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Pennridge School Board Meeting Marred With Innuendo and Personal Attacks During Public Comment

Democrats may have won the battle and flipped the Pennridge school board in 2023, but the culture war rages on.

The Pennridge School Board held its monthly action meeting last week. As anticipated, extensive public comment regarding Policy 720 – Bathrooms – a topic not on the evening’s agenda, unexpectedly took place prior to conducting board business due to the significant number of individuals who had signed up to address the board.

Prior to anyone from the public speaking, Board President Ron Wurz read the guidelines for public comment.

“According to Policy 903, public comment, which is limited to three minutes, should be directed to the presiding officer rather than the individual board members, district employees, or members of the public. For confidentiality and privacy rights, specific comments regarding particular individuals must be communicated privately to the school board and superintendent via email at PSDSchoolBoard@Pennridge.org.”

Despite being reminded that the district’s policy prohibits directing public commentary toward a specific school board member, at least nine community members spewing anti-LGBTQIA rhetoric disregarded the directive.

“I was looking at the contract for Sweet Stevens and Katz. I just wanted to ask the question, is this for educational services only,” said Shannon Harris, a parent in the district. “I know that like at Central Bucks they also represent, or the solicitor is from that law firm too.”

“So, I just want to make sure that this is for educational services only. You aren’t trying to sneak in the RFP person you want to choose…”

Harris’s choice of words is ironic.

When under Republican control, the Pennridge School Board did a lot of sneaking.

At least one board director, if not more, sneakily engaged the Independence Law Center to provide consultation and draft policies that have had and continue to have an impact on LGBTQIA students and staff within the district.

ILC is the legal arm of PA Family Council, the Pennsylvania branch of the Family Research Council, located in Washington, D.C., whose website says “FRC seeks to inform the news media, the academic community, business leaders, and the general public about family issues that affect the nation from a biblical worldview.”

Deemed a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center and the Human Rights Campaign, FRC has no qualms expressing its anti-choice and anti-LGBTQIA opinions.

At the June 1, 2022, Policy Committee meeting, RIDGE Network recently identified a discussion at 4:39:18, during which former Superintendent David Bolton inquired about the source of a new policy, believed to be Policy 109, that was being discussed. At 4:45:13, former Board Director Joan Cullen responded with “it says ILC model policy.”

The agenda for the June 1 meeting also contains an attachment for Policy 109: Resource Materials, and the properties of that document reveal the author to be jsamek, who is Jeremy Samek, Senior Counsel for ILC.  

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Former Director of Pupil Services Cheri Derr also gestures toward the screen displaying the policy in response to Bolton’s question. However, in the video, it is impossible to discern any text, let alone read it.

Finally, there is no mention of the policy’s origin noted in the meeting minutes, and it does not appear that any members of the community were present at the meeting.

Certain members of the board were also sneaky in their approach to bringing Vermilion Education into the district to implement Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum. They were similarly devious when they neglected to disclose the full scope of the curriculum they intended to revise.

The former school board played hide and sneak with library books that ultimately resulted in a lawsuit in which the district was found to have acted in bad faith by the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association’s annual renewal with the district was discussed at Monday’s meeting.

“I know PSBA, our membership, it covers some of the suggested verbiage for policies, different things like that,” said Director Jordan Blomgren. “My only concern is that it’s $18,000 and PSBA doesn’t have any other competition, so that’s my only concern, that there’s only one place to go to, and there’s not other options to choose from.” 

But that’s not exactly true. On April 2 radio station WESA, and subsequently the Beacon and the Philadelphia Inquirer provided coverage about a new conservative school board association called Pennsylvania School Directors Coalition.

The PSDC website tells you very little about who or what is behind the endeavor but it is known that Christina Brussalis is the founder and president of PSDC. She also holds a director’s seat on the Republican controlled Pine-Richland School Board located in Allegheny County.

Elected to the board in 2021, Republicans Brussalis, Lisa Hillman, Amy Terchick, and John Joseph Cassidy, collectively known as the PR Kids First slate, accepted a $10,000 donation from Bucks County’s Paul Martino, according to campaign finance records.

The conservative Republican board directors are credited with “the nixing of a policy meant to improve diversity and inclusion efforts in the district,” wrote the Pittsburgh Journal for Non-Profit Journalism. Additionally, the board is currently contemplating the removal of books that “feature LGBTQ authors or themes, and have challenged counselors’ decisions regarding social-emotional learning curriculums,” according to WESA.

Repeat incidents of sneakiness raise questions about the intentions of certain Pennridge School Board members and the lengths to which they will go to achieve their desired outcome. The public has justifiably become suspicious of the motives behind their votes and objections.

For instance, on Monday evening the renewal contract for the district’s Business Administrator, Sean Daubert, required board approval.

For several months the board’s three Republicans have raised objections against the district issuing a request for proposal for the legal services in an attempt to allow the current solicitor, Eckert Seamans, to continue representing Pennridge.

They did not feel the same toward Daubert’s contract.

“To Ricky’s point,” Blomgren said, “you get something that’s cheaper, but the quality is not there and we won’t know until that happens,” a premise that somehow only applies to Eckert Seamans but doesn’t apply to Daubert’s contract even with the majority of the board praising the business administrator’s financial acumen.

“With where things are going and when budgets get tighter, it’s really difficult for me to support the contract,” Blomgren said.

Director Robert Cormack also objected. “I have no problem with a 3.5% increase. I do have a problem with 100% medical.”

“I’m concerned about the precedent we may be setting with the medical [insurance] so that’s the only reason I won’t be in support,” Director Ricki Chaikin said.

The board voted 6-3 in approval of Daubert’s contract.

Should the public be suspicious that Blomgren, Chaikin and Cormack have no problem paying the district’s solicitor nearly double the hourly rate of local law firms but balk at the cost of Daubert’s contract?  

That’s the problem with sneakiness. Every action becomes questionable.

Before presenting her report as policy chair, Leah Foster-Rash announced that in an effort to enhance transparency, Christine Batycki will now serve as co-chair of the committee.

Additionally, and to his credit, attorney Michael Miller made a statement regarding Foster-Rash, a Democrat elected to the board in November 2023, who has been bullied ruthlessly by those who engage in a prayer circle prior to board meetings.

“I do want to say publicly that to clear up any misapprehension, Mrs. Rash has recused herself from any involvement with the discussion of the OCR complaint, with any discussion regarding its defense, any meetings, any votes, or anything like that,” Miller said. “I’ve also heard the comment that Mrs. Rash has a conflict of interest. That’s a term of art under the law. Under the law, under the Pennsylvania Ethics Act, conflict of interest is a very specific legal term.”

“I will say I’ve discussed this with Mrs. Rash … She does not have a conflict of interest by acting as one member of the board and as policy chair.”

Miller went on to say that people have the right to view Foster-Rash as they choose however, “she does not have a conflict of interest as that issue is defined in the law, and I think it’s, you know, worthy of mention so that we can put that aside.”

Unfortunately, neither Foster-Rash’s announcement of the appointment of a Republican co-chair to the Policy Committee, nor Miller’s statement about her character, had little effect on the far-right’s ability to separate fact from fiction.

During the second public comment period, Janelle Montigney continued to insist that Foster-Rash be removed as Chair of the Policy Committee while calling her “corrupt,” and possibly lending credence to the phrase that it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

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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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