Souderton Area School District Sued For Refusing To Produce Documents Regarding the Independence Law Center

A local parent is hoping sunlight will be the best disinfectant when it comes to cleaning up a school board that operates by keeping parents in the dark.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The Souderton Area School District was served notice of a lawsuit on March 5, filed in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, to produce documents in compliance with a Final Determination from the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records.

The complaint stems from a Right-to-Know request filed by Alexandra Wisser of Upper Salford in September.

Over the last year, reports surfaced in various publications across Pennsylvania that the Independence Law Center of Harrisburg had influenced policy making at two nearby school districts, Pennridge and Central Bucks. Both interactions between ILC and the two school districts were revealed through Right-to-Know requests.

Wisser acknowledged this when asked why she filed her RTK.

“I worried that ILC had contacted the [Souderton] District regarding this and other policies,” Wisser said, recalling a parent’s request to implement a pronoun policy at a school board meeting.

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

Wisser’s RTK asked the SASD to provide any records that documented communications by or between the SASD School Board and ILC. The request included a specific three-month time frame and provided the District with specific names and keywords to conduct the search.

Wisser’s interest was also spurred by comments made by Telford resident Kaitlin Derstine that were captured in recordings and meeting minutes of school board meeting minutes from October and November, 2022.

“So I ask that this District finally enact policies similar to Pennridge and CB to remove pornography from our libraries, require parental consent for name or pronoun changes, require the removal of activist symbols from our classrooms, and give real consequences for those teachers choosing to indoctrinate in our schools,” Derstine said during public comment at the October 22, meeting.

READ: Making Souderton School Board Documents Publicly Available Is Non-Negotiable, Say District Parents And Taxpayers

The minutes from the November 17 board meeting provide additional details.

“Kaitlin Derstine of Telford spoke with a request to the Board to adopt a neutral school environment. Ms. Derstine requested that the Board enact four policies; requiring parental consent for a student to change their name or pronouns, removal of all sexually explicit books from the library, remove (sic) of any and all advocacy symbols from schools, and establish consequences to teachers who are teaching sexual or political indoctrination.”

The policies to which Derstine refers had or soon would be adopted by the Pennridge and Central Bucks school boards that were commandeered by Moms For Liberty candidates following the 2021 school board election. 

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While Derstine’s children do not attend any SASD schools, she is recognized for having crusaded alongside Telford Borough Councilman Robert Jacobus to defund the Indian Valley Public Library, was in attendance at the 2023 Moms For Liberty Summit in Philadelphia with Mike Barnacz, a newly elected SASD board director, and is pictured with Jacobus and another newly elected SASD Board Director William Formica.

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Summer Gathering of local GOP. Left to right: PA State Representative Donna Scheuren (R-147), Lower Salford Township Supervisor Dave Scheuren, Steve Long, Liz Ferry, Montgomery County Commissioner Thomas DeBello, Souderton Area School Board Director Michael Barnacz, Souderton Area School Board Director William Formica, Kaitlin Derstine, Telford Borough Councilman Robert Jacobus, Vice President Souderton Area School Board Stephen Nelson, and 2024 candidate for state representative 53rd District Cheryl Bonavita.

There were other reasons to suspect a possible ILC influence on the SASD board of directors.

Local parent Robyn Kitt had heard rumors as early as September 2023 that teachers had received instructions on what they must do if a student wished to be called by a name different from their birth name, even though the District had no policy specifying any such procedure.

Kitt had a discussion with Tom Overberger, a school counselor, about name changes and was told that District administration had directed counselors to contact parents should a student wish to be called by a different name.

“I then asked what if someone wants to go by John but his name is Johnathan do you contact parents? He said no. I said how about if a child wants to use a middle name rather than a first name, do you contact parents? He said no. I said what is the criteria then for a parent to be contacted if someone is requesting the use of a different name? He didn’t have an answer for that,” Kitt told the Beacon. “He said he would have to put me in touch with Megan Zweiback who is the District’s Director of Pupil Services.”

READ: Souderton School Board Takes a Baby Step Toward Transparency and Accountability

Kitt also asked Overberger if this was a policy and said he didn’t know if it was a written policy but it was a directive from administration.

When asked when this directive was put in place, Overberger said  he believed around the 2nd semester of last year [2022] and added that he would only call parents with the permission of the student but, without parental approval, a different name could not be used.

Kitt then had a conversation with Zweibeck who didn’t offer much more information. However, she did say the directive would be applied on a “case-by-case basis,” and “the spirit of this directive and the position of the administration is that parents have the right to know what is happening at school.”

Zweibeck was asked for a copy of the document but told Kitt that it was an internal directive and not for distribution.

A RTK was filed by Kitt on November 13, 2023 and she received a copy of the document on or about December 20.

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The directive reads and functions much like a District policy causing many parents to wonder why this “directive” was never presented at a public board meeting despite impacting students, teachers, counselors and parents.

When was the directive written, who wrote and approved it, and when was it implemented? Was the school board aware of the document and were there other directives about which parents were unaware. The questions began to pile up.

“In March 2023, I spoke at a school board meeting about the fact that the school board Policy committee had not met in over seven years (as far back as the public minutes went online), while dozens of policies had been implemented,” Wisser told The Beacon. “The board always put the policies on the consent item agenda, and there was rarely any discussion and no literal readings of the policies. So, the district’s manner of passing and revising policies has not been open and transparent.”

READ: Why Are Souderton Area School Board Directors Wasting Taxpayer Dollars?

Pennsylvania’s RTK law provides citizens the ability to obtain an assortment of records from any public agency in the state including correspondence, emails, text messages, letters of engagement, contracts, invoices, fees and more.

Wisser’s original RTK for records about ILC was denied by the Souderton Area School District’s Open Records Officer, Michael Taylor. Taylor, who also serves as the Director of Business Affairs for SASD and as secretary for the school board, is responsible for handling Right-to-Know requests.

SASD denied Wisser’s RTK claiming the records were protected by attorney-client privilege along with the RTK lacking specificity.

Interestingly, comparable language and keywords submitted in a RTK to the Pennridge School District had produced documents regarding ILC.

Wisser appealed Taylor’s denial to the Office of Open Records.  In response to Wisser’s appeal, the District told the Office of Open Records that they were able to identify 3,083 records but that would prove “burdensome” for the District to review.

The District lost on appeal and was directed to provide Wisser with the records.

On January 25, the District provided Wisser with six heavily redacted emails forcing Wisser to ask a court of law to order the District to produce all of the records.

Attorney Joy Ramsingh, who specializes in public records and public meetings law, represents Wisser.

“In this case, the District argued that they couldn’t disclose these records at the Office of Open Records. The Office of Open Records held against them, finding that they did not meet their legal burden of proof. Now, months after the OOR decision, Souderton claims they have the right to redact records based on the very argument that they argued and lost on,” Ramsingh said. “The law is crystal clear that they cannot do that. This is not a grey area – this is a matter of settled law.”

Ramsingh noted that the District could have appealed to a higher court but failed to do so.

Since January, the Souderton School Board has faced increased public scrutiny and criticism for failing to provide documents that complement items on meeting agendas. Certain records, such as financials, are mandated to be posted by the Pennsylvania Public School Code but the Board has stubbornly refused to do so.

“Across the board, Souderton’s approach seems willfully noncompliant,” Ramsingh said. “This is a lose-lose-lose situation, for the citizen who requested the records, for the taxpayers who are funding this litigation, and for the District itself.”

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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.