Court ruling halts school board prayerBid accepted for former Schoeneck Elementary

By on October 19, 2011

By: KIMBERLY MARSELAS Review Correspondent, Staff Writer

Cocalico School Board meetings no longer begin with an invocation, following a federal appeals court ruling that found prayer at public school meetings with students present to be unconstitutional.

The new policy went into effect at Monday night’s meeting, where Board President Allen Dissinger asked for a moment of silence and then led the room in the Pledge of Allegiance.

After the meeting, Superintendent Bruce Sensenig said the choice to end public prayer came at the advice of legal counsel following the third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ summer ruling. In that case, the court decided that prayers by a local school board in Delaware were comparable to school graduation prayers previously disallowed. Prayers before other legislative bodies, such as borough councils, are still permitted.

Sensenig said the main issue seemed to be that students at a meeting led by school officials may feel compelled to take part in a religious practice.

In recent years, Pastor and board member Kevin Eshleman shared the duty of leading prayers with other members. He said the board would maintain its values in compliance with the court’s decision.

"We’re still going to pray," Eshleman said. "We’ll just do it in the back before we come out for the meeting. It’s a matter of integrity. We are expected to uphold the law, and the law has been made pretty clear on this point."

In other action Monday, the board voted to not seek any exceptions to the state’s Act 1 tax cap, saying they would stay within a pre-established index. In the past, the district has sought exemptions related to special education and retirement costs that could have allowed it to raise taxes beyond the state’s pre-approved limit. However, the board never actually used those exceptions and this year will not be eligible to do so.

"That’s a good thing for the taxpayers," Sensenig said. "This does limit us to the index."

Dissinger added that the board hopes to pass a budget with no tax increase at all, but Sensenig said several threats could challenge that goal. Among them are a possible decrease in state funding, lower property tax payments if the number of assessment appeals increases and potential "un-funded mandates."

The board also accepted a $201,000 bid for the former Shoeneck Elementary School at 80 W. Queen St. in Stevens. No one bid on the property in an original bid process held in June; this round brought three bids ranging from $35,000 to $201,000. Sensenig said the winning bidder, Moyer & Ziegler Partnership of Myerstown, was in the redevelopment business.

The board also voted to award a diploma to Roger Mellott , who left Cocalico High School in 1972 to serve with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. The diploma was awarded under a state act that makes eligible all veterans who left high school to serve and completed their military requirements.

"We’re pleased at this time to honor his service," said Sensenig, whose comments were echoed by board member Michael Messner.

Mellott did not attend the meeting, but he will receive a diploma making him an official member of Cocalico High School’s class of 1973 from Principal Chris Irvine as soon as it is printed.

Ella Mussser, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, also reviewed the district’s 2011 PSSA scores, which had all schools and grade levels meeting or exceeding state performance goals. Detailed reports on each school’s performance are available at cocalico.org/dist/gen_info.html under the Academic Performance link.

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