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Pennsbury School Board Poised to Approve a New High School

On Thursday, the Pennsbury School Board is slated to vote on whether to go ahead with a new high school to replace both the west and east campuses instead of renovating the west campus building. Both existing schools would be razed.

School District Chief Financial Officer Chris Berdnik told DVJournal, “The target for the high school project is $250 million. The bond issues in question include other capital projects, such as the close out of the Boehm Middle School renovation/addition.”

However, a presentation to the finance committee by PFM Financial Advisors showed the district would pay $911 million for the new school plus existing debt service through a “wrap-around” bond issue. The bond issue is structured so the district makes lower payments at the beginning and higher toward the end, with the bonds retiring in 2061.

During public comment at the Nov. 9 facilities committee meeting, Lower Makefield resident Tim Daly said he was not against building a new high school. Still, he would like a straightforward analysis of the cost of renovating the building, which underwent a previous renovation in 2005. The district’s estimate for that is $175,000.

“That’s greatly concerning. So, I’m all for a new building, but it’s about what we can properly afford. And I don’t think that we have put our best foot forward. Because if (Superintendent) Dr. Thomas Smith had decided from the beginning, he would not want to do the renovation. And he has stated it over and over and over again. And it’s not his choice. It’s the school board’s choice. His job is to do what he’s told when he’s told to do it or get out,” said Daly.

Daly said labor unions, which donate to the Democrats who control Bucks County, would benefit more from a new building than a renovation.

“And obviously, all of us in the room have read the newspapers, and we’re aware of the federal investigation that is going on for which Pennsbury has twice been part of those federal investigations in the past (for) building projects because of the involvement of one particular union that is the focus of this investigation,” he said.

“And that if you’re going to move forward with the double-demolition new building, I’m going to ask that no union under federal investigation be allowed to produce any services on this project until that investigation is officially closed,” said Daly.

Robert Abrams, also from Lower Makefield,  said a second opinion was needed and asked the school board to “go back to the drawing board and give us a  new number.”

“Which means, if we’re right and you’re lowballing, that’s fraud,” said Abrams.

“If we do arbitrage like PFM suggests and the market tanks, they call the bonds and reissue the bonds and get paid a second time, and a third time, and a fourth time at a $1 million a pop. This is about PFM. This is not about Pennsbury,” said Abrams.

“Without a second opinion, I think any board member who votes for it should be held personally liable because they didn’t do their due diligence and they did not complete their fiduciary duty to the taxpayers. And they did not complete the job they were sworn in to do,” he said.

Newly elected school Board member Donna Abrescia asked the board to wait until December to vote on whether to build a new high school.

“One can only assume this is being rushed through to use the vote of a lame-duck board member,” Abrescia said. “This is the largest spending package posed to the taxpayer probably in the history of the district except when we actually built the schools. And it’s going to impact taxpayers and our tax rolls for decades to come.

“There are far too many considerations and questions to push this through,” she said. “The numbers are all over the place. Tonight, they were different than what I saw a month ago. I’m just asking that we slow down and wait for the new board to be sworn in. We were elected to do what’s best for Pennsbury as a whole, and we owe it to our students and our taxpayers to be sure the numbers presented are fully vetted and accurate before we spend this astronomical sum of money.”

Dave Ahrens of Falls also questioned a vote by a “lame duck” board.

“I don’t see what the urgency would be in us moving forward with this without fully vetting the numbers,” said Ahrens. “This endeavor has been fraught with duplicity, and one only need look at the figures currently in dispute…It is the taxpayers’ money.”

David Mann, who uses a wheelchair because of a diving accident, said a new high school is needed to correct accessibility problems at the old high schools.

Colin Coyle, who was on the committee for the future of the high school, said west is in bad shape and favors a new building.

“Our athletes train in spare rooms and moldy gyms,” said Coyle. Pennsbury students continue to “earn accolades while working against the facilities…built for their grandparents,” said Coyle.

“It’s time that we give our students a facility that meets their abilities. Let’s invest in those kids and let the Falcons fly.”

Mike Falcowitz of Falls Township also favors a new building.

The father of five, two of whom have graduated from Pennsbury, said the West high school building has “no historical value.”

Falcowitz said he was a member of the steamfitters union, and “the cost is not mostly electrical,” referring to Daly’s comment about not wanting the union under investigation to benefit. The “vast majority” will be “civil work,” said Falcowitz.

A mother whose young children will be Pennsbury students is also for the new high school and does not care how much property taxes will rise.

“I want what’s best for my children. That’s first and foremost,” she said.

Daly told DVJournal that with 2,800 high school students, and more likely from new developments and a possible merger with Morrisville, district officials are underestimating the amount of classroom space they will need to lessen the cost estimates. With a new high school, some students now in private and charter schools may also return to the district.

