Pennridge School Board Efforts to Overhaul District Curriculum Doesn’t End With Vermilion Education and Hillsdale 1776

Emails retrieved from RTK requests reveal the extent and scope of board members’ attempts to push more right-wing indoctrination into classrooms.
What is Pennridge School District hiding?

Transparency, fiscal responsibility, and no political bias, CRT or indoctrination were all claims made by four GOP candidates, Christine Batycki, Jordan Blomgren, Ricki Chaikin and Robert Cormack, who secured seats on the Pennridge school board in 2021. Republican Jonathan Russell was appointed in 2021.

Did they keep those promises?

Right-to-Know documents would suggest they didn’t, and in many ways prove they did the exact opposite. Despite claims to rid the Pennridge School District of political bias, the newly elected and GOP dominated board clearly had another agenda in mind.

Over the last 24 months the school district has ushered in discriminatory policies, anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment, an unqualified curriculum consultant and Hillsdale 1776, a far-right curriculum from a private Christian college.

In a March 2022 email, Batycki suggested The Ben Shapiro Show, The Candace Owens Show, The Joe Rogan Experience, Louder with Crowder, Verdict with Ted Cruz, and the Federalist Radio Hour Fireside Chat with Dennis Prager as replacements for podcasts about racial justice, climate change and LGBTQ+ experiences. 

Owens and Crowder, for instance, have been suspended from YouTube multiple times for violating its policies on hate speech with their anti-LGBTQ vitriol and disinformation. Self-described devout Christian Crowder also came under fire after a leaked video showed him being verbally abusive to his wife, telling her to “f–king watch it” while complaining of her refusal “to do wifely things.”  She was eight months pregnant at the time, as The New York Post pointed out. Meanwhile, Shapiro has said he will “pick up a gun” to fight back against LGBTQ “indoctrination.” Prager, meanwhile, uses his podcast to say “the vast majority of your kids’ teachers lie about whites,” suggests modern women overreact to sexual harassment, and that “women are disproportionally wrecking the West.” This distorted view of the world, where white people are supposedly superior and women should be subservient, is just some of the content local students could be exposed to.

image - Bucks County Beacon - Pennridge School Board Efforts to Overhaul District Curriculum Doesn’t End With Vermilion Education and Hillsdale 1776

The podcast suggestions are just one of several eyebrow raising scenarios found in hundreds of documents, some dating to 2021, that were provided by the school district in response to Right-to-Know (RTK) requests.

In a March 10, 2022, email Blomgren wrote:

“I wanted to pass along the below information… Below is a short description of what these professionals could offer pertaining to disciplinary issues in schools as well as offering professional development training.” The two resumes attached to the email reflect both professionals to have managerial employment histories at Camelot Education.

In a 2017 ProPublica article, Camelot Education is referred to as “The Failure Track, These For-Profit Schools Are Like A Prison.”

On December 20, 2021, school board member Chaikin wrote to then Superintendent David Bolton, “I believe that we can and should find better resources. Of all subjects, social studies is quite possibly the most important in this current environment and there were several red flags for me.”

She continues, “the first and second grade books have mention of ‘families’, but not a traditional, nuclear family with a mother and father. In my opinion, there are too many lessons that I feel are just a set up for the opportunity to once again bring LGBTQ into the classroom.”

Chaikin’s social media history is filled with anti-LGBTQ hate. 

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In the same email, Chaikin also took issue with history books depicting the ruthless behavior of Christopher Columbus toward Native Americans, while also wanting to downplay U.S. slavery.

“Also, when it [slavery] is mentioned it is not mentioned that slavery was in fact practiced throughout the world and not just in America,” she wrote in what appears to be an attempt to minimize the atrocities that occurred in the United States.

The portions of curriculum that appear to have made the right-wing Republican board uncomfortable are not partisan per se, they’re simply events that do not depict Europeans or those of European descent favorably.

Pennsylvania’s Open Records Act allows anyone to submit a RTK request to obtain documents created by a state or government agency. Records produced can be highly informative and provide a behind the scenes peek at snapshots in time but they’re only meaningful when not over-zealously redacted.

