Board President Raeann Hofkin has been under fire since Jay Kressly Elias, a transgender man and alumnus of the Upper Perkiomen School District, sent the school board an impassioned essay which was shared by the Facebook page ‘Upper Perk Residents’ on Wednesday. The email, calling for Hofkin’s resignation over transphobic comments made on Facebook, has been shared nearly 160 times since it was posted.
An attempt to read the entire letter (below, in embed) into the record was made during Thursday evening’s virtual school board meeting, however a two-minute rule for speakers meant Hofkin was able to silence the reader before she had gotten to the end of it.
Hofkin’s posts–one which was on her personal Facebook page, and another which was on somebody else’s post in the ‘REAL Residents of Upper Perk’ group–were both in reference to PA Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, who is a transgender woman.
At Thursday’s meeting, Hofkin spoke defiantly in addressing the online firestorm her comments generated during her president’s report at the start of the meeting.
In a prepared statement, she claimed her comments were not about Levine, but about Gov. Tom Wolf. She did not explain why a photo of Levine rather than Wolf appeared with one of them.
Hofkin stressed that she was utilizing her “personal page” to share her views, but did promise that “it won’t happen again.” She added that the “emails and comments were a great distraction for all” and specifically apologized to the administration and school board. She closed by saying, “I would hope that we can put politics aside.”
Hofkin would later go on to claim that she attempted to reach out to Elias, who she said replied to her with a “scathing email.”
Board vice president Mike Elliot pushed back against Hofkin, saying “I think the people who were really missing in that apology are the people who those comments hurt… our actions have consequences.”
“One in four students experience bullying and we sit up here talking about how important that is to us,” he said, continuing, “We talk the talk but do we walk the walk?”
Elliot then made three separate motions for additional agenda action items to be taken: the first being a joint statement from the board addressing the comments; the second calling for an official censure of her; and a third calling for the removal of Hofkin as board president. Board member Judith Maginnis seconded all three motions, which the board then approved, with Hofkin casting the sole dissenting vote on each.
More than two dozen community members, alumni, and current and former teachers in the district (including Elias’ mother) as well as a current transgender student utilized the public comments portion of the meeting to admonish Hofkin from various perspectives.
Some criticized her for not apologizing directly to the community while others accused her of attempting to deflect the negative attention from her public comments. A number of speakers also addressed what they said is a history of unprofessional, bigoted behavior by Hofkin. Some also drew a thread between comments like those that have come from people like Hofkin and childhood bullying and even suicides in the district.
A few community members did join the meeting to defend Hofkin, including David Bradley Sr., who claimed that any action against Hofkin would be in violation of the First Amendment. A few commenters addressed the First Amendment claims by drawing the distinction between ‘free speech’ and ‘hate speech,’ with one saying: “Hate speech has its consequences.” Others mentioned examples of individuals being terminated from places of employment for social media activity as well as other public comments.
The joint statement from the board referencing Hofkin’s comments passed unanimously, and read: “Those posts do not speak for us and they do not speak for the Upper Perkiomen School District. Inclusion for all.”
The second motion by Elliot, to censure Hofkin, was then discussed, during which Hofkin asked, “Do I get any due process before I get sentenced?”
Solicitor Kyle Somers explained that the motion to censure was not an official proceeding, but rather a symbolic expression of disapproval of her posts.
That motion also passed unanimously.
Discussion of the third motion, to remove Hofkin from the board presidency, led Hofkin to share the same sentiment. There was also some question as to whether or not the board had the authority to remove her as president, which Somers asserted they do.
Several board members, including Stephen Cunningham and Peg Pennepacker, expressed concern about whether Hofkin’s removal might open the board up to future legal action, which Somers said it wouldn’t do as long as she was allowed to continue in her capacity as a board member.
Maginnis praised Hofkin’s role as a “watchdog” for taxpayers, but expressed her opinion that Hofkin was no longer appropriate to be the “face of the district.”
Dr. Kerry Drake urged Hofkin to voluntarily step down rather than be removed from the president’s seat.
Hofkin then reiterated that she “did not make a comment against Dr. Levine… and did nothing against the LGBT community.”
She went on to characterize the discussion as a “politically-motivated witch hunt.”
Ultimately, she remained adamant in her refusal to apologize.
After a few more comments from Stephen Cunningham, Keith McCarrick and Melanie Cunningham, the board voted 8-1 to remove Hofkin, who cast the sole dissenting vote.
Drake was named the new board president.
Although the meeting was streamed live online, a recording of it is not available online. Minutes, when available, will be published on the school district’s website.
The Upper Perkiomen School District serves nearly 3,400 students in Upper Montgomery and eastern Berks counties.
In a “Commitment to Inclusion and Acceptance” published on the district’s website on June 2, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the district said it is striving to be a “safe haven” of tolerance for all.
“As a public school district, which is committed to helping and supporting ALL children succeed and achieve, we feel, given the current environment in our country, that it is vital to re-emphasize UPSD’s commitment to inclusion and acceptance. We will not tolerate hate and will stand against racism,” the statement says, in part. “Over the past year, our district has re-committed itself to establishing a culture of kindness and unity, with the hope that all of our students and community members feel welcomed, included, supported and heard, no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or background.”