As for taxes that the mother downplayed, Daly said taxpayers would likely see those quadruple plus the annual Act 1 increases.

“They are not telling the community the true cost of the construction financing,” said Daly. “Just the construction cost.”

Parent Alleges Pennsbury Officials’ DEI Data is Wrong

After crunching the data, a Pennsbury School District parent showed the school board and administrators what he believed were unassailable facts proving the district’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) policies are not working.

Tim Daly, who has been thrown out of the school board meeting in the past and also won a First Amendment court case against the district, spoke at an Aug. 17 meeting while police officers guarded the room.

“I have been focused on getting you guys to fix the DEI program,” said Daly, a marketing executive who holds an MBA.

The district was fined $719,000 by the state for the last two years, and a professor was brought in to research the issues and get the district back on track. The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) found Pennsbury was found to have placed 71 percent more boys than girls in special education and suspended 210 percent more Black students than pupils in other ethnic groups. Also, many more Asian students were enrolled in advanced placement courses than members of other ethnic groups.

“Your emails show Dr. (Cherrissa) Gibson and Miss (Regina) Rausch hid the data from (Superintendent) Tom Smith for six to eight weeks until the PDE demanded a meeting with Mr. Smith,” said Daly, who received numerous district emails through right-to-know requests. Gibson is the HR director and runs the DEI program. Rausch is the director of special education.

Daly, of Lower Makefield, looked at the charts that Edward Fergus Ph.D., the Rutgers professor, and his team that was hired by the district to comply with PDE penalties and realized something was amiss. The Fergus team will be paid $359,000 over three years.

He asked the district for the raw data and analyzed it once he obtained it.

“Dr. Smith’s staff manipulated and changed the ethnicity status of all the students and turned kids of mixed race with one Black parent to Black. And Latinos that were Black turned to Black. And then you found that the Asian kids were making the mixed-race kids look like they behaved too (well), so you moved that, too. I caught that,” Daly told the board.

“This is what’s posted at PDE,” said Daly. “So, you guys delivered fraudulent data to Dr. Fergus. And Dr. Smith acknowledged the error and said, ‘Mr. Daly, I’m going to fix it.’ And from April to June, the back-and-forth delays went on and on,” Daly said.

He asked for the raw data, and officials stalled. When he finally received it, “it was all false again.” After threatening to complain to PDE, Daly said, “Magically, there were the numbers.”

Daly said he began to look into this topic because of his daughter.

“My daughter told me back in February there is rampant discrimination against children of color in our school district,” said Daly. “And that White boys get away with sexually assaulting girls in the hallways on a daily basis, and if a Black boy did it, basically, he’d be in suspension.”

“So, I just couldn’t believe it; I couldn’t believe what my daughter was saying, so I asked for the numbers,” Daly said. “So, after $1.3 million in expenditures, we have seen a 7.8 percent reduction in disciplinary incidents. But when we dig into the numbers, what we find out is that it’s driven by a 14.9 percent reduction in White student discipline, while at the same time, people of color students have an increase in their disciplinary incidents by 3.6 percent.”

“And where the numbers come in is that we had a modest, stagnant decline on Black students of 1.9 percent, a modest decline of 2.3 on mixed race, but a 9 percent increase against Hispanics and 5 percent against Asians,” said Daly.

“Now, diversity is important to me,” said Daly, recounting a training program he took at a previous employer. “I want this diversity program to be saved. Based on the numbers, the issue here tonight is that your programming is wrong.”

He suggested the district form a committee to come up with a true diversity program rather than “racial retribution” and “anti-racist professional development training.”

In an email to the board and shared with DVJournal, Daly said, “Results from Pennsbury show a failure after five years and over $1.3 million in investment to improve anything.”

He added, “But what it shows is that Dr. Gibson deployed radical programming that didn’t have any foundational proof that it would work outside questionable research produced in our colleges that is ridden with errors by academic research hucksters who receive huge grants to produce pre-defined research results that grantor desires to be created.”

During the meeting, Smith noted that the state required the district to “address our disproportionality in special education.” He said Pennsbury’s classification rate for students of color is 25 percent.

Pennsbury spokeswoman Jennifer Neill said, “Mr. Daly conducted his own analysis of the data, which is different from how the district analyzes our data. Averages of data across an entire school district can vary based on who is included in the count, what time of year the count is taken, and how data points are defined. Addressing disproportionality and implementing a Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS) is a multi-year process. Disproportionality is an intractable and universal problem in American schools that takes years of sustained, systematic effort to address.”

Karen Downer, president of the Bucks County NAACP, spoke in favor of the DEI program.

