Policy dispute triggers residents’ challenge to Revere board

by Sheldon Ocker

May 21 school board meeting

At least 75 community members – about 73 more than usual – crowded into the high school media center to express their alarm with the Revere board of education’s decision in April to allow students to leave class to take religious instruction.

The public is permitted to address the board at the end of its regular meetings, so these folks waited. In addition to criticizing the policy approved by the board last month, the visitors were disappointed and angry that the board seems to be courting an evangelical religious group called LifeWise Academy, which presumably would be the students’ only provider of religious information inasmuch as traditional churches do not conduct such training during school hours.

Before any of the dissenters spoke, board President Keith Malick gave the board’s side of things.

He made a clear distinction between the board’s duties and that of Superintendent Michael Tefs and Treasurer Rick Berdine.

“The board is concerned with questions of policy,” Malick said, contrasting that with the administration’s job of implementing the details of policies.

“Individuals with questions or complaints should contact the appropriate administrator,” he said, seemingly absolving the board of any decisions involving LifeWise.

He also said that to date, the board has not been presented with a proposal to make any sort of agreement with LifeWise.

Malick pointed to an email from a Revere parent sent to Tefs more than a year ago saying a group of district parents were interested in release time for religious training.

“Then last December a group called LifeWise asked us to distribute a flyer,” he said.
“Dr. Tefs denied that request.”

Malick said Tefs told the board about that request and denial. To participate, said Tefs, the board would have to create a policy. Malick also said an individual contacted Tefs, saying a group of parents were on the local LifeWise steering committee.

The board had not indicated the policy needed tweaking or further examination, but during the meeting Malick said, “I can assure you that this board still has questions on how the district administration will implement the policy.”

He also indicated that residents had plenty of opportunity to offer input, pointing out that the policy was first discussed on March 12, again on March 19 and on April 9 before the April 16 vote.

Malick did not address most of the issues raised by community members.

Former teacher and school administrator Jane Bechtel, whose children went to Revere schools, pointed out the disruption to classrooms and teachers caused by students coming and going during the day. One of the state requirements of the religious release policy is that kids must make up any work missed.

“Sure, they’re going to make up the work, but we all know kids have all types of different learning skills, all types of learning speeds, all types of abilities,” she said. “And so you’re trying to adjust your teaching for all the kids in your room, who’s leaving, who’s staying.”

A few speakers – there were eight – worried about the values LifeWise teaches. Examples were found on its website condemning the LGBTQ community and unmarried couples who cohabit “living in sin.”

Malick said 15 nearby school districts have adopted a religious release policy like Revere’s. Dr. Jeffrey Archinal disputed this characterization.

“Hudson’s principal says when the kids can leave,” he said. “Revere’s policy as written says anybody who takes attendance [a requirement of the provider] and has liability insurance and a bus can pull up in front and take the kids away.

“Copley’s policy says that specific organizations are forbidden to evangelize at the school. … I practice in Wadsworth. They have a line in their policy that makes it clear that the staff is not allowed to encourage or discourage people from going.”

A group of residents opposed to the policy said it has a petition with 819 signatures of district residents. LifeWise presented a petition to Tefs with purportedly 150 names, though Travis Springer, a resident who counted, said there are about 97 names.

“The engagement that you’re seeing here, I don’t believe it is going to disappear,” Singer said. “We’re not going to get bored with this issue and with LifeWise or any other religious group. … If the district decides to go forward with this, we will not just sit back and say ‘better luck next time.’”

No community member spoke to defend the policy. ∞