Apowerful microcosmic examination of issues likely to dominate national attention in coming years, docu "New School Order" is a natural for broadcast slots, and could find berth as a tool for community-forum discussions as well. Thirty-five miles outside Philadelphia, suburban Lansdale, Pa., has attracted many families by dint of its school system's high reputation. But the burg also sports a substantial populace of senior citizens who perceive several years of escalating local school taxation as irresponsibly eating into their retirement funds and Social Security. Overburdened class sizes at North Penn High School suggested to many a strong need for a second such facility. That proposal, however, was shot down by an increasingly conservative School Board, sparking dissent within the community

Focus for much hostility was board member Donna Mengel, accused of private anti-Semitic remarks (“I will be up in heaven watching Jews burn in hell,” and worse), which she flatly denied making. Despite negative media attention, she won her 1994 re-election bid, then proceeded to spearhead a series of school program cuts that pleased her overwhelmingly older constituency.

Parents were outraged, students discouraged. Several key school staff members — including the African-American principal and a longtime personnel director, whose scathing departure speech is preserved here — began to quit.

Some residents fear this trend is covertly ideological — that groups like the Christian Coalition are using school boards to advance their moral agenda by snuffing sex and drug education, multicultural sensitivity courses, etc. (This school district is quite diverse, with significant populations from Asia.) But art, music, athletic, remedial reading and other programs are also put on the chopping block. Conservative reps and voters claim it’s all about fiscal responsibility, hewing to a “back to the basics” educational ideal. Just what the real “basics” are in the ’90s is up for grabs, however.

Real losers in any case are the students, packed into overlarge classes and forced to compete for courses that might ensure college entry. A mock political convention held to educate kids about the process coincides with these real-world events, offering a certain ironic commentary.

Helmer Gini Reticker maintains a brisk pace and even-handed approach, cannily capturing the disparate voices of an inflamed yet unremarkable community. While some questions go unexamined here (e.g., Are there racial divides at North Penn?), pic delivers a lot of food for thought in its short span. As baby boomers age with diminished retirement resources, eventually swelling the senior populace to an all-time high, the questions of fiscal and moral priority raised here will become ever more crucial.

Tech aspects are fine within vid-shot, broadcast-apt limits. Opening/closing hymn is sung by Fredi Walker of the Broadway “Rent” cast.

New School Order

Production

An Independent Television Service presentation of a Constant Communications production. Co-producer, Jerry Kupfer. Produced, directed by Gini Reticker. Screenplay, Libby McDonald.

Crew

Camera (color, video-to-16mm), Joseph Friedman; editor, Kristen Huntley; music, Bob Golden, Rusty MaGee; sound, Jeffrey Livesy, Danny Gladstone; associate producer, McDonald. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 1997. Running time: 56 MIN
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