“Diversity in America is here to stay,” said Downer. “And I appreciate your work recognizing and incorporating it in your thought process as you plan your curriculum.”

“The Children First report submitted in 2021 reported that suburban school districts are becoming increasingly diverse, yet the educational paradigm has not kept pace with this change. Additionally, Pennsylvania ranks fifteenth in the nation in providing overall access to educational access to students, and it ranks at the bottom—47th in the country—in gaps between Black and Brown students and White students.”

The education system focuses on the student’s performance “as an indicator of their ability,” she said, “rather than a system that considers how its practices work to impact the performance of minority students.”

Neill also listed five meetings since December where the district asked the police to provide security.

“We consistently have district security in place at school board action meetings and other district and school events. It is also not unusual to have a police presence at meetings or other district and school events,” Neill said.

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Pennsbury School Board Must Pay $300k for Violating Residents’ Free Speech Rights

The Pennsbury School Board has agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit brought over First Amendment violations. It also agreed to change its policies regarding the treatment of citizens who want to express their views to officials.

“Rules for public comment periods are meant to maintain time limits and protect each speaker’s right to be heard, not police which viewpoints are expressed. Pennsbury’s rules were so vague and subjective that the board could effectively shut down any speech they didn’t like, and that’s exactly what they did,” said Del Kolde, senior attorney at the Institute for Free Speech.

The lawsuit was filed last October by Lower Makefield residents Douglas Marshall, Simon Campbell, Robert Abrams, and Tim Daly. They were represented by attorneys from the Institute for Free Speech and Michael Gottlieb of Vangrossi & Recchuiti. In addition to the $300,000 for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees, the settlement called for nominal damages of $17.91 to each plaintiff, as a symbolic payment acknowledging that the plaintiffs’ rights were violated.

The amount was chosen because 1791 was the year the First Amendment was ratified.

Neither the former solicitors nor the district’s spokeswoman responded to requests for comment on Friday.

Judge Gene E. K. Pratter

The plaintiffs were censored for attempting to criticize district policies, including efforts to promote contested ideas about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Marshall was once interrupted mere seconds into speaking because the solicitor objected to his use of the term “critical race theory” to describe the district’s initiatives. Critics of the board were cut off for addressing their comments to board members, while other speakers were permitted to directly praise board members and school employees.

A solicitor yelled “You’re done” at one man who was trying to speak to the board.

In addition to the money, the district rewrote its public comment policy to align with the First Amendment and a federal judge’s ruling. It also abolished its “civility” policy and found a new law firm to act as its solicitors. Two of the district’s previous lawyers, Michael P. Clarke and Peter Amuso, were named as defendants in the lawsuit.

“School boards across the country should take note. Rules for public comments must respect the First Amendment rights of speakers. If you are limiting which opinions may be shared, you’ll be held liable for violating First Amendment rights,” said Alan Gura, vice president for litigation at the Institute for Free Speech.

The court had ruled in November that several Pennsbury policies governing speech at school board meetings were unconstitutional. Those policies, modeled after a template recommended by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA), allowed the meeting’s presiding officer to stop speakers whose comments were deemed “personally directed,” “personal attacks,” “abusive,” “verbally abusive,” “irrelevant,” “disruptive,” “offensive,” “inappropriate,” or “otherwise inappropriate.”

After an evidentiary hearing in Philadelphia, Judge Gene E.K. Pratter found evidence that the board selectively enforced the rules to stifle criticism of its actions and members.

After the injunction was issued, Pennsbury abolished one of the two policies challenged in the lawsuit and rewrote the other to comply with the First Amendment. The court also ruled against a board requirement that speakers publicly announce their home addresses before beginning their remarks. According to a spokesperson for the PSBA, the model policy was reviewed after the court’s ruling.

The abuses in the case, however, went beyond the restrictions on speech recommended by the PSBA, the Institute said in a press release. On one occasion, school board officials edited video of a board meeting to remove a critical comment by one plaintiff. The board president even publicly apologized for not censoring the plaintiffs more aggressively.

Marshall praised the judge and the lawyers who represented the residents.

“I think it was clear that the primary motivation we had in bringing the lawsuit was to protect our constitutional rights as codified in the First Amendment,” said Marshall. “And that’s why the free speech entity agreed to take the case pro bono. They devoted an enormous amount of hours to it.”

The judge’s decision now stands as a precedent that other citizens and school boards can cite, he said.  “I think the judge properly guided us to a settlement (rather than a trial). She did a wonderful job on the case. And most importantly there is precedential value in the opinion she wrote.”


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Groundbreaking Held for $1.5 Billion Keystone Trade Center in Bucks County

Like a Phoenix, the U.S. Steel Fairless Works site that closed its doors and left thousands of workers in the lurch in 2001 will have a new use.