Not all records should be public and specific portions of a document that would invade the personal privacy of an employee, student, parent or taxpayer should be kept confidential.

Records regarding revisions or proposals to district policies or curriculum shouldn’t be cloaked in secrecy unless, of course, there’s something to hide.

On January 5, 2022 Director Jonathan Russell provided fellow board members with an article from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s monthly bulletin regarding the ability to exempt “predecisional” information in RTKs.

“It just seems crazy that we can’t engage in predecisional deliberation via email, with the understanding that it is both legal and immune from RTK requests,” he wrote.

Why shouldn’t parents, teachers, taxpayers and students be privy to the origin of sourced information or how the board arrived at certain conclusions that would initiate changes to the day-to-day functioning of a school district?

In another email written on Jan. 5, 2022, Chaikin wrote “I’m also not crystal clear yet as to what latitude teachers have to delete from or add to approved curriculum and resources. On that note, I hope we have the authority to remove the resources Dave Bedillion mentioned.”

On the same day as Chaikin’s post about resources, Board Director Joan Cullen replied and copied fellow board members as well as administrators David Bolton and Anthony Rybarczyk.

“At our retreat on 1/12, we will address most of the questions you’ve asked about the board’s roles/duties,” she wrote. “For things that are related to specific committee items, we are not permitted to have private discussions where a board majority is present, as there is on this email. Our committee contains five board members, so we may share items for informational purposes, but not deliberate.”

Emails containing highly opinionated points of view by and between board directors all but stop at this juncture, however sufficient information continues to be conveyed via email to allow readers insight into the plans that would eventually hijack district policies and curriculum.

On March 30 the Beacon submitted a Right-to-Know request seeking any communications with the Independence Law Center (ILC) for the period January 2022 through February 2023.

ILC, the legal arm of the highly partisan and ultra-religious PA Family Institute, is closely associated with the D.C. based Family Research Council, and is deemed a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its anti-LGBTQ+ position.

The majority of documents, sent between April and July in 2022, reflect communications between Director Joan Cullen and ILC’s Senior Counsel Jeremy Samek to schedule meetings and exchange policies pre- and post revision.

In a May 27, 2022, email to Cullen, Samek attached what he called the “Library policy” that is now referred to as Policy 109 – Resources. 

Samek gave advice: eliminate the creation of a separate library committee and utilize the Curriculum Committee “in a limited way” if and when a choice must be made in response to recommendations made by the librarian or superintendent. He also recommended using the Curriculum Committee to deal with challenges to existing materials.

“Can you send me the policy numbers for the one’s (sic) on the agenda for a first read… just in case any of them overlap,” wrote Samek to Cullen in another email dated April 29, 2022.

Cullen provided the following: 006 – Local Board Procedures, 109 – Resource Materials, 122.1 – Extracurricular Activities, 137 – Home Education Programs, 217 – Graduation Requirement, 610 – Purchases Subject To Bid/Quotation, 611 – Purchases Budgeted, and 800 – Records Management.

Interestingly, the Policy Committee’s first meeting in 2022 was held in May.

Policy 109, Resource Materials, aka Library Policy, was approved by the board at the September 27, 2022, Board meeting when it was listed as both a first read and final approval.  

Minutes from the September meeting reveal how three policies came to be approved without ever having to go through a second read.

“According to Policy #003, a motion by Mrs. Banis-Clemens, second by Mrs. Chaikin to suspend the procedure of a second read and approve policies 109, 218, and 321 based on their first read.”

In addition to Policy 109, Policies 218 – Student Discipline and 321 – Advocacy Activities were passed.

Since January 2023 and according to meeting minutes, the Board has addressed:119 – Controversial Issues, 137 Home Education Programs, 903 –  Public Participation in Board Meetings, 137.1, – Extracurricular Participation by Home Education Students, 906 P– Public Complaints, 720 – Use of Bathroom and Locker Room Facilities, 124.2 – Dual and Concurrent Enrollment, 235.1 – Surveys, 109 – Resource Materials, 123.3 – Sex-Based Distinction in Athletics.

