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After DVJournal Report, Pennsbury Adds Lesson Plan Software

In the wake of the DVJournal report on the lack of transparency by the Pennsbury education system, the school district voted Thursday to expand its educational software to include lesson plans for teachers.

At issue was a controversial video shown to 8th graders in the Pennsbury School District showing young Native American women saying the Thanksgiving holiday was a result of the “slaughter of Native Americans.” Concerned about the content, parents Tim Daly and Jesse Rivera filed right-to-know requests for the teacher’s lesson plan. Those requests revealed Pennsbury teachers were not filing lesson plans at all.

In an affidavit Pennsbury open records officer and district spokeswoman Jennifer Neill said that “formal lesson plans are not in wide use in recent years.”

However, the district has a policy that requires teachers to file lesson plans.

At Thursday’s board meeting, Lois Lambing, who chairs the education committee, quickly read a motion to expand its educational software to include lesson plans as she reviewed a list of other items for the board to approve.  The lesson plan component is part of Chalk, a software package the district had in place.

Lambing said teachers will begin using the lesson plan software in September.

Parental concerns about classroom content exploded during the COVID pandemic, when many moms and dads saw firsthand what their children were being taught, thanks to remote learning. Transparency about school curricula is at the center of those concerns.

For example, in the Pennsbury case, Rivera, whose lineage includes the Taino tribe, was particularly concerned that his son was exposed to misinformation. He attended a school board meeting last December, brandishing a letter from President Abraham Lincoln, who officially established the Thanksgiving holiday.

After DVJournal reported on the issue, Daly and Rivera were guests on the Dom Giordano Show on WPHT, bringing more unflattering publicity to the Pennsbury school district.

Soon after, Pennsbury school officials reversed course.

Rivera said, “I am pleased to hear the board is looking at complying with policy. It is my hope this will provide proactive lesson plans and not reactive lesson summaries. I want to see teachers are actually planning and teaching accurately and transparently and be prepared to answer the deeper questions of topics touched on in the classroom.”

“Our significant efforts to uncover the truth regarding lesson planning through right-to-know requests were a success,” Daly said. “We proved that the school district was not actively monitoring lesson plans despite many teachers at Pennsbury creating them with this new software program. The decision to deploy Chalk places accountability on the administration to ensure approved curriculum is being presented in our classrooms.”

A woman spoke about the Thanksgiving video at the June 18 education committee meeting, saying she’d heard about it on the radio.  She asked whether the teacher could show the students Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamation.

“I know that lesson has gone through curriculum review and it was approved by the committee who reviewed it. It was a perspective piece. It wasn’t based on the teaching of Thanksgiving but more on representing a perspective in a writing course,” said Lambing.

Assistant Superintendent Theresa Ricci said, “That occurred in November 2023. A teacher in a language arts class was doing work with students on perspective. The video doesn’t talk about the historical significance of Thanksgiving. Instead, it provides perspective from one group of people on how they perceive Thanksgiving. It was not a lesson in history or historical context or anything like that. The purpose of the lesson was to address perspective in an English class.”

Parents Discover Pennsbury Teachers No Longer File Lesson Plans

Pennsbury parent Jesse Rivera wasn’t happy when he learned his 8th-grade son’s teacher had shown the class a controversial video claiming the Thanksgiving holiday was the result of the “slaughter of Native Americans.”

It was particularly concerning to Rivera who is partly descended from the Taino tribe. So he and fellow parent Tim Daley made right-to-know requests to the Pennsbury school district asking to see the lesson plan used by the teacher who showed the video. They wanted to know what, based on the formal lesson plan, the teacher was supposed to be teaching students about Thanksgiving and American history.

After months of right-to-know requests, denials, and appeals to the state Office of Open Records, Daly and Rivera discovered that the Pennsbury district no longer uses lesson plans.

Traditionally, lesson plans were filed by teachers and reviewed by school principals. Lesson plans are key to managing school curricula and creating accountability in the classroom. They allow both school administrators and parents to gain insight into the content students are learning. They also let officials backtrack and review teachers’ decisions and strategies should students suffer a decline in test scores or other performance metrics.

But Pennsbury claims it simply doesn’t use them. And that, says Daly, is a problem. Board Policy 111 requires lesson plans be filed.

“Based on Board Policy 111, Pennsbury publicly states that Lesson Plans are required to be completed by teachers,” said Daly.

