Penncrest school board asks religious liberty group to fill solicitor's spot
A Penncrest School District official is seeking the help of a “religious liberty” group as the district goes on the hunt for full-time legal counsel.
A Jan. 24 email, obtained via Right to Know Law request from the USA Today Network, shows school board President Luigi DeFrancesco describing several district issues to an attorney from the Independence Law Center, the legal arm of the nonprofit Pennsylvania Family Institute.
“If you can possibly help us please let me know,” DeFrancesco told attorney Jeremy Samek after describing a series of issues in Penncrest that may require legal advice.
Penncrest’s former solicitor, George Joseph, of the Quinn Law Firm, tendered his resignation letter days earlier, citing a “fundamental disagreement” with a majority of the school board that “compromised (the law firm’s) ability to provide legal ongoing services” with the district.
The resignation followed a Jan. 9 work session where two board members referred to the attorney’s advice as "worthless" and "a joke." The advice involved a library policy targeting “sexually explicit” material and another limiting which team transgender athletes can join.
Joseph’s resignation letter said his firm could continue representing the district in an existing lawsuit and upcoming teachers union negotiations while the district hunted for a new lawyer.
Penncrest solicitor's resignation:Penncrest solicitor resigns from school district as schools pull books from shelves
Another board member, David Valesky, emailed DeFrancesco on Jan. 23, saying that the law center “is willing to help with future policy development.”
DeFrancesco told the USA Today Network on Monday that he was gauging the law center’s interest in helping the district with legal issues until they could find a permanent, local attorney to replace Joseph.
Superintendent Timothy Glasspool, who was copied on DeFrancesco's email to Samek, said he hasn't contacted the Independence Law Center and hasn't heard whether anything came of the board president's request for legal aid. He said he's unfamiliar with the Law Center and its work.
PA Family Institute and Central Bucks:Conservative group involved in Central Bucks library regulations some fear as defacto book ban
The district recently advertised its need for a new solicitor by putting out a request for proposals (RFP) in a local legal journal, he said.
Penncrest School District officials are looking for a larger law firm to represent them generally but also expressed willingness to hire individual attorneys or smaller firms to handle specific issues, according to the RFP. The deadline for firms to apply is Feb. 24, and Glasspool said his goal is to fill the solicitor vacancy in March.
No law firms have yet applied, he said.
During the procurement process, Glasspool said he and the district's business manager typically review submissions from the applicants and pick a few of them to be interviewed by school board members, who will make the final contracting decision.
Glasspool said he had no comment on the relationship between the school board and the solicitor who recently resigned.
School board member Jeff Brooks, who has been at odds with DeFrancesco, Valesky and other members supporting the recent policies, said he felt DeFrancesco was misrepresenting the board in his email.
“Saying that we don’t have anyone to represent us in that is misrepresenting the district as well and could be problematic going forward,” Brooks said, referring to Joseph’s resignation letter offering to remain available to the district on some legal matters.
The Pennsylvania Family Institute could be a controversial choice of temporary legal aid in Penncrest, given that the recently approved policies have been described by critics as discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Samek, the attorney DeFrancesco emailed, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Harrisburg-based nonprofit group is focused on "religious liberty" and has supported legislation and policies that are often opposed by LGBTQ advocates, including suing the Boyertown Area School District in 2017 over its policy allowing students to use the restrooms and locker rooms of their gender identity instead of their gender assigned at birth.
"Our goal is for Pennsylvania to be a place where God is honored, religious freedom flourishes, families thrive, and life is cherished," the institute's website states.
The same attorney DeFrancesco reached out to is also believed to be the same person who apparently edited library policy regulations for the Central Bucks School District, Bucks County.
Penncrest’s library policy passed earlier this month has been compared to one Central Bucks passed in July, which is now part of a 72-page LGTBQ discrimination complaint filed by the ACLU of PA that is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
The law center and family institute are part of a national group, the Family Research Council, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated an anti-LGBTQ hate group.
This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Penncrest asks PA Family Institute for legal help