Debate, discussion dominate Brandywine school board meeting

Published 5:30 pm Tuesday, August 8, 2023

NILES — Citizens and Brandywine Board of Education members spoke on several topics at Monday’s board meeting, including an area publication’s attacks on a Brandywine teacher and Brandywine alumna as well as an alleged Title IX complaint involving Brandywine people.

A number of people took exception to articles on the Real News Michiana website attacking Brandywine teacher Debbie Carew and Brandywine alumna Ambrosia Neldon for their comments questioning board actions. They said board members should be speaking out in defense of both women. 

“You represent the community and the staff, it’s disheartening to see a staff member attacked and not be defended by the board,” teacher Kevin Smith said. “There’s been no public comment of support for her.” 

Carew spoke during the meeting but did not specifically address the publication attacking her comments. She said Brandywine teachers and staff all believe that parents should be given a choice as to what students read. “Parents always have had a voice,” she said. “Let’s give each and every parent a say.” 

The alleged Title IX complaint was brought up at the end of the meeting by Board Vice-President Elaine McKee. McKee asked Superintendent Travis Walker to give an update on the complaint and pressed him on when the investigation will be concluded.  

Walker said interviews have been concluded on the matter and that investigators are still going through an estimated 8,000 emails. He said a report will be written when the investigation is complete and then turned over to the person who will make the decision. He said that there is no timeline on when the process will be complete. 

He would not give many details about the alleged complaint after the meeting. He did say that while most people associate federal Title IX rules with providing girls and women with equal access to sports, the rules also govern sexual harassment and similar behavior. 

A comment from resident Ryan Adams about the We The Parents organization brought a rare public response from Board President Thomas Payne. Payne and three other board members elected last November were endorsed by the We The Parents organization which many Brandywine meeting attendees have criticized as a conservative political organization. 

 Adams read comments from a retired Brandywine teacher who wrote that We The Parents doesn’t represent all parents and took issue with what he saw as the organization’s defense of the Real News Michiana articles on Carew and Neldon. Payne gaveled Adams throughout his remarks and at one point motioned for a sheriff’s deputy to throw Adams out. 

Payne made his comments about We The Parents after fellow board member Jessica Crouch asked him why he had gaveled Adams. “As board president, I can gavel people if they are disruptive or out of order,” he said. “His comments were irrelevant because we are not members of We The Parents. We The Parents comments are not relevant.” 

Not all public comments were from people opposed to the actions of the four new board members elected last November. Don Ryman of Buchanan spoke about the “educational clique” trying to indoctrinate children. Buchanan resident Carla Johnson said she was concerned about people lying and smearing board members over differences of opinion. 

Others spoke about the need to protect young people from explicit materials when their brains aren’t mature enough to process the information. They likened restricting books to how theaters restrict young people from watching “R” rated movies without public consent and noted that theaters aren’t accused of “banning” movies. 

In action during the meeting, board members made a small change to the operation of board committees to ensure that the full board is regularly updated on the committees’ work. Board members tabled action on how committee meetings should be conducted and whether those meetings should be subject to the Open Meetings Act. 

Committees set up earlier this year on subjects such as explicit materials and curriculum review have only met once each this summer. The committee meetings themselves became controversial when critics pointed out that they were called on short notice and held at unusual times such as a Thursday morning and a Friday evening. 

The change approved by the board Monday will have committee reports as a standing item on the board agenda so that other board members can get an update on what the committees are doing. Crouch noted that she would have been unaware of the two committee meetings this summer if she hadn’t attended them herself. 

In other action and information items, board members approved milk and bread bids, appointments and designations and a letter of agreement with the Brandywine District Education Association. Walker said the agreement with the teachers union gives new teachers a two-step increase on the wage scale. The current contract expires next June. Walker also reported that the district is implementing a new transportation “app” called “Bus Right” which allows the transportation office to communicate directly with drivers and parents in real time. He expects it to be fully operational in late winter.