The Central Bucks School Board voted at its July 26 meeting to hire the firm Devine + Partners in an attempt to repair strained public relations and improve the school district’s image.
Doing so will cost the district approximately $15,000 per month, or $180,000 per year, plus any out-of-pocket costs that will be billed separately.
“As with many school systems across the country, the Central Bucks School District has been a microcosm of the kind of combative rhetoric that has divided communities in recent years,” said Devine + Partners in their June communications proposal to CBSD.
“Controversies come and go. They are part of running any school system, let alone the state’s third-largest district. But the academics, activities, innovation, and achievements, as well as the standards, inclusive values, and commitment undergirding them are permanent characteristics of CBSD and its people, from the youngest learners to the adults guiding their educational experiences.”
The controversies that Devine + Partners were hired to address are a series of executive decisions made by the Central Bucks School District, most of which appear targeted towards the LGBTQ+ student body. This includes the removal of Pride Flags in the classroom, under the justification that they were political symbols, and as such, not fit for the classroom. It also includes only allowing students to attend Human Growth and Development classes that matched with their assigned genders at birth, and pausing said classes shortly after they began, effectively outing these students to their teachers and peers.
Some schools in the district are also letting teachers call students by their preferred name and pronouns only if a guidance counselor can confirm that name with a parent/guardian.
Tensions boiled over into a student-led protest at Lenape Middle School when eighth grade history teacher Andrew Burgess was allegedly suspended for giving a transgender student information on harassment and bullying resources outside of the classroom. Attempts to dissuade the protestors only caused more outrage, as Lenape Principal Geanine Saullo threatened the students with truancy and police intervention, and forbidding students from reentering the school building if they chose to participate.
Tensions rose again at the announcement of Policy 109.2 a new book review policy that allows any parents or residents within the school district to request a book be banned from school libraries. Many, including Rachel Fitzpatrick, the co-leader of queer nonprofit organization PFlag Bucks, feared the new policy would be used to ban LGBTQ+ reading material. Despite her and many others voicing their concerns, the CB School Board approved Policy 109.2 at the same meeting they approved hiring Devine + Partners.
The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Pennsylvania branch responded to the policy’s approval. “The Central Bucks School Board and superintendent are determined to censor library materials, no matter how their constituents feel,” they said via Twitter. “School staff have been deterred from keeping books on the shelves, what’s known as a “chilling effect.” And that’s a problem under the First Amendment’s protection of free speech.”
The decision to hire Devine + Partners has also come under fire, due partly to its being seen as an attempt to sweep previous controversial choices under the rug, but also for the $15,000 a month cost. When CB resident Kathleen Davis spoke to the school board against their decision at the July 26 Board meeting and mentioned just how expensive it would be to hire them, there was an audible gasp from one of the attendees. “It is time for you to stop blaming your constituents and the majority of this community for the problematic national reputation that CB now has,” said Davis. “We are not the ones damaging the district’s reputation. You and these policies are.”
CB resident Jodi Schwartz also voiced her dissatisfaction. She was quick to point out that the school district already had access to PR resources. “Regardless of whatever specific side you’re on, we all can agree $180,000 [a year] sure buys a lot of field trips, sure buys a lot of art supplies in classroom activities and spirit events,” said Schwartz, “money that you can give back our students some of the events that have been taken from them over the last several years. It’s so disappointing that you’d rather use the $180,000 this year, that should be used in the classroom, and instead spend it on damage control for your incompetence.”
Editor’s Note: According to the Devine + Partners website, “senior counselors guide leaders and organizations through a wide range of difficult situations and organizational threats and opportunities. When the need arises, D+P is on-call 24/7 with clear-headed, strategic counsel and time-tested tactics that help protect your reputation and get you back to business.”