However, in an affidavit, Jennifer Neill, a spokesperson for Pennsbury and its right-to-know officer, said, “The request spurred discussion about what constitutes a ‘lesson plan’ and whether the district’s practice and policy should be updated to reflect current practices. It is my understanding that formal lesson plans are not in wide use in recent years.”

Instead, teachers upload information to an online site called “Canvas.”

“As is stated in Ms. Neill’s affidavit, these requests for lesson plans have sparked an internal discussion about what constitutes a ‘lesson plan’ and whether district practices and policy should be addressed to reflect current practices or expectations. There is no Pennsylvania law which requires formal lesson plan submission, and it is not a practice that is in wide use in recent years. Instead, teachers often create learning materials that reflect plans for instruction, but that might not be considered formal ‘lesson plans’ in the traditional sense,” Pennsbury solicitor Erin Aronson wrote to the OOR, which ruled in favor of the district on June 7.

Rivera said many Pennsbury teachers, but not all, posted very flimsy outlines to Canvas, rather than traditional lesson plans.

“They’re not comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination,” said Rivera. “Some teachers are better than others.”

Through Canvas, Rivera found that last November, Pennsbury teachers taught about the Indian holiday of Diwali and the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, but not Thanksgiving. He asked about Easter and was told by Teresa Ricci, Ed.D., the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, “‘We don’t teach about pagan holidays,’ which is a huge insult to this Christian because that’s the holiest holiday in the Christian calendar,” said Rivera.

The video that caused Rivera to look into the curriculum is nowhere in the teacher’s Canvas posting, he added. While he believes it’s good to learn about various different cultures, students should also learn about American culture and holidays, Rivera said.

In December, he gave the school board a copy of Lincoln’s proclamation that officially said Americans should offer thanks to God for their blessings on the last Thursday of November.

“My main concern was when my student came home and said we learned the real reason for Thanksgiving was the slaughter of Native Americans,” said Rivera. “And it was a victory party done by Lincoln. And I was immediately taken aback. We were able to find the video from Teen Vogue entitled, ‘The True Meaning Behind Thanksgiving.’ The teacher listed it as ‘Sorry, kids, to ruin your Thanksgiving, but you probably need to know this.’”

When he asked, the teacher and principal told Rivera that students would not be given a true version of events, only the “alternative view.”

“And that’s a bit disturbing to me as a parent, especially because the video, in the process of doing that, taught an alternate view. And because the primary view wasn’t present, the alternate view became the primary to those students.

“The teacher pulled my son aside afterward and said it wasn’t true, but it was just meant to be a point of discussion.  It was never corrected for the rest of the class, who now hold that viewpoint. That’s also disturbing to me.

“The belief that’s being promoted is basically that one group of people should be indebted or judged as guilty for the actions of their ancestors. I believe this to be the very definition of racism. It is not something that should be taught in schools in that fashion,” Rivera said.

“After pressing, no one in the administration was able to comment that they saw the video and unable to say whether they agreed or disagreed with it, which I found highly disturbing as well. It’s my request that racism not be taught to my son in school. I would appreciate that it not be taught to anyone’s child in school,” Rivera told the board.

Chadwick Schnee, a lawyer representing Daly, said they will be filing a request for reconsideration with the OOR.

“I think that there is something very troubling about a school district not having lesson plans, especially when this school district’s own policy appears to require them,” said Schnee.

 

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Pennsbury School Board Picks KCBA As Architects for New High School

The Pennsbury School Board voted Thursday to award the contract for a new high school to KCBA, a Hatfield-based architectural firm, for $8,852,500.

The total project budget is $250 million, staying below the $300 million that would trigger a referendum under Act 34.

Six board members voted for the contract, two voted against, and new member Donna Abrescia abstained. Vice President Joshua Waldorf and Lois Lambing voted no, preferring another contender, Crabtree, whose bid was $1.6 million higher.

“You get what you pay for,” Waldorf said.

“We got down to the two best and most experienced,” said board member and state Rep. Jim Prokopiak (D-Levittown). “At the end of the day, we’re talking about a substantial sum of money. We’re talking seven figures. Why are we paying so much more for one or the other? I can’t see where that large difference in cost helps us.”

The three-story school facing Hood Boulevard in Falls Township would serve 2,800 to 3,000 when it’s completed in 2029. Mike Kelly with KCBA said the school would have one center entrance for safety and there would be three wings arranged along a central corridor. One end would include the administration and a media center (formerly a library), the center would house academic classrooms and labs, and the third would include the gym, cafeteria, and swimming pool.

