By Madeleine Thompson
Six Mount Vernon Board of Education candidates will contest three seats in the local election on Tuesday, Nov. 8. The candidates, Margie Bennett (incumbent), Jeffrey Cline, Marie Curry, Cheryl Feasel, Jolene Goetzman (incumbent) and Stephen Kelly, are all non-partisan, but some of their campaign promises have become controversial.
Cline’s support for teaching religion and creationism in the schools’ science curriculums and Kelly’s desire to let students “decide for themselves which evidence seems more convincing” have sparked a movement of concerned Mount Vernon parents and community members.
The movement includes several members of the Kenyon community, including Kachen Kimmel, wife of a Kenyon employee; Professor of Political Science Michelle Mood, and philanthropic advisor Kent Woodward-Ginther ’93. “It feels like some kind of old-fashioned time to hear these people and to experience their navet about these issues,” said Kimmel, who is also running for Gambier’s Village Council. “I’m a Christian of a certain sort, and I’m offended that I can’t have my own understanding of Christianity.”
Many citizens who remember the 2008 John Freshwater incident especially object to creationism entering school curriculums. Freshwater taught science at Mount Vernon Middle School until it came out that he burnt a cross into the arm of a student during a science experiment and gave extra credit assignments like watching pro-intelligent design documentaries.
He was officially fired in January of this year, though his case is still in court.
At a “Meet the Candidate” event in Mount Vernon on Oct. 27, Cline addressed the importance of teachers putting their Christian values into their lessons despite the risk of another expensive lawsuit like Freshwater’s, which has now cost the schools almost $2 million.
“As it stands today, with the separation of church and state, the law is that you can’t preach religion from the classroom,” Cline said. “With that law, as bogus as I think it is, we have to agree with it for now. But I think as people in our communities we need to start challenging that.”
Kelly, who has worked balancing budgets for the Salvation Army for 20 years, would not confirm his position on teaching creationism. “I find it very interesting that this question keeps coming up,” Kelly said. “I have my own personal beliefs on the subject, but that’s not what I’m running on.” In a recent email to Woodward-Ginther, Kelly stated that he believes there is “considerable scientific evidence that challenges the assumptions of the old earth/evolutionary model.”
“Intelligent design is not science. It’s already been proven and litigated, and we don’t need to spend any more of the school’s money litigating that,” Knox County Democratic Party Chair Meg Galipault said. “That’s our biggest fear. If one of those individuals gets voted onto the board, we’re going to end up sinking more money into something that’s already been decided.” Knox County Republican Party Chair Chip McConnville declined to give his opinion on teaching creationism in schools.
Woodward-Ginther, a Mount Vernon parent and Kenyon employee, strongly disagrees with the platforms of any candidates who do not speak out against teaching creationism in schools. “In my opinion, there is no scientific evidence of creationism or so-called intelligent design,” he said. “[The evangelical protestants] have no interest in including creationist theory from Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or other religions. This narrow approach is a thinly veiled attempt to have a Christ-centered curriculum, which has no place whatsoever in public schools.”
Mood, who recently set up a Political Action Committee (PAC) called Concerned Mount Vernon City School District Citizens, of which she is the treasurer, agreed. “Teaching our kids non-science will be damaging to their ability to grasp the appropriate intellectual foundations and tools necessary to advance intellectually and in employment,” she said. “Americans are already falling behind in science; it is damaging to hold children back further in this area. We just came off three years of distraction, dissension and expense related to the many lawsuits connected to our John Freshwater case.”
The Concerned Citizens PAC is not affiliated with any party, but it is supporting incumbents Bennet and Goetzman. “We are completely across the political spectrum, probably with the exception of Tea Party-ists … but we are 100 percent united on making this a better district,” Kimmel said. “We are supporting Goetzman and Bennett … because they have lived through the Freshwater incident and helped the district do the right thing.”
Kimmel, Woodward-Ginther and Mood stressed the issue’s relevance to Kenyon. It affects students, parents and teachers alike, they said, and everyone who can should vote. “The quality of the schools already has an impact on the location of faculty. Our children are bearing the brunt of our choice to live near campus; you students are the prime beneficiaries of that,” Mood said. “I earnestly believe that the least you can do is help us out by going out and voting for school board candidates who will uphold state standards.”
“Kenyon students can really make a difference,” Kimmel said. “This isn’t Occupy Wall Street. In this kind of area, small numbers of voters are huge.”