Cumberland Valley School Board tries town hall format to engage with residents | Education

Phyllis Zimmerman For The Sentinel

The Cumberland Valley School Board hosted its first town hall meeting this week, addressing constituents’ comments on any topic previously submitted through an interactive format.

About 25 or so residents and district staff came out for Wednesday night’s session at CV’s Ninth Grade Academy’s auditorium. However, 230 electronic public comments were submitted to the district prior to the meeting through ThoughtExchange, an online discussion management platform.

“The nice thing about ThoughtExchange is that people could see what other people were commenting about when they were on there,” Superintendent David Christopher said Wednesday. “There were a lot of (topic) duplications, but ThoughtExchange could rank questions by the number of people involved and categorize them.”

For Wednesday’s forum, district officials grouped electronic comments from the public into three divisions: school board governance, safety and security, and miscellaneous remarks as “other.” Officials refrained from reading submitted comments individually, but all comments received will be posted in a Q&A format on the district’s website “by next week, if not sooner,” school board president Heather Dunn said Wednesday.

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District officials first considered initiating town hall meetings at a school board meeting Dec. 15. At that time, Christopher said the consideration “would be more of a public forum where we can have conversations with members of the public and be more interactive.”

The format works in connection with school board meeting public comment sessions, which typically involve residents addressing questions to the board. School directors usually don’t respond to the public’s questions during these meetings, which at times has appeared to frustrate, or even anger, some speakers.

School board policy

The school board governance portion was led off by Brita Barrickman, Pennsylvania School Board Association chief service officer. Barrickman said the district’s Policy 309 “requires opportunity for the public to comment, but not for discourse between board members and the public.”

Barickman also recounted state school code regulations and the state’s Sunshine Act specifications for conducting open meetings. Further information is available at or

Brian Drapp, chair of the school district’s safety committee, addressed constituents’ safety and security concerns. He said the district started its own school police force last year, as well as making “big improvements to our security and safety plan.” He listed several district programs in place focusing on “and recovery,” including an All-Hazards Plan, emergency response guides in all district classrooms, and a district Safety Committee.

Christopher addressed miscellaneous concerns that included transparency related to student violence.

“(Student violators) have a right to privacy as a minor in Pennsylvania,” he said. “We do have a code of conduct (for disciplinary action). We can go through a hearing with the school board, or placement in alternate education or expulsion, but our goals are to try to keep our kids in our schools. “

Wednesday’s meeting concluded with a live public comment session during which a half-dozen speakers shared concerns ranging from the district’s online COVID-19 dashboard information to when school board meeting agendas are posted online.

Public comments

Shelley Hower asked if the district could include data in its biweekly COVID case updates of student / staff case recoveries with related hospitalizations and death counts. Christopher said he doesn’t have all that information available to him.

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Lois Koneski asked if the district could post school board meeting agendas earlier than it currently does on Fridays before a Monday meeting. “There’s no reason why you can’t publish the agenda at sometime sooner so we can have a little more lead time,” she said. “We need more help. It seems like you could do a better job. “

Dunn said district officials meet to review agenda drafts on Thursdays prior to Monday meetings. After that, the district must gather related documents “and make sure all the attachments are there before posting,” she said.

“We’re only required to post an agenda 24 hours before a meeting. We already go above and beyond that with posting it 72 hours in advance, ”school director Michelle Nestor said.

Future town halls

District communications specialist Tracy Panzer said Thursday that any future town halls held by the school board “would be a decision of the board together with the administration.”

No further such events are scheduled in the district.

“Last evening’s town hall provided us with the opportunity to talk about board governance, answer many common questions about the district, and address concerns received from constituents across the district,” Panzer said.

“We appreciate the feedback we received from our community, whether it was received as a question in advance or participation either in person or via the live stream. We will continue the conversation by placing an FAQ on our website in the coming days that shares out answers to the questions received as part of the town hall. “