Parent and frequent board critic Tim Daly discovered that the request for proposal (RFP) form that the district sent out had a name tag that listed it as from the Brandywine Heights School District to KCBA. And KCBA was awarded the contract for Brandywine Heights High School.

“Pennsbury withheld the RFP document for weeks despite repeated demands for transparency,” said Daly. “Pennsbury even delayed an RTK response so that they would not have to turn over information until after they voted. The metadata associated with the RFP document uploaded onto Pennsbury Board Docs indicates it came from another school district where the winner of the RFP was the architect, along with the construction management that is handling the project. Pennsbury administration and school board members owe our community answers as to how they obtained the RFP template given the $250 million construction price tag on this project.”

Superintendent Thomas Smith Ed.D. did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

KCBA is also the architectural firm in charge of an addition and renovation at Boehm Middle School in Lower Makefield. The district budgeted $30 million for that work in 2022. Actual costs have reached $42.2 million, according to James Lynch of D’Huy Engineering, at the March 7 facilities committee meeting.

Robert Abrams, another resident, said in an email to the board that DVJournal obtained, “It is pretty clear at this point that since Crabtree at every meeting identified the need for referendum, that I am sure coincides with their extensive experience and professionalism and they are willing to negotiate a flat fee that both D’Huy and KCBA are not, I see that D’Huy and KCBA could intentionally combine to low-ball the total costs in an effort to disenfranchise the community and they will pick up their additional fees through increased project costs on the back side of the project.”

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Pennsbury Accused of Violating Sunshine Act to Prevent Criticism of Equity Data

Why should a government entity comply with the Sunshine Act?

Lawyer Chadwick Schnee thinks it’s important that municipalities and school districts follow the letter of the law.

He shot off an email to Pennsbury solicitor Erin Aronson after he learned the Pennsbury School District, which has faced state complaints filed against it for equity violations, failed to post a supporting report to an online meeting agenda regarding a report on ‘equity.’

Schnee wrote, “The Sunshine Act has long since required agencies to “provide a reasonable opportunity at each … meeting … for residents … to comment on matters of concern, official action or deliberation which are or may be before the board or council prior to taking official action.”

“My understanding is that an agenda was posted under Superintendent Reports on the subject of ‘Update on District Areas of Focus – Equity;’ however, the original agenda did not include the actual report. With less than 24 hours of notice before the Feb. 15, 2024 meeting, however, the district posted the actual report.

“I am of the belief that the decision to provide the report with less than 24 hours of public notice violated both the text and spirit of the Sunshine Act, and my client, Mr. Tim Daly, and at least one other individual, are seriously considering filing a civil or criminal complaint concerning this Sunshine Act matter,” Schnee wrote to Aronson.

Daly said he did not attend the meeting since the data had not been posted in time for him to review it. Jennifer Neill, a spokeswoman for Pennsbury, did not respond to requests for comment.

In an email to the board, Daly accused Superintendent Thomas Smith of “willfully” withholding the new equity report to keep the public in the dark so concerned residents couldn’t review it ahead of time and discuss it at the meeting.

Daly, a parent and frequent district critic, has previously been thrown out of a school board meeting. Daly and other plaintiffs settled a First Amendment court case against the district for $300.000.

He told DVJournal, “The updates to Pennsylvania Sunshine Laws that were rolled out in September 2021 were aimed to stop this very type of misconduct by Pennsbury. Due to the scrutiny they have faced around the DEI (diversity, equity, inclusion) efforts and being caught multiple times falsifying DEI data, they clearly wanted to slip this by the community without challenge. Complaints will be filed to hold the district and school board accountable for their violation of the law. We will seek for them to present the data again while providing proper agenda notice.”

District officials presented their latest report that covered last year’s equity data. It showed they had improved in that fewer Black students were at risk of being identified as having intellectual disabilities, so they will no longer face a fine this year. The one area where the district performed worse was economically disadvantaged students, going from a 1.29 “risk ratio” to a 1.98 risk ratio.

In out-of-school suspension (K-12), fewer Black students were suspended in 2022 than in 2023. The risk ratio went from 4.08 to 3.63. However, Asian students went from a 0.33 percent risk to a 0.51 percent risk.

