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Pennridge Constituents Voice Outrage Over Newly Elected School Board Majority’s Failed Promise To Replace Solicitor

Members of the Pennridge community listened in disbelief last week when a decision to issue a request for proposal (RFP) for solicitor services was tabled during a finance committee meeting.
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Following two years of school board dysfunction and the election of a Democratic slate of directors in November, parents and taxpayers in the Pennridge School District were thrown for a loop when a campaign promise to investigate legal services went sideways at the February 12 Finance Committee meeting.

As recently as January, public comment at a school board meeting raised concerns about the services being provided by the solicitor.

“I see another $54,000 being approved for Eckert Seamans, the district’s law firm,” said Kevin Foster of Hilltown.

Foster suggested the law firm helped the former right-wing board orchestrate a secret book ban and then bill the district thousands of dollars to defend that position in court.

READ: In Pennridge School District, Books Once Shadow Banned Are Now in the Trash Can

What started as a Right-to-Know request to determine the whereabouts of specific library books ended up in the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas.

In a 31-page opinion issued by the court, Judge Jordan B. Yeager clearly stated that the district acted in “bad faith” and “effectuated a cover-up.”

“I am, frankly, angered by the decision to not entertain bids for a new law firm,” said district parent Darren Laustsen. “The voters who elected the new board want honesty, transparency, and respect for the rights of the public.”

Laustsen believes that Eckert Seamans is not aligned with those principles and that was why the campaign promise to investigate replacing the firm resonated with so many voters.

“Even more surprising is the short memory of our new president [Ron Wurz] who faced unlawful obstruction from the very same counsel only months ago. I hope the board is prepared to be met with some impassioned public pushback,” Laustsen added.

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Wurz, along with Director Christine Batycki, and former Directors Joan Cullen and Jonathan Russell, had been excluded from school board business due to disagreements with a far-right contingent of directors and were denied access to documents and other information.

The suggestion for the board to consider counsel other than Eckert Seamans was met with zealous opposition by Jordan Blomgren, Ricki Chaikin, and Bob Cormack, three Republican board members who were not up for re-election in 2023.

READ: How the Pennridge Community Came Together to Reject Moms for Liberty, Vermilion Education, and Political Extremism

“It doesn’t make sense to me. I’m just so curious what is motivating this,” said Ricki Chaikin who added that Miller doesn’t charge the district for travel time and whose work, over the last six years, has been “exceptional.”

Except Chaikin has only observed Miller’s interaction as a director for two years since her election to the board in 2021, a period of time during which the board was frequently described as chaotic and dysfunctional by parents, teachers, taxpayers, as well as local and national media.

Chaikin went on to say that prior to engaging Eckert Seamans the previous solicitor had gotten the district into a “big mess.”

Presumably, the “big mess” to which Chaikin referred is a series of three lawsuits filed against the district in 2017 for Title IX infractions.

If Chaikin’s reasoning implies that the district solicitor bears some responsibility for legal claims brought against the district, does that suggest that Eckert Seamans shares partial responsibility for the Title IX complaint filed against Pennridge in 2023?

READ: Understanding OCR Complaints, like in Pennridge School District, and Their Role to Ensure Equal Access to High-Quality Public Education

“I was very disappointed at the discussion tonight that resulted in not proceeding with a RFP for new Legal Services,” wrote local resident and parent Dan Shapiro. “In the entire discussion, nobody on the board seemed willing to bring up the big issues with Eckert Seamans and Mr. Miller.”

“Not only did this firm rack up exorbitant bills over the past few years, Mr. Miller’s poor legal guidance let the old board enact a number of policies that have exposed Pennridge to lawsuits (as we’ve seen first-hand),” he added.

“I don’t see what’s wrong,” said newly elected Board Director Carolyn Sciarrino. “We’re not saying that we’re going to not be using the service that we use now, but I think that it just makes sense to see what else is out there.”

