To a group of Central Bucks parents, the decision made no sense: A counselor in their school district wanted to attend a training on better serving transgender students, a program that cost $1,000. But the school board, without any public discussion, voted it down.
The decision angered the parents, who immediately launched a fund-raiser to cover the cost. They hit their goal in two hours. In the two weeks since, they have raised more than $4,000.
“It seemed very pointed,” Michelle Wire said of the board’s vote. “That just outraged me.”
She was among the parents who donated to a GoFundMe that described the school board as sending a “chilling and harmful message to transgender and gender diverse students, staff, families and supporters across the district.”
“This is important to parents in the community,” said Emily Lieberman, who started the fund-raiser and whose children attend the elementary school staffed by the guidance counselor. “The school board is not in line with the parents.”
The controversy has flared as Republican lawmakers nationally and in Pennsylvania seek to ban transgender students from playing girls’ sports — spurring outcry from advocates who say the measures are further marginalizing vulnerable children.
Parents voiced similar fears after the Central Bucks board’s May 11 meeting, when five of the nine members voted against spending $1,991 on staff workshops recommended by district administrators — including an “Affirming Schools for Transgender Student Program” for the elementary school’s guidance counselor.
After noting that the vote would prevent staff members from attending other trainings scheduled for this month, the board voted again — but only to approve five workshops in May. Excluded were the guidance counselor’s training, scheduled over five days this summer, and a separate conference for the acting superintendent.
The five board members did not return requests for comment. Neither did a spokesperson for the district. The board is scheduled to take up the matter again Tuesday.
On his school board Facebook page, board member Dan Ring responded to one person’s question about the vote by calling the conference “repetitive,” saying the same trainer previously conducted professional development in the district.
“That program was the most expensive line item far and away compared to others,” Ring said. With the district facing a budget deficit, he said, “it was a fiscally responsible decision.”
One of Pennsylvania’s largest school districts, Central Bucks has a budget of $353 million. Supporters of the training took offense at the idea that the $1,000 price tag was too costly.
“This topic, which is about protecting some of our most vulnerable students, should be a priority,” said Marlene Pray, a parent and the director and founder of Planned Parenthood Keystone’s Rainbow Room program, a center for LGBTQ+ youth in Bucks County. She said prior presentations to the district on the issue were “absolutely not a repeat” of the more intensive program the counselor would be attending — and that over the last three years of comparable professional development approvals, “there were no examples found of line items cherry-picked for removal and voted down in this manner.”
The board’s failure to approve the training is “an overreach at the least, and offensive and discriminatory at worst,” Pray said.
Estimates of the number of transgender children have varied. Nationally, close to 2% of high school students identified as transgender in a 2017 survey by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which included 10 states and nine large urban school districts.
Parents like Wire and Lieberman say all students will benefit if schools are trained to be more inclusive. They hope the board will use the money raised through the GoFundMe to support additional programs focused on gender-diverse inclusion.
“We’re not going away,” Wire said. “We are watching constantly, and we are keeping tabs on what they do. And we are going to make sure that every child is protected.”
While her children are not part of the LGBTQ community, Lieberman said she felt it was her role to speak up. Her family is Jewish, and she said she was shocked when, during a recent school board discussion over recognizing the Hindu holiday Diwali, one member suggested the board “relook” at its policy of recognizing Jewish holidays.
“If I don’t speak out, who’s going to speak out when next week it’s Jewish kids?” she said. “It’s scary when you hear these things coming from your school district.”