I can’t give you that 100 percent because that survey was done before my tenure here started and Chris’s as well, but I do know that Chris is looking forward to doing a more directional survey, which is going to be a shorter survey and it’s more more geared toward here are 10 items, academics, extracurricular activities, whatever the case might be, can you please rank them in order of how you feel it should be a priority to help us get a more broad picture of where people want to go directionally and then use those results to kind of help us set goals for the district. So he has a lot of great ideas and I really think that if people just give him and the board some time, he’s only been on the job for 23 days. I think that’s the part that people forget, because he’s made such an impact so far, that we’re really headed in a good direction because we all want to get there. So just a little bit of patience because we can’t put the pin back in the grenade that’s been pulled over the past three years. But what we can try to do is pivot from here and move in a better direction.”

Jansen said, “I agree with the direction of those climate surveys and people and he said the first one of the year is usually when the people who are sort of aggravated get their emotions out.”

Harbaugh noted, “I would like to give a shout out to the other board members because everyone that was available last night was there. We had two members that were unable to make the meetings in general so they weren’t around last night, but all the other seven of us were there at the forum. I just really appreciate them taking the time out to come out and hear what the public had to say and support Chris in this new initiative.”

Ryan said, “The community participation rate in this forum was I think on both of your parts kind of surprising in that, here’s the super who says we’re ready to hear from you. We were heavy on some school board members. We were heavy on some teachers. I saw some kids there as well. Good experience, good civics experience, but I mean is that the place? Is there a separate place where kids can come in and also speak? But I don’t know if I saw a great turnout from parents just out of curiosity?

Harbaugh said, “I believe that we had 20 to 25 that were non board members, which in this day and age, that seems to be what you get unless there’s something super controversial, and I think people are just trying to feel this whole situation out. But the people that were there, many of them had dual roles. They were a teacher and a parent, or they worked in the district and they’re a parent. So there was a good showing of parents there. I believe they said that the sixth graders had a field trip to the farm show. So there were some people that just couldn’t make it. The time at five o’clock I heard was a little early for some people just getting off of work. So that might be something to discuss. But I feel like with anything new, the weather also, I think might have been a deterrent because it was pretty nasty out. But I’m just trying to encourage people to come out because if you’re saying all these things to each other, and you’re seeing all these things outside, we’re not hearing them unless you come and tell us, unless you come and tell Chris, unless you come and have and speak up about what’s going on. I realize that maybe boards in the past disenfranchised some people if I can use that word and they felt like they weren’t even being heard or paid attention to. But I can assure you that this new board with the people that we have on it currently are really wanting to dig in to have those hard conversations and to hear what’s going on so we can truly move forward in a way that’s best for the students.”

Jansen added, “I didn’t see any parents that weren’t somehow also connected to the school as a teacher or a worker there. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get parents whose kids are there who maybe have some issues, but I really would have liked to have seen some of those parents there expressing themselves, rather than almost everybody either working there. It would be nice to hear from a parent that didn’t have any connection to working within the school district. I hope the word gets out and that we have more participation in the future.”