In January 2023, Board President David Reiss wrote to ILC’s Chief Counsel Randall Wenger and Samek to arrange a meeting that would also include the board’s solicitor, Michael Miller of Eckert Seamans. An appointment was confirmed for February 2, however no documents or information pertaining to that meeting were produced.

Actual Hillsdale 1776 curriculum, versus discussion, first appears in RTK documents at the beginning of 2022 when Batycki wrote to members of the Curriculum Committee. “As promised, attached are the K-2 and 3rd-5th American History curricula from Hillsdale College referenced in last night’s discussion,” she wrote. No attachments were provided via the RTK request, however the curriculum is available online.

In late December 2022, two emails were exchanged between Blomgren, Scheid and Rybarczyk where Hillsdale was the subject matter, but the public is prevented from reading these posts due to heavy redaction.

Communications by and between Jordan Adams and district employees do not appear in RTK documents until February 8, 2023.

“Dear Tony, Thank you for your inquiry to Hillsdale College regarding use of our K-12 curricular recommendations. I know we have been missing each other in connecting via phone. Could we try to set up a day and time to talk? That may be most conducive,” wrote Jordan Adams, Interim Director of Curriculum at Hillsdale College, to Anthony Rybarczyk and Jenna Vitale.

READ: Pennridge Parents, Teachers Criticize Vermilion Education’s Push to Require Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum for the District

On March 17, Rybarczyk wrote to Banis-Clemens, Blomgren, Bolton and Vitale regarding the “first grade elementary SS draft.” Due to redaction, no additional information about the elementary social studies material is available.

What isn’t redacted is a paragraph where Rybarczyk references his plans to speak with “school leaders.”

Adams referred Rybarczyk to individuals at two charter schools utilizing Hillsdale 1776 curriculum, Golden View Classical Academy in Colorado and Treasure Valley Classical Academy in Idaho.

“Too many schools have lost sight of the higher possibilities inherent in education, focusing primarily on college and career readiness, as if those are the only two things that matter,” Golden View writes on their website. “We want to prepare our students to go on to live meaningful, fulfilling, productive, happy lives, and for that a certain moral and intellection (sic) formation is vital.”

As of March 17, Adams was still signing emails as an employee of Hillsdale College which is interesting because Vermilion Education, the company through which Adams was contracted by the district as a curriculum consultant, was formed in December 2022.

Earlier in the year Blomgren requested the district procure a student textbook, workbook and teacher guide for Land of Hope from publisher Encounter Books.

Wilfred M. McClay, author of Land of Hope, is a faculty member at Hillsdale College. He has received funding from a variety of organizations associated with conservative and libertarian principles, including the Bradley Foundation, and the book is endorsed by ultra-conservative organizations.

Encounter Books was founded by the Bradley Foundation, an ultra-conservative not-for-profit dark money machine that dispenses tens of millions of dollars every year to far-right causes.

Encounter also published When Harry Became Sally, a book that even Amazon refuses to sell due to its extreme bias against the LGBTQ+ community. The author of the book, Ryan T. Anderson, is also featured in the anti-transgender film Dysconnected, The Real Story Behind The Transgender Explosion.

READ: Souderton Community Leaders Condemn Public Screening Of Anti-Trans Film ‘Dysconnected’

Within the many RTK documents received by the Beacon, as well as provided by sources wishing to remain anonymous, were dozens of communications from parents, students and teachers imploring the school board to take a step back from a variety of discriminatory policies and, especially, Jordan Adams and Vermilion Education.

One message stood out. The communication is from professionals who have not yet been impacted by the curriculum changes.

“Jordan Adams allegedly will be looking over more than social studies curriculum.”

The message, or maybe warning, should leave parents, students, teachers and taxpayers wondering how far this extremist school board will go in their attempt to gut public education.

Can Pennridge School District survive another two years of GOP control?

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Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens is a freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including The Reporter. An avid collector of all things vintage, she resides in the Philadelphia area.

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