Consider the role of a parent. Most would say, it includes love, nurturing, providing food, shelter, clothing, and education. What if, in a pivotal moment, it became laser focused when it came to their education? One outspoken and articulate father in the Pennridge School District named Darren Laustsen knew that he couldn’t remain silent in the face of encroaching reactionary forces determined to rob students of their right to learn in classrooms and school libraries that welcome diversity, inclusion, and critical engagement with history and society.
Edie Weinstein: Please talk about what launched you into civic involvement.
Darren Laustsen: The rhetoric. My involvement began in early 2021. My oldest daughter was preparing to start public school at Pennridge. She was excited to be a Guth Gator. I had heard countless positive stories about the district from friends and neighbors. I was convinced that we had settled in the perfect town to raise a family. At that same time, there was elevated national political turmoil. Emotions from the recent presidential election were still raw. Those tensions spilled over into local politics.
Then board vice president, Joan Cullen, had attended the January 6th Stop the Steal rally in Washington, DC. That protest triggered some very unfortunate events at the Capitol. It also served as a turning point in the Pennridge school district. Many in the community were upset about Cullen’s attendance at the rally. She had already gained a reputation for hyperbolic social media posts. It was a bridge too far for some in the community.
I watched my first Zoom school board meeting out of curiosity. Members of the public were demanding Cullen’s resignation, while others were vehemently defending her. She did not resign. I was not particularly concerned. It was only 1/9 of the board. She had some outlier ideas that I didn’t agree with, but she seemed to take her role as school board director seriously.
Soon after that, I attended a school board meeting in person. I heard the Republican school board candidates give public comment. Their statements were politically charged. The rhetoric included claims that Critical Race Theory and Radical Gender Theory were rampant in our schools. Teachers were being accused of being political indoctrination agents of the state.
It was successful in whipping up emotion, fear, and resentment. It was also unfair to our teachers and did not demonstrate the leadership qualities that would best serve our community. I was worried that the school board would become a platform for political showboating and that the focus would no longer be on our students’ success.
That was the point I decided to get involved.
Edie: Why is it essential that concerned people pay attention to what is going on in our communities with regard to school board elections?
Darren: The school board represents the voice of the community in the governance of our public schools. It comes with immense power and responsibility. It is a position that should be taken seriously and must be occupied by serious people. A mismanaged district can quickly result in very negative outcomes for our schools and our community. Look no further than the mass exodus of teachers from Pennridge in 2023 for evidence of that assertion.
Edie: Why is the term ‘backroom board’ significant as it applies to the Pennridge District?
Darren: There is a subset of five Pennridge school board directors (Blomgren, Reiss, Cormack, Bannis-Clemens, and Chaikin) who engage in private deliberations. That is not my accusation, but that of the remaining four board members. The backroom board ensures that information is obstructed from the public and even from the other duly elected board members.
It is a tactic that avoids scrutiny and accountability. It has only served to sow distrust from the community and internal turmoil amongst the board members. Important voting items are frequently added to the agenda at the very last minute with little supplementary information. It catches the public completely off-guard and unable to effectively mount a response to bad ideas.
Information relevant to voting decisions is also kept from the remaining four board members. It leaves them at an unfair disadvantage when public deliberation does take place. It is all very shady and undemocratic. One example is the hiring of Jordan Adams. He is the consultant picked to shake-up the district and implement the highly controversial 1776 curriculum. The contract was drafted without any input from the other four board members. In fact, they had zero knowledge that these conversations were even taking place.
The agenda item to approve this expensive and controversial contract was snuck onto the meeting agenda at the last possible minute. The public was stunned and caught totally off guard.
Edie: How can we read past seemingly positive language to the true intent of the group called PA Family Council, and others like them, including the ‘Independence Law Center?
Darren: If you see ‘Independence Law Center’, ‘PA Family Institute’, or ‘PA Family Council’ just understand that they are all the same organization. The Independence Law Center (ILC) is the legal arm of the group. The PA Family Council is a conservative religious advocacy firm that took public stances against same-sex marriage, same-sex foster parenting, hate-crime laws, and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Recently, ILC lobbyists have been shopping their legal services around to conservative school boards across Pennsylvania. The group works pro bono and often without any formal legal agreement. Because of that fact, boards have been able to enlist their services without disclosing the relationship to the public.
