Friday, December 8, 2023

PA: Penncrest School District Has Such Legal Issues

While the blue wave may have swept plenty of conservative majorities out of school boards across the country, it didn't touch the Penncrest School District here in Northwest PA, and the new-old board kicked off the new year by finessing themselves out of a solicitor. Whoopsies.

Penncrest's board has been slapping reading restrictions on its schools, and CRT, and anti-trans in sports, and generally trying to follow in the footsteps of Central Bucks and they haven't been particularly subtle about it.

Penncrest has been trying to wield a tiny tattered fig leaf over its motivations for a new set of rules aimed at getting LGBTQ+ books out of its libraries, even as some board members have been quite clear about what they mean by "sexualized content," and while we're at it, all that racism stuff, too.

Board member David Valesky on LGBTQ books in the library:Besides the point of being totally evil, this is not what we need to be teaching kids. They aren't at school to be brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is okay. Its [sic] actually being promoted to the point where it's even 'cool'.

Board member David Valesky on books about race in American history:
"I don't have an issue if we're giving books that's targeting education of the Civil War and slavery and there is racism even today, but this is obviously like shoving it down every corner," he said.
Valesky said there were four books on the list that "openly promote the hate group Black Lives Matter."
"That's a group that is for destroying," he said. "They aren't protecting Black lives.
Board member David Valesky on the possibility of legal challenges to the board's new rules:
If we go to court over it, so be it, because at the end of the day we’re standing up for what’s right and for what God has said is right and true.
The board set up a citizen's committee to review naughty books. And in discussing that, board members ended up talking about what was revealed in some emails unearthed by a Right To Know request. 
I believe the terms in the policy we presented are clear. I honestly don’t care what the law says, as long as what I said is right before God. They can change the word at any time in state and federal laws. I’m just concerned that if this policy is pulled, then we have a minimum of 3 months until we can vote on it again. The remainder of my time on the board is uncertain at this point.
Yes, that's member David Valesky again (emphasis mine). Member Jeff Brooks brought it up with the suggestion that maybe the committee should include people who actually care about the law. Valesky said that it was taken out of context, but it's hard to imagine a context in which "I don't care what the law says" doesn't mean "I don't care what the law says." And given the context of Valesky's previous comments, it's hard not to think that he means that he doesn't care what the law says.

Valesky is not some loose cannon; he's just the one that keeps ending up in the paper. And he was re-elected last month. There are plenty of folks, on and off the board, who agree with him. The district was the subject of a Judy Woodruff section on PBS Newshour, and they were generally cranky about the attention they were getting. USA Today's legal department is filing Right To Know law requests (because, see, you can do that with a public school), and that turned up emails from board president Luigi DeFrancesco to the Independence Law Center, the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a right wing religious advocacy group. The board president reached out to me to accuse me of being part of some vast media conspiracy, as if the only reason anyone would object to their policies was because some skullduggery was afoot.

Some of the fuss has come because these board members never took any class from me; if they had, they would have heard me explain repeatedly that what you post on line is not private. At one point Valesky and another board member got into a Facebook debate about a display of books in a high school library. David Valesky posted:
Besides the point of being totally evil, this is not what we need to be teaching kids. They aren't at school to be brainwashed into thinking homosexuality is okay. Its [sic] actually being promoted to the point where it's even 'cool'.

That has led to a case that's been wandering through the legal system for two years. A Penncrest school district resident filed a Right To Know request for all Facebook posts and comments by two board members regarding "homosexuality and Penncrest School District," which the district's open records officer denied. The county court said, "Nope, just because you were using home computers to post things on private accounts doesn't mean that it's not a "record" under RTK law. Then the Commonwealth Court reversed that. Now it will go before the PA Supreme Court, which means this little dustup may have serious consequences for any school district board member employee who talks about official business anywhere on line (however, if you are doing so because you think any portion of the internet is "private," you need to get into the 21st century).

Defending the district in that case may be a challenge, because currently the district doesn't have a solicitor. For the second time this year.

The first came back in January, when the previous solicitor became, politely and diplomatically, fed up.

Attorney George Joseph, of the Quinn Law Firm, told the board that their new policy, plus their anti-trans in sports policy, could open them up to some legal trouble. At a meeting, two board members called the solicitor's opinion "a joke," "worthless," and "not even legal."

In his termination letter, Joseph wrote
Recent actions by the board have highlighted a fundamental disagreement by a majority of the Board with the legal analysis and opinions of our office and, in our analysis, significantly compromised our ability to provide legal ongoing services to the District and to the existing School Board.
He goes on to explain the specific advice that he gave which was ignored and to explain that this is not personal. It's his job to give advice; he knows they don't have to take it, as has been the case in "several such instances."
Nevertheless, I must take exception to the manner in which some individual Board members expressed their disagreement with the most recent legal opinion I rendered.
That expression was "unconscionable" to him. So the board needed a new solicitor.

This week, at the reorganization meeting, as tweeted by Meadville Tribune reporter Mike Crowley, they tabled the reappointment of their law firm, apparently not realizing that it left them without a solicitor, and couldn't just be undone. Said the lawyer at the meeting, before he left,

So what the board has effectively done, whether you knew what you were doing or not, is you're not going to have a solicitor at all until the next meeting.
I'm going to have to go back to my partners and see if we're going to submit an RFP, so you might be without a solicitor for some time -- but just so that's clear for the public's knowledge, you do not have a district solicitor,

There's really no point in me staying for the rest of the meeting. So what I'll do is say thank you to everybody and I also, like Mr. Joseph, will walk out and I'll see if I can catch the end of the Steelers game.

He also pointed out that his firm was the only firm that put in for the job last time it was open, so depending on how the partners feel about hitching their wagon to this out-of-control clown car, Penncrest could be lawyerless for a while. Which, given their propensity for repressive and actionable policies, could mean trouble for the district and its taxpayers. 

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