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Oley Valley School District ends emergency shelter contract with American Red Cross

The Oley Valley School Board has voted to end an agreement that allowed the American Red Cross to use school facilities to shelter people affected by disasters.

The contract gave permission to the Pennsylvania Rivers Chapter of the Red Cross to temporarily provide emergency shelter at the high school and middle school.

A shelter agreement with the district has been in place since at least the early 2000s, but Red Cross officials said the organization has never used district facilities as a shelter site.

The board voted 5-4 to rescind the agreement at a February meeting.

Board members Aaron Keller, Zachary Fatkin, Dawn Zackon and Candice Corle voted to keep the contract. Mary Harris, Jamie Freed, Maria Bogdanova-Peifer, Benjamin Raker and Sharon Kershner voted against it.

Harris said at the meeting that she chose to err on the side of caution after discovering points of concern.

“I learned the Red Cross is facilitating illegal immigration to the U.S., providing maps and information about traveling to the southern border,” Harris said. “The international Red Cross may be well-intentioned, but it is … exacerbating the flow of migrants to the border and endangering the lives of those involved.”

Harris said she voted with the intent of safeguarding the community.

“There must be law and order, and we must facilitate that,” Harris said. “Otherwise, what does that teach our children?”

Bogdanova-Peifer said she didn’t think the contract was good for the school district.

“I don’t support any company that facilitates an invasion of the United States. Period,” Bogdanova-Peifer said.

She said she was worried that use of the facilities by the Red Cross could keep school from returning to session, and that a sheltering event could result in the spread of blood-borne diseases.

In response to a request for comments, the Red Cross shared a statement on an safety pamphlet distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross to migrants in Mexico and Central America.

The statement says the organization’s approach to migrants is strictly humanitarian, and the information provided is intended to reduce risk and help direct those in need to lifesaving assistance.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross and the American Red Cross, as a part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, neither prevents nor encourages migration,” the statement says. “We aim to help prevent and mitigate the humanitarian consequences that migration can bring — including separation and loss of family contacts, disappearances, serious medical issues and even death.”

Board opinions split

Fatkin, board president, said he wasn’t a fan of large nongovernmental organizations but thought rescinding the contract could put the district at financial risk.

“My concern is (without the agreement) Berks County emergency services comes in and takes a facility from us,” Fatkin said. “They’ve already said they don’t have the manpower to help our community … and they’re going to bring the Red Cross in anyway.”

He said he was concerned that without a contract  that requires the Red Cross to be responsible for damages to the facility during a shelter event, the district could be liable if anything were to happen.

Solicitor Benjamin Pratt said the district could be held liable for damages without a contract already in place, depending on the circumstances.

“With any agreement that you have, you have the terms set out and the responsibilities of each party spelled out,” Pratt said. “If you don’t have it, there’s going to be a lot of dialogue and discussion … and wondering what’s going to happen after the fact.”

Keller noted that those most likely to need shelter at Oley Valley’s facilities would be the district’s own residents.

“If there’s no issue in Oley … and they come in from somewhere else, I don’t think any of us are going to allow that to happen,” Keller said. “What you’re doing (by opposing a Red Cross contract) is you’re limiting the mobilization of services to our community.”

Red Cross weighs in

In a presentation to the  board in January, Red Cross officials noted that under the contract the district can deny the organization access to facilities.

“We are never going to unilaterally show up and say, ‘We’re going to use the school,’” said Peter Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Rivers Chapter. “It’s a dialogue.”

Organization officials noted that the scope of the disaster and the needs of victims would determine how much of the school would be used, with larger disasters possibly requiring the use of rooms beyond the gym and cafeteria.

Whether the use of the facility would result in school closing would depend on the nature of the disaster, said Dr. Gina Finnerty, superintendent.

Parts of the building could be designated as off limits by the district, officials said.

Damages to the facility, as well as the costs of food, supplies and custodial services incurred during the sheltering would be reimbursed, according to the contract.

Red Cross officials said the organization would not attempt to house migrants at school facilities.

“We are a disaster relief agency. That is an immigration issue,” William Slotter, Red Cross Pennsylvania Rivers Chapter government operations lead, said at the presentation. “We are as an organization providing some support like blankets, but we’re not doing sheltering for that.”

Brown said he prefers districts think of the Red Cross agreement as a partnership.

“We are asking you for your help to support the people in your communities that are impacted by a disaster,” Brown said.

He noted that over his 10 years working with the Red Cross he’d never seen a cataclysmic event that would require FEMA intervention in his chapter’s coverage area that includes Berks, Columbia, Lehigh, Montour, Northampton, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Snyder and Union counties.

Much more typical, Brown said, are smaller scale events, involving five to 20 people, most of whom would likely be rehoused after 24 to 36 hours.

“Our goal is to get people back into a regular living environment as quickly as possible,” Brown said.

Slotter said the Red Cross has shelter agreements with several other Berks districts, including Boyertown, Fleetwood, Reading, Muhlenberg and Gov. Mifflin.

Following Oley’s vote to end the agreement, the Red Cross provided this statement:

“The American Red Cross is prepared to open emergency shelters within hours of a disaster, and pre-identifying facilities and having agreements in place helps make that possible. These agreements allow us to select from a variety of facilities to best support people who turn to us for help after an emergency.

“Facility agreements with partners change for various reasons, year over year. The Red Cross is respectful of these decisions and continues to be grateful to local partners who open their doors to community members in times of disaster.”

Source: Berkshire mont

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