They are in their second year of warning for Black students with an IEP, but they went from 3.36 to 2.69 for risk.

Of the 9,700 students, 28 percent are “of color,” 31 percent are poor, 23 percent are in special education, and there are 37 different languages other than English spoken in students’ homes. The most common of those foreign tongues are Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian, and Polish.

Edward Fergus Ed.D., the consultant the district hired for $369,000 over three years to help with its equity program, praised the staff for their willingness to improve and realize there was “a system issue, not a kid issue.”

During public comment, Andrew Dell called diversity, equity and inclusion “worthless.”

“There’s no evidence that kids of color are going to do better if there’s more teachers of color,” said Dell. “You guys are sectioning up people by race and categories and pitting people against each other. I think it’s disgusting. I don’t believe those numbers for a second. What you are doing is wrong, and kids are getting dumber by the minute.”

In real life, “there are not equal outcomes for everybody. That is not how the world works, and everyone is different,” he added.

Robert Abrams called the equity program a waste of $400,000 in taxpayer’s money.

However, a woman praised the board for its efforts and told them, “Happy Black History Month.”

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Pennsbury Considers Banning Public Commentators From Using Audio, Video

The Pennsbury School District, which settled a federal First Amendment case in 2022 for $300,000 over violating residents’ rights, is again looking to change its policy regarding speakers.

The policy change, considered by the school board’s policy committee on Thursday, precludes speakers from playing an audio or video during their time at the podium. The committee agreed to discuss the policy change again at its next meeting in March.

The comment policy in place now (903) was approved by Judge Gene E. K. Pratter and was written by a lawyer for the district’s insurer. As part of the settlement, Pennsbury was required to pay the $300,000 for the plaintiff’s attorney fees and a symbolic $17.91 (the year the first Amendment was ratified was 1791) to each plaintiff.

Two residents who were plaintiffs in the First Amendment case came to the policy committee meeting to express their dismay about the proposed change and to warn the board members they might once again be facing a federal judge.

Robert Abrams, a resident, said, “The insurance company paid for the policy to be rewritten. This is free speech. You are telling people what they can say, how they can say it, and what they can use to put their point across. Clearly, you’re heading back to federal court.”

Abrams added, “The insurance company has already told you they will not defend you if it happens again. And the public here has to start with making you people personally liable. Because it’s ridiculous that the taxpayer keeps paying and paying and paying here for your stupidity.”

Parent Tim Daly, who was also a plaintiff, questioned whether the change would violate a disabled person’s rights under the Americans with Disability Act, perhaps someone who cannot speak in public.

School Board Member Jim Prokopiak said, “I don’t have any problem with them playing something that is part of the official board record.” But Prokopiak did object to speakers ceding their time to people who are not in the room by playing a recording.

“People can come in and say whatever they want at meetings, but I don’t think they can come in and say, ‘Well, this third party.’ Under our policy, they’re supposed to sign in…in terms of an ADA situation like that, someone doesn’t have to speak, and they want to record their comments at home and bring it in; it’s still their comments… That’s a reasonable thing,” said Prokopiak.

Prokopiak, a Democrat, is running against Falls Township residence Candace Cabanas in the special election Tuesday for state representative in the 140th District.

Commmitte Chair Dr. Joanne Delwiche said, “We have had people who played recordings of people not in the room. It’s not a wholly hypothetical situation…There is also a concern brought up that it’s potentially a copyright violation because you’re playing the property of other individuals. And then we would be inadvertently broadcasting somebody else’s owned copyrighted material.”

District Solicitor Erin Aronson said ceding one’s time remains in the policy.

“I view this (change) as a clarification of what the ceding of time is. It really just clarifies when you’re ceding your time. Also if you go up and you say you’re going to play the recording of another person. I do that, personally, as a manner of ceding time,” she said.

“In terms of the disability piece of it, it’s an interesting point. We obviously don’t want to discriminate against anyone. You know, cause them not to participate in public comment because of their disability.”

“But the ceding of time provisions, ones I’ve seen in policies since the last decision. This would survive that judicial scrutiny. If Mr. Prokopiak has questions about the wording, you are entitled to enact reasonable time, place, and manner provisions on speech.” And if allowed, a “non-stakeholder” could displace a Pennsbury student or parent who wanted to talk,” Aronson said.

Delwiche said, “The appealing thing about we don’t allow audio or video… It’s unambiguous. It’s not subjective. You’re not making a decision on the fly.”