That was the case in both Pennridge and Central Bucks School District where the ILC secretly helped create policy regarding which books could be in the library, what discussions could be held in classrooms, and which bathrooms students can use. In Pennridge, there was even an in-person and undisclosed meeting between the board, the solicitor, the superintendent, and ILC lobbyists to discuss policy.
Besides the obvious ethical problems of a religious lobbying firm dabbling in the affairs of public schools, it also presents serious legal risk. The ILC has no fiduciary obligation to protect our taxpayers from litigation. Their real client is the PA Family Council, and they are paid to represent their interests alone. So, it is no surprise that the policy ILC writes for school districts has challenged existing legal boundaries and pushed the needle. If a district gets sued, the taxpayers are left with the bill. They are basically gambling with our tax dollars.
Edie: Let’s get to the nitty gritty of the intentions of groups like this; book banning. Why is it dangerous?
Darren: If I got into the real nitty gritty about book banning, I would never finish these interview questions. But historically book bans have had a few things in common; they are motivated by anxiety of societal change, fear is amplified by those who seek political influence, and it runs parallel with other bad things. Book bans are never looked back on favorably once some time has passed. No matter the angst, book banning solves nothing.
What bothers me about today’s environment is that literature of high merit is being called “pornography” by certain people in power. I find this language extremely dangerous. Those who defend books are being called “groomers” and accused of trying to sexualize the youth. Again, ridiculous hyperbole with no basis in reality. In so many instances, people are raising objections to books based on excerpts found on websites like booklooks.org without actually reading the entire novel. It reminds me of many reactionary historical parallels like McCarthyism.
Edie: What is the impact of school board policies that prevent teachers and librarians from doing their jobs?
Darren: When you accuse librarians of providing pornography to students and you insist that teachers are indoctrinating students, you tend to create a toxic work environment. Teachers and librarians are now operating under a culture of fear with vague policies dictating their professional behavior. All this is coupled with uncompetitive pay and a school board that has a history of retaliatory behavior towards any employee dissent. It is no wonder that 60 teachers quit this year alone.
Edie: What are your thoughts about the power that one parent has to have a book made unavailable for young readers, from a library such as Amanda Gorman’s called The Hill We Climb, since this mother determined that it was not appropriate for young readers.
Darren: You always have the option to prevent your own child from checking out a book. The district librarians make that process very easy. I find it particularly offensive that a parent can request a book in Pennridge and Central Bucks to be banned for all students and remain anonymous. That’s a major injustice. I’m granted no anonymity defending a book from being removed.
Edie: The group Moms For Liberty has been in the news with increasing frequency. Please offer your perspective on their agenda and what can be done to prevent them from doing more harm.
Darren: The name Moms For Liberty has become pretty toxic. Not too many people are willing to publicly claim affiliation with the organization in Bucks County. I believe that is a promising sign. It shows that people have caught on to their shtick. Moms For Liberty was once a political asset for Republicans and now it is turning into a liability. It could serve as the Doug Mastriano of the 2023 election. We have to work extremely hard to oppose their ideas and drive voter turnout, but their unpopularity is helping us with many moderate voters.
Edie: On a personal level, how do you manage to maintain composure in school board meetings?
Darren: I don’t.
Edie: What is your vision for education for your children and their peers?
Darren: I would love to see a strong secular public education where constitutional rights are protected, free expression is celebrated, and high academic standards are met. I believe that every student should feel valued and safe. I want an environment where the teachers are compensated fairly and treated with respect so that they can focus on providing the best possible education for my kids and their peers.
Edie: How can we support the teachers and librarians who are being impacted?
Darren: Defend the teachers’ Union. They deserve a fair and competitive contract. Get a yard sign from the Pennridge Education Association and display it proudly in your yard. Thank a teacher and tell them that you are behind them.
Edie: How can people get involved to address this growing problem in the schools?
Darren: Speak up at school board meetings, donate to the Democratic slate of candidates, volunteer, and VOTE. We cannot afford to be quiet anymore. Not this election.