Raucous crowd weighs in on RCPS book ban, while school board moves on to other policies and redistricting plan

This document, produced after the Jan. 8 RCPS board meeting, outlines the procedures for following the RCPS board’s decision to temporarily remove books from the schools, which differs from the district’s existing book challenge process.

The Rockingham County School Board meeting at times devolved into a shouting match during Monday night’s public comment period over participation rules and the board’s temporary removal of 57 books from school libraries.

The board also voted to approve a redistricting plan and began budget talks for the coming school year. And Monday night’s meeting also included discussion of several proposed policy changes, including one that would change public participation rules at meetings and one to put the county school district in compliance with Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s model policies regarding students’ gender identities, which the board voted to adopt in full at the Jan. 8 meeting.

The public comment period focused almost exclusively on the book ban and concerns about LGBTQ children in schools, with a few people supporting the book ban and the majority of those who spoke opposing it. A boisterous audience cheered, applauded and interjected speakers at the podium throughout.

Halfway through one comment from a community member, who had greeted board member Jackie Lohr prior to his speech, board chair Matt Cross restated the rule that public comments must not be directed to one person. The commenter began to shout, challenging Cross’ assertion that he’d addressed a singular board member.

At another point, Cross asked the audience to remain quiet when a woman speaking in favor of the book ban was heckled by audience members. And later on, members of the audience interjected, asking Cross to intervene when another speaker addressed a specific board member.

People from the county — and beyond — spoke passionately in favor or against the book ban, including seven that aren’t in RCPS libraries. Tensions were high, and several public commenters shouted or became emotional during their speeches. Every speaker, regardless of their viewpoint, was met with audience applause.

“Bravo, Rockingham County School Board, you have reached a level of craziness that is genuinely unique,” said Kelsey Lawrence, a library advocate from Warren County. “You’re taking the entire parenting role when it comes to our children, what our children can and cannot read. This, my friends, is an example of gross government overreach. You made a blanket decision for every family in this district — but hey, who needs individual choice when you have Big Brother? They know best, right?”

On the other end of the spectrum, several commenters congratulated the board on its vote and for keeping “pornographic” books out of school libraries.

“I want to thank the school board members for keeping their campaign promises,” said another commenter, who identified herself as Sandy. “Common sense tells us if you cannot read or show these books in a public setting, they should not be in our school library. We are not asking for the books to be taken out of print but to be taken out of our schools. Thank you for your hard work and what you all have to put up with.”

Board members did not respond to speakers’ views on the book ban during their free comment period.

Redistricting plan approved, shifting 540 students to different schools 

The board voted unanimously to approve its redistricting plan, which it revised during a work session last week. 

Changes to attendance area lines will shift 540 students to different schools. The plan is intended to relieve overcrowding at some schools, most notably Cub Run Elementary School, Montevideo Middle School and Spotswood High School. 

The redistricting plan will go into effect this fall in time for the 2024-25 school year. Rising 5th, 8th, 10th, 11th and 12th graders will have the option to remain at their current schools as long as their families provide transportation.

Board member Sara Horst said the county schools are often close-knit community schools and acknowledged it could be stressful or sad for some families to shift to new schools.

“Here in Rockingham County, one of the beautiful things is that our communities, our families, our parents, our businesses, they are invested deeply in the community schools that we have, and that does create a little bit of heartache when you have to say goodbye to one school and go to another,” Horst said. But, “no matter where your kids are gonna go in Rockingham County, they’re going to be OK. They’re going to be more than OK.”

Board to vote on proposed policy revisions

The school board received proposed revisions to a number of policies that, if approved, would put the county school system in compliance with Youngkin’s model policies regarding students’ gender identities. 

The district’s current policy language contradicts Youngkin’s, which the board voted to adopt in full at the prior meeting. Most proposed revisions are minor wording changes to mesh with the newly adopted policy.

As for public participation in board meetings, the policy is in for some major additions. The proposed revisions would ban all signs at school board meetings; restrict public-comment eligibility to county and RCPS stakeholders; and prohibit obscenity, vulgarity and “other breaches of peace.”

Here are the policies, marked up with the proposed revisions:

  • Policy AD: Educational Philosophy
  • Policy JFHB: Privacy, Dignity and Respect for Students and Parents
  • Policy JB: Equal Educational Opportunities
  • Policy JO-A: Access to Students and Student Records
  • Policy BDDH: Public Participation at School Board Meetings

The board will vote on these revisions at its next meeting on Feb. 12.

Budget talks begin

The board initiated budget negotiations at Monday’s meeting, hearing from RCPS chief financial officer Justin Moyers on the school system’s first-draft budget requests for the 2024-25 school year. It’s the first step of a months-long process. The requests aren’t final and have yet to be compared against projected revenue.

Most notably, Moyers requested just over $3 million in transportation funding for fuel, supplies and buses. That’d be a 22.1% increase from the current budget.

Here are the approximate amounts and changes of the other notable requests in Moyers’ first draft:

  • $8.3 million for maintenance (10.4% increase)
  • $7.1 million for instruction (9.9% increase)
  • $4 million for academic support (4.8% increase)
  • $4.6 million for the Massanutten Technical Center (a slight decrease of about $10,000)
  • $1.5 million for salary increases, a 1% raise that’s included in Youngkin’s proposed budget

The requests come in at about $185 million, nearly $11 million more than the current RCPS budget. Moyers stressed that these figures haven’t been pared down yet. He also said state funding looks bleak, as Youngkin’s budget proposal cuts RCPS funding by $4.5 million. While he expects that blow to soften as the state budget works its way through the general assembly, Moyers said RCPS will still likely see less funding from the state next year.

Invocation update

At the Jan. 8 meeting, Cross led a prayer as the board’s invocation. After receiving public criticism from constituents and a letter from the Freedom from Religion Foundation arguing it was unconstitutional to open a public government meeting in prayer, Cross replaced it with a moment of silence.

In a Facebook post last week, Cross announced he would no longer open meetings with a prayer for the time being but maintained its legality.

“Knowing that the very people who cry we’re going to take money away from Public Schools through lawsuits, are the very ones who will take us to Court if we continue to pray, I have decided as the Boards [sic] Chair to go back to a moment of silence in our public meetings until we can clear our plate of other pressing matters that the Board is currently facing [sic],” Cross wrote in the post.

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