And no copyrights would be violated. As for the ADA accommodations, “I don’t know how you write that in,” she said.

Lawyer Chadwick Schnee told DVJounral, “In order for a government agency to impose restrictions on speech during public meetings, such a restriction has to be a ‘reasonable time, place and manner’ restriction. The key element here is that there appears to be no justifiable reason for not allowing the public to play audio or video during the time for public comments. If there’s no reason for imposing such a restriction, I don’t see how it would be ‘reasonable’ for purposes of the First Amendment.

“I am also concerned that this restriction may be being considered as a reaction to speech from one particular member of the Pennsbury School District community, who, by playing audio or video footage, may have expressed points of view that the school board dislikes. The district cannot engage in viewpoint discrimination, and I am very concerned that the board may be setting itself up to face another First Amendment lawsuit if it decides to implement such a policy.”

Asked about the copyright issue, Schnee said, “I believe this would constitute fair use, especially where, here, the comments are not being used for any kind of financial gain, either by the speaker or by the district.”

Afterward, Daly said, “The actions of the politically driven school board members come as no surprise. Politics come before the kids. Any change to Policy 903 that allows an opinionated interpretation of the public comment element is a violation of federal law per the previous injunction ruling. Attempting to expand the ‘ceding time’ clause is simply a cover strategy to chill speech that they don’t agree with. And suggesting legal issues arising from a copyright claim is laughable on every level, as such legal issues are frankly non-existent. They just want to censor their constituents who have a different opinion.”

 

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Pennsbury School District Teacher Faces Child Pornography Charges

A Pennsbury School District music instructor was charged with possessing thousands of images and videos of child pornography, the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office announced Tuesday.

Christopher Bygott, 47, of Hamilton, N.J., surrendered to authorities Tuesday morning to be charged with possession of child pornography and criminal use of a communication facility, both felonies.

Magisterial District Judge Jan Vislosky arraigned him. He was released on $250,000 unsecured bail, with the conditions that he have no contact with minors, stay off the internet, and surrender his passport.

The school district released a statement from Superintendent Thomas Smith saying “a staff member” was arrested on child pornography charges and that authorities do not believe any Pennsbury students were involved.

“The staff member in question was placed on unpaid administrative leave, has been banned from all district properties and district activities, and has been instructed not to communicate with any district staff, students, or families,” Smith said.

“Like every individual we hire, the individual in question has had active and fully cleared PA Child Abuse, PA Criminal History, FBI Criminal Background History, and all other required clearances on file with the district at all times during employment,” Smith added.

Bygott, the band director and curriculum coordinator for instrumental music, took students on overnight trips to perform at various venues.

“The PHS Marching Band has performed on five continents, countless parades, and almost all Disney Parks. Whether entertaining the crowd at a Pennsbury football game, marching in local parades, or performing in another country, this outstanding group of students, under the direction of Chris Bygott and his dedicated staff, is a strong point of pride for the district,” said Jennifer Neill, the district’s spokesperson was quoted as saying last year.

Tim Daly, a parent whose children had Bygott as a teacher, said, “Our superintendent and school board have continually told our community they are better suited to assume a parental role for students through teachers than the actual parents. This incident further supports why parents should have oversight into what is happening with their kids.

“I want answers as to when the school district learned of the allegations and how quickly he was removed from the classroom,” Daly added.

According to the criminal complaint, Bucks County detectives received tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children on Dec. 5. The internet address used to upload the child pornography from an Amazon Photos account was at the Bucks County Intermediate Unit. Bygott’s email address was on the account, the complaint said. County intermediate units provide various services to school districts, usually related to special education and curriculum.

During a Dec. 13 interview with detectives at the Pennsbury High School East campus, Bygott allegedly admitted that he was “sick” and “had a problem,” the complaint said. Bygott told detectives that his cell phone contained numerous files with child sexual abuse material.

A forensic examination of Bygott’s cell phone found it had more than 2,000 child pornographic images and videos, the complaint said.

“Mr. Bygott worked at multiple buildings during his employment in Pennsbury. As soon as the district received notification from the Bucks County District Attorney’s office, Mr. Bygott was placed on unpaid leave. Until notification by the Bucks County DA, the district had no reason to suspect Mr. Bygott of any misconduct,” said Neill.

The case is assigned for prosecution to Chief Deputy District Attorney Matt Lannetti, chief of child abuse prosecution.

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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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