New School Order

Photo Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival

Gini Reticker returns to Sundance (her previous film, Heart of the Matter, was cowinner of the Freedom of Expression Award in 1994) with a bold new documentary on the increasing trend of school boards in America to be controlled by right-wing religious groups. Though the film concentrates on a specific town in suburban Pennsylvania, it reminds us that this process is taking place throughout the country. The film primarily focuses on one individual running for reelection. Donna Mengel is a self confessed conservative who claims to have the taxpayers' financial interests at heart. On closer inspection, she is accused of being anti-Semitic and promoting the values of Christian fundamentalism. Plans to build a much-needed second high school are being halted because Mengel asserts it is not financially worthwhile. In a religiously diverse environment, the board is suspiciously stacked with four out of nine members from the same fundamentalist Christian church.

Politically the grassroots efforts of this unofficial coalition are a lesson in successful activism. Members are visible at voting polls and school board meetings. Many of the parents seem overwhelmed by this new aggressive effort. They are burdened with the responsibility of doing what's best for their children as opposed to the present board's restrictive financial criteria.

The story unfolds like a drama with characters representing different voices in the community. A feeling of heightened suspense builds to the outcome of Mengel's reelection. If anyone still questions the importance of local politics, the films opening quote by Ralph Reed, executive director of the Christian Coalition, says it all: "The future of the country is determined in the principal's office. I'd rather elect a thousand school board members than a single president."
- Lisa Viola

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