Pennridge School Board Passes Discriminatory Sex-Based Sports Policy; Deals with Blowback from RTK Court Ruling

Board Vice President Megan Banis-Clemens also wants the names and details of parents and taxpayers who file Right-to-Know requests be posted on the Pennridge website.
Pennridge School District (Google maps) via WHYY.

The Pennridge School board met on Monday, just weeks ahead of the upcoming November 7 municipal election that holds the potential to change the makeup of the current board that many parents view as extremist.

Angelo Berrios, the district’s newly hired superintendent, was sworn in as the first order of business on the agenda.

Public comment followed and the comments of Kevin Foster, a local resident and parent, provided a prologue of what would eventually transpire during the course of the meeting.

“Tonight, the board is writing another check to our high-priced Harrisburg law firm for $140,000, bringing their two-month total to $300,000,” Foster said.

He spoke about the mass exodus of teachers and professional staff from the district due to a chaotic environment created by the board. He also told the audience to expect campaign speeches from Republican candidates during public comment, and said they would thank the board for passing a discriminatory sex-based sports policy.

“It’s the only message they have,” Foster said. “They have no vision, no plan, just fear mongering at the expense of vulnerable children so that their allies can seize control of the district and continue down the same path of abject failure.”

Foster’s prediction was accurate.

Far-right GOP candidates gave speeches in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the public to secure votes, the sex-based sports policy passed, and board Vice President Megan Banis-Clemens played the “blame game” with the district’s high legal fees.

Josh Hogan, a far-right Republican running for a seat on the board, thanked the board for the discriminatory sex-based sports policy saying it is “proactive” because transgender sports isn’t an actual issue in Pennridge.

The board unanimously passed Policy 123.3 Sex-Based Distinction in Athletics.

The policy, a modified version of what was passed in Lancaster County’s Hempfield School District, was addressed by the Education Law Center in correspondence dating to June 28, 2022.

“If the District passes Policy 123.1, it will be in direct violation of Title IX and what one court called an ‘unbroken line of authority’ from voluminous federal cases holding that Title IX’s nondiscrimination mandate ensures LGBTQ students and others have equitable access to education free from sex discrimination,” wrote attorneys Kristina Moon and Maura McInerney. “The U.S. Supreme Court and many federal courts, including in Pennsylvania, have consistently recognized and affirmed that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, transgender status, gender identity, or gender expression is unlawful discrimination ‘on the basis of sex’ and is prohibited by law.”

Director Joan Cullen said that she thinks portions of the policy could be enhanced to protect those who hold different points of religious or political view from becoming targets.

The last section of the policy, Environment of Respect, says “Pennridge students and adults are expected to be respectful and welcoming to all students regardless of gender identity or any other class, and violations are subject to discipline under existing policies including, but not limited to the hazing (247), harassment (sic) (248), and bullying policies (Policy 248)” although the policy, on its face, is unwelcoming to LGBTQ students. 

“I would like to see some stronger protection,” she said. “I can still support it, but we’re not all going to be here, and you can’t guarantee that a student is not going to face repercussions at the whim of someone based on their social or political beliefs.”

“I think you’re putting students at risk of being persecuted by someone who has a political leaning in one direction or the other. I would be much more comfortable with it if it said something,” Cullen added, citing religious observations on the days of events, among other things.

Katy Rene, a Perkasie resident and parent, spoke during the second comment period. She welcomed Berrios and said she hoped he would be able to work with the board and administration to “refocus district priorities on things that will benefit our students and enhance their education.”

“This board is also not acting as good stewards of my tax dollars,” Rene said. “Doesn’t matter only whether or not you’ve raised taxes. You still need to be responsible with my money and I’m not just referring to the book removal coverup that just cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.”

The book removal coverup Rene referred to is the lawsuit brought by Pennridge parent Darren Laustsen against the district for failing to produce records under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law. 

A ruling, issued just days earlier by Bucks County Judge Jordan B. Yeager, found that Pennridge had acted in ‘bad faith’ by failing to produce records Laustsen was entitled to have.

Lausten’s lawsuit was prompted by the board’s passage of Policy 109, Resource Materials, that provides a procedure for the removal of books deemed to have sexual content. 

District Solicitor Michael Miller of the law firm Eckert Seamans read a statement he had prepared regarding the lawsuit.

“Let me step out of what I normally do and address the lawsuit that was brought up several times. I believe the word cover-up was used,” Miller said. “The actual term used by the judge was a finding of bad faith.”

A legal term, bad faith is defined as “intentional dishonest act by not fulfilling legal or contractual obligations, misleading another, entering into an agreement without the intention or means to fulfill it, or violating basic standards of honesty in dealing with others.”

Miller stated that the court ruling was based on a document drafted by former district superintendent David Bolton and administrative staff “without the involvement of the board.”

He went on to say that while not customary to comment on internal personnel matters, “there is an investigation and if someone has provided incorrect information, they will be held accountable.”

“On October 28, 2022, someone within the district checked in books that one or more non-students had checked out under non student accounts, and then, on the same day, checked them back out under student accounts,” wrote Judge Yeager in his Opinion.

It’s difficult to believe that any employee would, without specific direction from school administrators, check books in and out under different accounts.

Joan Cullen again made a motion to terminate the Vermilion Education contract.

“I do want to comment while we’re waiting for [a roll call vote] the people that get frustrated with me bringing it up over and over again, the fact that it is an illegal contract hasn’t changed. The fact that we didn’t go through the proper process has not changed.”

Predictably, and not unlike previous votes to terminate the contract, the board voted 5-4 to keep the contract.

“I would like to thank Mr. Foster for addressing the legal costs that he has racked up in the district,” said board Vice President Megan Banis-Clemens. “He has single-handedly filed 34 right to know requests, which is 40 percent of the right to know requests that have been filed. So, you are responsible for 40 percent of the legal bills that have been racked up for right to know,” she said addressing Foster who was seated in the auditorium.

Banis-Clemens then expressed a desire to post a log of Right-to-Know requests on the Pennridge website.

“In the interest of transparency, I would like to, I would like to post a document on our website that breaks down the number of Right-to-Know requests, the topics, and the costs per person who are filing them,” she said. “I think it would be important for the public to know that the people coming in here attacking us for the legal costs are the exact same people who are racking them up.”

Several members in the audience called out asking “what are you hiding.”

“If we had a modicum, or just a little bit of transparency, we wouldn’t have to do this,” Director Ron Wurz said. “If you don’t communicate with the public, they have a right to know that and they have a right to file those grievances, so I disagree with that.”

“It’s stunning to me to admonish the public for submitting Right-to-Know requests, not only because of what Ron just said, which is that if you’re not transparent, the public really has no choice but to submit those Right-to-Know requests, Cullen pointed out.”

She said that she and three other board members, with the assistance of legal counsel, had to make multiple requests to obtain board information they were entitled to have, including details surrounding the Vermilion contract that had been withheld from them.

“You are not forthcoming. You’re not transparent. You’re not being honest with people,” Cullen added.

The public was advised that an executive session had been held prior to the meeting to discuss personnel matters, after which the meeting adjourned.

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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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