Residents of the Central Bucks School District rallied in favor of same-sex spousal benefits for staff at a school board meeting on Tuesday evening. All 13 speakers who signed up to speak during the public comment period did so in favor of extending the benefits, and almost every seat in the room was filled with supporters.
At the October 22nd board meeting, a school district employee discussed the denied request for her spouse, whom she legally married in Delaware, to be covered by the district’s health insurance plan. She was told that the wording of the district’s insurance policy prevented them from offering her spouse benefits. However, draft minutes from a Human Resources Committee meeting on October 9th showed that the committee recommended not allowing same-sex spousal benefits until marriage equality is legalized in Pennsylvania.
The Board President, Stephen Corr, opened the meeting on Tuesday with a prepared statement on the situation. He said that the Board anticipated the employee would file a grievance, and has reportedly entered into arbitration with the staff member. The Human Resources Committee will meet tonight in Doylestown to discuss their position in the arbitration process. Corr emphasized that no decisions were formally before the board at this time, and said they would not be discussing the issue any further at the meeting.
The floor was then opened for public comments from the students, parents, and community members who signed up to speak. Doylestown resident and education law attorney, David Kahn stated, “When talking about civil rights, there is absolutely no room to be silent.” He cited two of the core values of the Pennsylvania School Board Association, integrity and respect, which require school boards to aspire to ethical treatment for all.
A high school senior in the district, Nicole, shared a story from the recently held Ally Week. “We wore badges that said ‘I believe all students should be able to learn in a safe space, including LGBT students who may face bullying and harassment.’ It’s a shame we didn’t include teachers and staff on them too.”
Kristen Henderson, a mother of two children in the district said that she was “pretty shocked” that such a meeting even needed to take place. “I thought I lived in a progressive community… the motto of our school district is ‘leading the way,’ but I see us lagging behind.”
All of the speakers shared disappointment in their decision as archaic. David Hall, a Doylestown resident, asserted that the “Central Bucks School District cannot be both innovative and a dinosaur at the same time.” Additionally, Doylestown Borough Councilmember Don Berk asked the board to “Do the right thing. Don’t be a dinosaur.”
Of the students that spoke, several expressed their desire to one day become teachers. Von Scully, President of the LGBT student group at Delaware Valley College, said he wants his students to “help build a community based on respect, but I can’t do that truthfully at all with these kinds of policies in place.”
The school district has two health insurance options, an HMO plan through Aetna, and a PPO plan through Amerihealth. The HMO plan provides coverage for “legal spouses,” while the Amerihealth plan specifies that it only covers spouses of the opposite sex. Many neighboring school districts including the New Hope-Solebury School District and the Centennial School District have health care policies which cover same-sex partners. The first known challenge to a Pennsylvania school district barring same-sex partner benefits began 17 years ago in the Lower Merion School District, where the arbitration extended full benefits to the teacher’s same-sex partner in late 1997.
Marlene Pray, a former Doylestown Borough Councilmember and current member of the Bucks County Human Relations Council, questioned the school board’s approach. “I know you need time to sort things through, but how much time? When can we expect a vote? How much taxpayer money will you spend on lawyers to fight this?…You keep saying this issue was not before the committee or board, but I hope you will consider it before you now.”
The final speaker was Matt Kelly, a senior at Central Bucks High School – East. He spoke to the inevitability of this policy inclusion and the recent passage of Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) in the US Senate. He told the board members that “You can live knowing full well that you will be overruled by superior powers in the years to come, or make the right decision, today.”
The KSV will continue to closely monitor this unfolding situation in Bucks County.