At the same times, kids in school would make fun of him using homophobic slurs or exaggerating how he spoke, and while I didn’t join in I was not yet confident enough to speak out – that experience was one among several that helped me to learn that as uncomfortable as it might feel to speak out or stand up for folks, especially to your peers and friends, it is nothing compared to the harm that can come from not doing so.
Our next post of our 2023 primary election season series ‘Political Q&A’ with progressive candidates throughout Pennsylvania. Candidates can be anywhere in Pennsylvania running for any level of office. Please note that these are not necessarily endorsements, more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with the LGBTQ community, progressives neighbors, and others with an interest in Western Pennsylvania. If your candidate would like to participate, please contact us pghlesbian at gmail dot com. We welcome candidates at all levels of government across the entire Commonwealth.
By participating, candidates are saying that they
- must be an LGBTQIA+ ally, specifically supporting equality and dignity for transgender persons
- identify as pro-choice
- must affirm that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that they accept the certified Pennsylvania’s election results
Valerie is the first candidate for School Board to respond – I am specifically hoping to find more such participants because school districts are a very important political and community role. I’ve been aware of the coordinated efforts to bring progressive, balances folx to the Mt. Lebanon School District Board. Valerie agreed to the Q&A and invite other members of the Lebo for Every Student to participate. Her perspective as a current board director is helpful to understand what the district has been doing well, especially in these capricious times.
I also found her response about classroom experience a solid reminder of how we should be evaluating all candidates for this important role.
Your Name: Valerie Fleisher
Your Pronouns: she/her
The Office You Seek: School Director, Mt. Lebanon (www.LeboForEveryStudent.com)
How do you describe your identity? I am a Jewish, white, cisgender woman.
Tell us about your district. What is a hidden gem most people might not know about?
Mt. Lebanon is a first ring suburb of Pittsburgh. We have a wonderful public school system, with 7 elementary schools, 2 middle schools, and a high school. Being a walking district with small neighborhood elementary schools really defines the character of Mt. Lebanon. Some of my favorite things about Lebo besides the school district are the access to public transportation (I can walk to a T stop), our amazing public library, the restaurants and shops in our Uptown and Beverly Road business districts, and the fact that I have two small breweries in walking distance to my house (Hitchhiker and East End).
How has redistricting impacted your district? It hasn’t! Our school board candidates run at-large, so we do not have districts.
Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life?
The first LGBTQ person I remember meeting was a middle school teacher of mine, who was (and is) also a family friend. I remember my parents welcoming him and his partner to our home without a lot of fanfare, just like they would any of the other couples they were friends with, which helped me to learn acceptance at a young age. At the same times, kids in school would make fun of him using homophobic slurs or exaggerating how he spoke, and while I didn’t join in I was not yet confident enough to speak out – that experience was one among several that helped me to learn that as uncomfortable as it might feel to speak out or stand up for folks, especially to your peers and friends, it is nothing compared to the harm that can come from not doing so. This is a lesson I am still learning, as well as trying to pass on to my own kids.
Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the Mt. Lebanon School Board? How will you respond to those priorities?
Based on my own experience, as well as listening to LGBTQ students, caregivers, and community members, I think the top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the Mt. Lebanon School Board are: creating an environment where LGBTQ students are included and accepted, and feel welcome and safe to participate in class and extracurriculars without worrying about discrimination, bullying, harassment, and microaggressions; ensuring faculty and staff have the professional development and resources to competently support the needs to LGBTQ students; and curriculum and instructional materials that reflect LGBTQ stories, histories, and people.
Please give an example of how intersectionality has informed your work.
I will give an example from my “day job” as COO of a Pittsburgh nonprofit. Back in 2017, the Women and Girls Foundation launched an initiative called Femisphere. I remember meeting with the director of the initiative to talk about their work, and some of the research they had done with single mothers in Pittsburgh experiencing poverty, the majority of whom are black single mothers. The biggest barriers to employment opportunity that these single mothers self-identified was access to reliable public transportation and high-quality, affordable childcare. We talked about how if you work to resolve these issues, you not only help remove barriers for single mothers experiencing poverty, you really help everyone. I have taken that framing with me both professionally and in my service on the school board, to consider how to proactively remove barriers to opportunity and set up systems that support those who need it most, which really does benefit everyone.
Please give an example of when a coworker has persuaded you to change or adjust your perspective on an issue.
I am a Virgo in Operations, so this is the most difficult question for me on this whole list! In general, starting out in my career, largely due to my own personality and anxieties, when presented with a new idea or challenge I would lead with no. Over a couple of decades of working with two particular (awesome) coworkers who are BIG IDEA people, I have learned (am learning) to swim with ambiguity more as we explore a new idea or challenge and how it might be operationalized, including giving other people space to iterate before jumping in with how I would do it. It is very much a work in progress since it is not so much changing my mind on a topic as it is literally changing my mind. But it has been a very useful skill to develop serving on a school board with 9 people, and in a community like Mt. Lebanon with residents who are very involved with advocating to the school board about the issues that matter to them.
We know these national, state, and local policy debates and enactments have a devastating impact on our students because they are coming to our school board meetings and telling us so themselves. We have had students advocating for changes to policy, procedures, and curriculum, for mental health supports, and for overall improvements in school culture. We hear them.
