Rural dispute, major debate | News, Sports, Jobs
To the applause of more than 150 in attendance for a town hall meeting at the Kiantone Fire Station on an eveing in late September, a tenured Pine Valley Central School social studies teacher stepped forward to share her plight. Angela Bittinger’s comments, videotaped by Chautauqua Updates and available through YouTube, soon spiraled to a national platform.
“Schools are the training ground for a lot of the agenda that the government is teaching our children,” she said, “and I’m not going to be a part of it anymore.”
During her more than five-minute platform, she mentioned educating students about censorship issues in China and discussing how vaccinations should be a family decision. Bittinger also says some of these comments have led to her having a hearing with the district.
“I’d love for it to be made public,” she said.
That hearing, held behind closed doors at the LoGuidice Center of the Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Fredonia, took place last Tuesday.
Administrators, as is customary, are staying mum.
Disciplinary concerns regarding any teacher are rarely detailed publicly. This issue, however, has gained traction due to the setting and the political firestorm that surrounds COVID-19, facial coverings and a bevy of information and misinformation that has circulated through social media and other online media outlets.
“I’m tired of pushing masks on the kids,” Bittinger says later in the video that has nearly 200,000 views as of Friday. “I’m tired of being a tyrant because I don’t actually think the masks actually work. I’m tired of the social distancing and telling the parentst that all this stuff is happening in schools and then there’s homecoming and the kids are taking photos right next to each other. No masks on. We’re lying to parents. I’ve had enough.”
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Pine Valley Central Schools is a district that has an enrollment of 485 students with a 66% graduation rate. According to the state Education Department, 67% of the enrollment is “economically disadvantaged.”
Surrounded by the hills of Chautauqua County near the Cattaraugus County border, the district serves the communities of Cherry Creek, South Dayton and Conewango Valley. Many of the students who attend school here have grown up in farming country. They understand the importance of hard work and also possess an attitude of politeness. In addition, similar to neighboring regions, its political values lean toward the conservative side.
As part of the mission statement, adopted in 2018, the district aims to prepare all students to be college and career ready as lifelong learners, instilled with the intrinsic values of integrity, perseverance, responsibility, curiosity and community service. In addition, the “school board will encourage and support activities that promote a positive and unified culture among students, staff and community.”
According to the New York state vaccine tracker, about 55% of Chautauqua County and 49% of the Cattaraugus County population has received a first dose of the vaccine. That’s close to the numbers for Cherry Creek, where the Centers for Diseases Control notes 48% of the population has been vaccinated and South Dayton, which was listed at 41%.
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Bittinger is no stranger to being outspoken. Before moving outside the former village of Forestville, she would attend meetings to complain about the quality of water being delivered to her residence and other customers. In addition, she fully supported the former village’s dissolution that was approved by the voting community in 2015.
This current battle, however, is much more personal as she has been a social studies teacher at the school for 14 years. Though she publicly spoke out at a meeting sponsored by state Sen. George Borrello that included Assemblyman Andrew Goodell and Chautauqua County Executive PJ Wendel, all Republicans, Bittinger says she is a registered Democrat who is concerned about the direction of education. At this moment, she says, the pendulum has swung too far to the left.
“I want an even playing field,” she said.
Her discussion in a phone interview this week was similar to what she said during the gathering Sept. 30 with some exceptions. She did say her first problem with the administration came during the COVID-19 crisis last year when she told her superiors social distancing was not being enforced and masks were not being properly worn by students in school buildings. Later, she ended up later battling the virus.
She also discussed some other developments, including interest from national talk show hosts as well as a recent filing of a complaint with the state Division of Human Rights. In addition, she says she is still waiting for the district to respond to her retaliation, discrimination and harassment complaint she filed months ago against her employer.
Most disturbing about the situation, Bittinger said, is her employer took cell phones of her colleagues to document communications between her and other staff members. She is being represented by a legal team that includes attorney Lindy Korn of Buffalo.
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About 25 protesters were outside the BOCES to show support for Bittinger earlier this week during the hearing. On her Facebook page, Bittinger said she “was grilled for an hour” on topics that revolved around the COVID vaccine that included debating the issue with colleagues and students, what was in the vaccine and religious issues. “Most questions, I took my cadet rights and didn’t answer,” she noted.
While Bittinger has been open regarding her side of this story, education administrators are much more guarded.
Bryna Moritz, Pine Valley superintendent, offered this statement: “While employee privacy rights generally prevent the district from commenting on specific personnel matters, the district can unequivocally state that none of its teachers are suspended from work, and that there is no disciplinary proceeding or hearing scheduled for any of its teachers. Any statement to the contrary is simply not true.”
For her part, Bittinger is not optimistic about a return to the classroom. “They’re playing real dirty,” she said.