Board President Ron Wurz said that some have expressed concerns with Eckert Seamans. “I put it [the RFP] on the agenda just so we could discuss it. If people are against it then we don’t go for it,” he said.

“Price doesn’t determine everything, service does,” said Board Director Bob Cormack. “The key is the service. You’ve got excellent service from Mike [Miller] and his staff.”

Many in the district have questioned whether or not Eckert Seamans’ services have been excellent or excessive.

The firm has billed for numerous and sometimes questionable redactions to documents produced in response to Right to Know requests, including to a request made by the Beacon in early February 2023. While seeking documents pertaining to Hillsdale’s 1776 Curriculum, the district provided an email with a few words concealed.

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The Beacon appealed the redaction to the Office of Open Records and Eckert Seamans was compelled to provide the missing verbiage.

The redacted words were “my children” which can hardly be considered a valid redaction, especially when other email documents produced from parents via the same RTK request utilized similar language.

In this instance, the district was billed to redact the two words and then billed additional fees to fight the appeal of a needless redaction.

Newly elected Board Director Chris Kaufman said that by issuing the RFP for legal services the board will have done their job by responding to a request from the community.

“Well, how many people in the community have really asked us to do that,” asked Cormack.

The answer to Cormack’s question is abundantly obvious. So tremendous were the community’s concerns surrounding Eckert Seamans that the Democratic school board slate highlighted their intention to investigate replacing the law firm in campaign literature. More convincingly, Republicans shared the concerns and readily reached across the aisle in November to vote for the Democrats, securing their victory.

READ: Community Members Warned Pennridge GOP’s School Board Majority: We Will Vote You Out. And They Did

Cormack’s ability to feign ignorance should come as no surprise. For the better part of 2023, dozens of parents, students, teachers and taxpayers filled the school’s auditorium every month to beg the board to terminate its contract with the controversial curriculum consultant Vermilion Education. Cormack repeatedly dismissed the community’s wishes and repeatedly voted against severing the relationship.

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“I’m not interested in doing something to be vindictive or to prove a point,” said Board Director Leah Foster-Rash. “But I do feel like, and maybe it’s just an unfortunate situation for Mike [Miller] right now, but he is heavily aligned with some of the tougher things that happened in the last couple of years.”

Board Director Blomgren participated in the meeting via telephone, expressing concerns about the wording in the RFP document.

“Bullet point number two… it says labor and employment laws, including laws relating to discrimination, labor negotiations, agreements and orchestration, and certification requirements,” Blomgren said. “There’s that, okay, and then underneath there’s another added one.”

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“Who added the third bullet point where it talks about the Title IX and discrimination due to gender and religion? Who added that part,” asked Blomgren. “That part, in my opinion, the second bullet covers the discrimination piece.”

Yet it doesn’t.

The first mention of discrimination relates specifically to employment practices of hiring and firing.

The second mention concerns discrimination against students, a matter the district has struggled with historically, and one they continue to grapple with today.

The newly elected board’s plan to solicit bids for legal counsel was not a surprise, it had been highlighted in campaign literature by the Democrats. What was surprising was the deference Republicans Blomgren, Chaikin, and Cormack seemingly anticipated they would receive from the Democrats once they voiced their opposition to seeking a new solicitor.

Time and again, the Pennridge community has witnessed the Republicans force their preferences upon the district, yet when the shoe is on the other foot, the GOP expects a different response.

Meeting minutes from April 23, 2018 illustrate this point.

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Following Monday’s meeting, many Pennridge parents sent emails and text messages to the board directors but were disappointed with the boilerplate response they received. 

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“The PCA candidates included firing Eckert Seamans in their campaign and they won the majority of our community’s votes on that campaign,” said Heather Young, a parent in the district. “This is a betrayal and, frankly, I’m tired of seeing those we voted for not move forward on any issues.”

According to the district’s YouTube Channel, 255 people have now viewed the video containing the discussion of the RFP for legal services.

The next Pennridge School Board action meeting is scheduled for Wednesday at 7 p.m.

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Jenny Stephens

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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