Do you have classroom or instruction experience?
Not directly. I spent 12 years working in higher education, first working in Communications at the performing arts center at Dartmouth College, and then as Operations Manager at a small independent arts school in Vermont called Center for Cartoon Studies, where I managed recruiting, admissions, financial aid, student records, student activities, etc. So a lot of experience working with students but not as a teacher!
On your website you say you are running to “continue the progress we have made towards a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive school community.” Please identity some specific examples of this progress as well as what you would like to address next.
From 2020-21, the Mt. Lebanon School District formed a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force as well as a board level Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) committee. The Task Force met from Nov 2020-May 2021, and included a diverse group of administrators, faculty, board members, students, parents, and community members. Together, we worked to define equity in the district; review demographic, academic, and disciplinary data through an equity lens in order to identify opportunity gaps; conduct community outreach sessions with other stakeholder groups such as students, teachers, and the community; draft a district equity statement; and develop a recommendation for strategic DEI goals and action steps. The board adopted the Equity Statement in June 2021, and set District level goals for DEI action step implementation in both the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school year. This resulted in a series of needs assessments and action plans for all functional areas of the District administration, the creation and sharing of a District inclusion calendar and resources, formal professional development opportunities for staff, policy and procedure audits and revisions through an equity lens, the development of a DEI dashboard to transparently share information and data with the community, and more. Next steps include a full scale curriculum audit and procedural audit next calendar year, as well as ensuring that DEI is a priority for the hiring of a new superintendent and assistant superintendent this spring, and embedded in the DNA of our next 5-year strategic plan.
As of February 9, 2023, 301 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced across the United States compared with 315 total in 2022. While Pennsylvania has no active legislation on the State level, there is motion specifically targeting drag queens and drag performances. And we have seen activity at the school board policy levels stripping LGBTQ students of their rights. Tell us about the impact these numbers have on students and other youth. What outcomes can we expect as this legislative tsunami grows?
We know these national, state, and local policy debates and enactments have a devastating impact on our students because they are coming to our school board meetings and telling us so themselves. We have had students advocating for changes to policy, procedures, and curriculum, for mental health supports, and for overall improvements in school culture. We hear them. As much as possible I will work to improve the lived experience for LGBTQ students and for all students in our District through positive forward action, and where that is not always possible I will be a seat on the board holding the line from allowing harmful policies to move forward.
What is the gold standard for LGBTQ affirming school district policies?
I think this is an area that is still evolving (and in fact many school district’s are moving in the opposite direction of policies that are specifically harmful to LGBTQ people), so I don’t know that a gold standard has emerged. A framework that I really admire is the Human Rights Campaign Welcoming Schools program, since it offers districts a comprehensive approach to setting policy, training faculty and staff, developing curriculum and instructional resources, involving families and the community, and assessing school climate as a baseline and to measure impact of any changes that have been implement and identify additional areas for improvement.
It is a contentious time to serve on school boards – safety threats, intractable extremists, people clinging to inaccurate information, and letting irrational fears drive policy. What is necessary to bring reason and fairness back to school boards?
I wish I knew the answer! On a national level, campaign finance reform – there have been a lot of outside groups spending big money to sway school board elections across the country and right here in Pennsylvania. On a local level, our own board endeavors to remain as focused on the business at hand and to keep our public meetings as civil and well run as possible.
How do competitive primary elections benefit the residents of a community? I am a big believer in small d democracy, and I think that competitive elections force candidates and communities to have conversations about issues facing the school district and define and clarify a community’s priorities and values. Although when I ran unopposed in 2019 I STILL knocked on hundreds of doors to have those important conversations with the people in my district.
What are three reasons people should vote for you/support your campaign?
I bring more than 20 years of nonprofit leadership experience in leadership in finance, administration, and governance. I also bring experience serving on the Mt. Lebanon school board for the past 4 years, including 3 years in leadership as board Vice President. I love my community and will roll up my sleeves to volunteer on causes that are important to me, such as Lebo Pride, the annual Juneteenth Celebration, other progressive campaigns, municipal boards and authorities, my kids’ school and scouting activities, or with Sunnyhill Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills.
Tell me about your other endorsements and supporters.
I am endorsed by the Mt. Lebanon Democratic Committee.
Is there anything you’d like to add? No response.
Where can readers find your campaign on social media?
Follow @LeboForEveryStudent on Facebook and Instagram
Thank you, Valerie.
Other Q&A’s in this election cycle series. You can read previous cycle Q&A’s here.
- Q&A with Rachael Heisler, Candidate for Pittsburgh City Controller
- Q&A with Abigail Salisbury, Candidate for PA State House District 34
- Q&A with Erica Rocchi Brusselars, Candidate for Allegheny County Treasurer
- Q&A with Bethany Hallam, Incumbent Candidate for Allegheny County Council, At-Large
- Q&A with Tracy Royston, Candidate for Pittsburgh City Controller
- Q&A with Lita Brillman, Candidate for City Council, District 5
- Q&A with Kate Lovelace, Candidate for Magisterial District Judge 05-2-31
- Q&A with Valerie Fleisher, Candidate for Mt. Lebanon School Board
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