On Thursday, chilly wind and blowing dust did not deter the groundbreaking for a $1.5 billion project for the new Keystone Trade Center to be built in Falls Township by NorthPoint.

Among those wielding ceremonial shovels were state Sen. Steve Santarsiero; Jeff Dence, chairman, Falls Township Board of Supervisors; Robert Harvie Jr., Bucks County Commissioners chairman; and Jeremy Michael, vice president of Development for NorthPoint Development.

At the 1,800-acre property, NorthPoint plans to build 15 million square feet of warehouse and light industrial use buildings, said Eric Yovanovick, project manager. He expects the first building to be completed by the end of the year, with 19 more structures to follow.

NorthPoint received a Keystone Opportunity Improvement Zone waiver allowing it to benefit from a 15-year tax abatement, Santarsiero said.

Sen. Steve Santarsiero

“The economic return on this is going to be tremendous for the town, the county, and the school district, as well,” said Santarsiero (D-Bucks). “Ultimately, when this is up and running, and it’s employing about 10,000 people, that’s an economic boom for the entire region.”

“In fact, they’re giving the school district through an agreement, (they’re) making the school district whole,” Santarsiero said.

“We all had to come together to approve this extension of the Opportunity Zone so they could get the tax abatement,” said TR Kennan, president of the Pennsbury School Board. “But the community benefits.”

And even though NorthPoint’s new Keystone Trade Center will not be paying taxes, it will pay $500,000 to the school district each year for 15 years, plus an additional $110,000 in payments in lieu of taxes each year, said Kennan.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said. “They’ll bring jobs,” and those employees will pay taxes.

Michael said he met so many people during his time in the area who either worked at the steel plant or had relatives who did.

“It’s amazing how much the site is part of the community,“ Michael said. “A brownfield development like this is certainly a heavy lift.” But, he added, “many people have applied their expertise to put the site back into productive use. We’re working to bring back the site’s rich history.”

He thanked the government officials and the consultants who have worked to make the deal happen. NorthPoint purchased the property in 2020 and it was “a major transaction for all parties involved.”

When it is completed, it will be “the largest Class A industrial development on the East Coast,” he said. When they first approached the community, “we were met with a certain level of skepticism.” But they won over their critics.

“Capital goes where capital is welcome,” he said.

“Location, location, location really does mean something,” said Harvie. He noted that 80 years ago, the land was alfalfa fields, then the largest steel mill in the nation was built there that offered “good jobs” and helped to build Lower Bucks County.

But the area is a prime location, located between Philadelphia and New York with easy access to I-95 and other highways, he said. The new development will offer thousands of construction jobs and then thousands of permanent jobs.

“We’ve got one of the largest e-commerce- sites in the states,” said Harvie, adding he had once been a Falls Township supervisor.

“Having a willing partner owning this site makes a tremendous amount of difference,” Harvie said.

(from left) Rich Goodman, NorthPoint development manager; Tim Holliday, regional vice president at NorthPoint; state Rep. Frank Farry, land use attorney at Begley Carlin; Troy McMahan, senior director at Northwestern Mutual; TR Kannan, Pennsbury School Board president; state Sen. Steve Santarsiero; Rep. John Galloway; Falls Supervisors Chairman Jeff Dence; Bucks County Commissioners Chairman Robert Harvie; Jeremy Michael, NorthPoint vice president of development; Eric Yovanovich, NorthPoint project manager.

State Rep. John Galloway (D-Levittown) said the development “has been a collaborative effort between many people,” both Democrats and Republicans.

“I was born in Levittown 62 years ago,” he said. “My brothers worked in the steel mill. This was the center of our whole world. This was the economic driver of the lower end (of Bucks County).”

But when it closed, things became very difficult for people because jobs disappeared.

“I want to thank NorthPoint for more than just creating 10,000 jobs,” said Galloway. “The ceremonial digging of this dirt represents the rebirth of the lower end (and) the hope of the people who, for a long time, had no hope at all,” he said.

Northpoint, a St. Louis, Missouri-based corporation, has raised more than $9.5 billion since 2002, developed and managed more than 126 million square feet of industrial space, and created more than 65,000 jobs with 423 industrial partners around the country, officials said.

NorthPoint Development started out as a privately held commercial real estate developer specializing in industrial and multi-family development. Since then, NorthPoint has grown to 10 companies, emphasizing a factory-to-front-door model, officials said.

The corporation also touts its “Beyond the Contract,” philosophy which embodies the concept that no contract can be written to reflect everything that will occur in a complex real estate transaction.

“Our approach in all business relationships is to be fair and operate by the ‘Golden Rule,’” officials said.

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