Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Yonkers resident Gini Reticker spent a year of her life following a 1996 school board election in Lansdale, Penn. It is a suburb 30 minutes away from Philadelphia, in a school district called North Penn. People moved to the district for the future of their kids -- so they could attend a school that won a National Schools of Excellence Award from the federal government. Then Donna Mengel was elected to the school board, and nothing would ever be the same. In fact, in many people's eyes, everything became worse.Reticker is the producer and director of New School Order, a documentary which will air on PBS Oct. 3. Her film looks into religious conservatism on the local political level, using Lansdale as a case study. Within five years, Donna Mengel rose from regular church-goer to vice president of the North Penn school district. While Reticker's film never proves that Mengel is associated with the Christian Coalition, it becomes apparent very quickly that Mengel has a religious agenda -- one that entails wiping away the usual public school "sins" of sex education and the teaching of evolution rather than creationism, among other "values-oriented" courses.Reticker is married and has a child who attends the second grade. The director moved to Yonkers four years ago after living in New York City for several years. "When you have a kid," Reticker explained, "you just need more room. The city was too cramped." New School Order premiered at the 1997 Sundance Festival, and it has been shown at the Human Rights Watch Festival at Lincoln Center, the Ossining Film Festival and several other film festivals. The Weekly talked with Reticker about the film and the lessons to be learned. As we soon found out, no one should take school board elections lightly. Parents as well as students must be involved in the process to ensure the kind of education they want. If they don't get involved, someone else will.Weekly: What has been the response to this film?Reticker: The response has been great all over. The film really encourages a lot of discussion afterwards. At the Sundance Festival, the discussion was so heated that invariably we were asked to leave the theater. And the people who tended to stay were people who had kids or people who dealt with school systems or educators dealing with the issues. So it always encourages a lot of discussion.Weekly: What prompted you to make this film?Reticker: What prompted me to make this film was having a daughter who was entering school. I became much more aware of education issues in general. Also, I was very impressed by the 1994 takeover of Congress by the Republicans, and the Christian Coalition took credit for those elections. That they were the ones who put the Republicans in office. And I remembered, when I had been doing research on another film, having seen tapes of the Christian Coalition when Ralph Reed first came on board in 1989. They had these tapes of how to do community organizing and how to get elected to office. One of the offices they targeted was school boards. And I thought, 'Wow, they went from 1989 when he first came in to electing a Congress. That's very impressive.' I wondered what was going on with them and what were they doing.Weekly: So you tried to find out what was going on in Westchester?Reticker: Right. Since I have a family, I wanted to stay in the area, and there was stuff going on in Westchester at that time, too. School budgets were not being passed. There was talk of Christian Coalition or Christian conservative involvement in local elections throughout Westchester County. I wrote a proposal to a funder, and I did research on a town in upper Westchester, where something like this was supposedly going on. During the course of doing the research, a teacher in Harrison told me, 'This is not just about religion. There's a lot of politicians who have found religion. This is about a tax revolt, which this country hasn't seen since Proposition 13.' So I became quickly aware that this wasn't just a Christian issue or a religious issue or a values issue, but it was very much related to a tax issue. By the time I got the proposal back, all the Westchester elections were done. And I wanted to take a year and follow the election. So I began to do more research and find a town within a 100-mile radius. I circled Pennsylvania because they have partisan elections for school board, they have primaries ... And North Penn had all the ingredients. There were accusations of conservative Christian attempts to take over the school board, there were many, many tax issues, there was a large senior citizen population, there was an exploding school population -- so that enrollment and class sizes were becoming major issues -- and I felt all this really reflected what was going on in the country.Weekly: And North Penn was a really good school system.Reticker: Yes, it was an excellent school district and an excellent school. It wasn't that the community did not have the ability to provide a great education for its kids, it's just that its will ... that people were becoming divided over the issues I had stated. The senior citizens were being played off the needs of the young. And there was no question about the fact that people who now run the school board consider themselves to be and call themselves "Christian Warriors."Weekly: So Donna Mengel, who is one of the main people featured in the film, played the young off the old?Reticker: She definitely played the young off the old, which is really easy to do in education because you can say, 'Well, when we were going to school there were 50 kids in the classroom, and they didn't teach sex education, and they didn't have multiculturalism, and they didn't have special ed. If they just stopped having all these new-fangled things then we could go back to when there was greater discipline and family values. And we can go back to the way things used to be.' It's a great formula for playing the old off the young. And I definitely think [Mengel] fanned the flames of intolerance in that community.Weekly: Don't kids become more cynical toward the system when they see adults pushing something through that doesn't benefit the students, but rather the adults' own personal and political agendas? Even though the adults claim they're doing it for the kids?Reticker: I think that became clear with the students [in the film] who were discussing what happened in the school board elections. That they felt that no one really cared about their education as much as they did. And the kids were the ones who were impacted by the lack of attention they were able to get or by the over-sized classrooms. What kind of the colleges were they going to get into? What kind of opportunities would they have? I think the kids very much felt like that. That the adults were saying they care about them, but the adults, in fact, cared little about their education. I shouldn't say all of the adults, but people were saying things about the kids when they we really only concerned about their own political goals.Weekly: And it seems that the people who were most affected by the board's decisions were the people with the least amount of money.Reticker: Yeah, I think that's the irony of the situation. This is a community where it has experienced a great deal of change in the last 15 years. There has been a huge boom in the population. And the old timers of the community are generally people who worked in the meat packing factories, who worked in the quarries, who worked in agriculture. Those are the people who have less money and have less options. The people who are moving into the district -- and they moved into the district because it did have such great schools -- if this school fails, they'll send their kids to private schools or they'll move. So they have the ability to get the education their kids need, and they have the financial resources to do that. So ultimately the kids who get hurt are the kids whose parents have the least financial abilities to change. Supposedly, these are the people Donna Mengel says she's fighting for.Weekly: Juan Baughn, the principal of the high school, seemed to think Donna Mengel was in it just for the spotlight, for her own political power. Reticker: Donna would definitely like to seek higher political office, and I think that's a very big issue. The issue of making education politicized is becoming very important. People are getting into it for their own political power, and not for the education of kids, which is a very dangerous trend.


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