Cheltenham School Board president steps down from leadership position over commencement remarks

On June 11th, reported on Cheltenham School District releasing an edited video of its high school’s commencement due to a portion of a speech from then School Board President Joel Fishbein that was described as having given a “white-washed account” of African-American history. Fishbein retold a story from the history newsletter Letters from an American published by historian and Boston College professor Heather Cox Richardson. The newsletter recounted how Frederick Doughlas made his decision to escape slavery and includes language that described how some slaves had it better than others.

Today, Fishbein announced via email that he has resigned as the president of the school board, but will continue to serve out his term. In the announcement, he expressed regret for his “poor choice of subject matter” and apologized for the pain associated with his words. He then states that going further commencement addresses should be reviewed prior to the ceremony.

Below is the announcement:


Dear Members of the Cheltenham Community: 

I am stepping down today as president of the Cheltenham School District Board of School Directors. School Board Vice President Pam Henry will immediately become interim president of the board and I will serve the remainder of my term as an active member of the board. 

Giving up leadership of the school board is not an easy decision, but it is an important first step to help our community heal from the hurt I caused at the June 3 high school commencement ceremony. 

I am grateful to the administrators, educators, parents, fellow board members and students who have shared their feelings about my words and their impact upon them. From them, I have learned that I had an enormous blind spot in my understanding of the trauma our country’s history of slavery and continuing racism has inflicted. I apologize most of all to the students. I am deeply sorry that my poor choice of subject matter and words inflicted further pain particularly on what should have been their joyous occasion. I am also deeply sorry for causing division and hurt in this community that I love. 

Some may feel that my initial apology should have been sufficient; however, I believe that to repair the injury I caused requires action, not just words. As some have pointed out, the president of the school board is the public face of the school district and, having caused the particular type of pain I did to the community, it is inappropriate for me to remain in this role. 

I appreciate the kindness that has been afforded me by many of the same people who my words hurt, who still found the grace to recognize my contribution to the district, and acknowledged that my speech was inconsistent with who they know me to be as a person. 

I did not share my speech with anyone in advance and I should have. This mistake revealed a hole in our board process. You will be hearing from the board about a new requirement that all graduation speeches be reviewed in advance, to ensure our public ceremonies honor our graduates, our Cheltenham families, and our rich and diverse backgrounds in the way that we all deserve. In addition, cultural proficiency expert Dr. Barbara Moore Williams is working with the board to develop other action steps to promote healing and to rebuild trust. 

With the help of your feedback, I have become even more deeply aware of the urgency of cultural proficiency in our district. I have more listening and learning to do, and I am committed to this work. 


Joel I. Fishbein