The monthly Pennridge School Board meeting spiraled into complete dysfunction once again Tuesday evening when disagreement between board members prompted an emergency executive session.
During the evening’s first public comment period Kevin Foster, a parent and local taxpayer, pointed out that a dollar amount for legal services had not been included as part of the financials that accompanied the meeting’s agenda.
“What is noticeable right off the bat is tonight there is no bill on the consent calendar. On August 28, this board approved $160,000 to pay the Pennridge School Board attorney Eckert Seamans,” he said. “What exactly is this money being used for? We are left to guess for ourselves since zero detail is provided.”
Foster also mentioned an ongoing legal complaint against Pennridge pertaining to the removal of library books, as well as the fees Eckert Seamans was billing to defend the district.
“Our taxes funded Eckert to defend a cover-up of illegal activity, removing books selected by politicians from bookshelves secretly in direct violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution and then frantically covering up their actions,” Foster said, and alleged. “Instead of owning it, this board dispatched their attorneys to defend the cover up and we, as taxpayers, get to pay the enormous bill as a result.”
Board Director Ron Wurz raised questions about the district’s library policy during the Facilities Committee portion of the meeting. Wurz said he has repeatedly asked why books are appearing on “weeding” lists and was told the books are being removed due to infrequent use.
Wurz said he noted that many of the books being “weeded” are frequently found on Moms For Liberty book challenge lists and that he recently became aware of a lawsuit against the district regarding books that have been removed from school libraries.
“Some don’t think we need to follow the rules. Why am I bringing this up,” Wutz asked. “It’s because these antics result in spending significant money on legal fees. Unfortunately, there seems to be a trend lately, as our legal bills have skyrocketed over the last year. This year alone, we are looking at spending close to a million on legal fees.”
Board Vice President Megan Banis-Clemens interrupted Wurz.
“You are completely crossing a line, going into, first of all, executive session material,” she said prior to the entire board exiting the stage for a spur of the moment executive session.
Upon returning, Wurz apologized and asked that his comments be removed from the record.
So far this year, a review of the financial documents that have been included with meeting agendas show that Eckert Seamans has billed the district approximately $528,949.94. However Wurz stated the figure is “close to a million.”
The actual amount the district has spent for legal counsel remains a mystery because no information reflecting invoices from Eckert Seamans was provided with the September agenda, a curious development with the November 7 municipal election just around the corner.
The evening’s agenda also included a first read of the district’s newly proposed Sex-Based Distinction in Athletics policy. Two versions of the policy had been presented a week earlier at the monthly Policy Committee meeting.
Information found online attributed the policy’s language to the Independence Law Center (ILC), which has been providing anti-LGBTQ+ policies to school districts across the state.
ILC, the legal arm of the right-wing Christian PA Family Institute, is closely associated with the D.C. based Family Research Council, which has been deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Remarks for and against the policy were presented during public comment. A majority of parents asked why the district is implementing a policy that addresses a non-existent problem in Pennridge.
Local resident and far-right GOP school board candidate Josh Hogan took issue with negative comments about ILC.
“I want to start by actually addressing something I’ve just heard here tonight which is, you know, we should reject this because it’s written by Independence Law Center,” Hogan said trying to minimize ILC’s homophobic impact by adding “there’s a whole bunch of content which was pulled straight from our bathroom policy.”
Pennridge Policy 720, Use of Restroom and Locker Room Facilities, appears to have been authored by ILC as well. Numerous online articles detail ILC-written bathroom and locker room policies utilizing language extraordinarily similar to the policy Pennridge adopted.
Later in the meeting, and despite public outcry, the board advanced the Sex-Based Distinguished in Athletics policy to a second read.
A long awaited contract for teachers, detailing salaries, benefits and more was finally approved by the board after months of delays and negotiation.
The board also continued its ongoing discussion concerning the impact dual enrollment and AP courses have on college enrollment.
Director Jordan Blomgren announced that a progress report had been submitted that day by Jordan Adams and that it would be posted to the agenda.
“I would just encourage all to read it as there have been many disparaging comments made by both board and community members toward Vermilion and Mr. Adams,” she said.
Director Joan Cullen pointed out that much of Adams’ report was not about curriculum progress but was, instead, defensive in nature.
“A lot of that report included his responses to what he called attacks on his work, on himself. He said that it’s not true that he’s political because he’s never worked on a political campaign,” Cullen said. “He doesn’t understand what being political actually means,” she added, and referred to the rhetoric he used at the Moms For Liberty Summit in Philadelphia and when he recently Tweeted “When Southern Poverty Law Center is smearing you, you know you’re doing something right.”
Cullen again questioned the process by which Adams had been retained and how it broke with the process normally used by the district to contract vendors. She also said that Adams should be attending board meetings via Zoom or telephone to discuss curriculum issues.
“I think the reason why he won’t be here to answer questions is because when he was here in June, he couldn’t answer the questions very well,” Cullen said, while also noting the low quality of his work.
The board moved to approve 7th and 8th Grade RELA curriculum, revamped by Jordan Adams via his one-man education consulting company Vermilion, with a 6-3 vote. For the second time, Director Jonathan Russell voted yes to the new studies that utilize Hillsdale 1776 curriculum. Board Directors Batycki, Cullen and Wurz voted against it.
Local resident Mary Wilson spoke during the second public comment period. “I was home in my pajamas tonight, happy to listen online, and I couldn’t handle what I was hearing,” she said.
“You are wasting our tax dollars. A million dollars in legal fees so far in a year. Are you kidding me,” she asked and said that her three children had graduated from Pennridge. “They were raised in this school district to have respect for everyone. Everyone. I am appalled, appalled by what I have seen in the last couple of years here.”
Wilson went on to ask a question about which many have wondered.
“It’s been on the back of my mind since June. Why was Dr. Bolton fired? Yes, I’ll say the word, fired. No way he was out on sick leave and you all decided, ‘Oh, let’s give him 10 years of health insurance,’” she said.
Several GOP candidates then took advantage of the second public comment period and used the forum to campaign for school board seats with prepared stump speeches.
At the close of the second public comment period, Cullen again tried to terminate the Vermilion contract. The motion was defeated with a 5-4 vote with Batycki, Cullen, Russell and Wurz voting to end the arrangement with Jordan Adams.
Immediately prior to the meeting’s conclusion, Megan Banis-Clemens offered explanations for the district’s high legal fees and the 10 years of insurance coverage for former school Superintendent David Bolton.
A majority of the legal fees were, according to Banis-Clemens, attributed to Right-To-Know Request reviews and redactions.
She also said the district is required to pay for 10 years of health insurance for David Bolton.
According to a variety of newspaper reports, Pennridge agreed to pay for Bolton’s insurance as part of a severance package.
Agreeing to pay for benefits is entirely different than being required to pay for benefits.
“The school board has approved a severance agreement to pay Bolton through October and keep both he and his spouse on the district’s health plan until they turn age 65,” reported Phillyburbs.com.