Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that while all six books Central Bucks School Board member Karen Smith used at her swearing-in ceremony have been challenged elsewhere in recent years and five of the six were challenged under the previous Central Bucks School Board’s now-suspended Policy 109.2, none of the titles were removed from Central Bucks libraries.
As she was sworn in to her seat on the Central Bucks School Board Monday night, Karen Smith placed her hand on a stack of controversial books, several of which were challeneged under the previous school board's now-suspended Policy 109.2.
The message was clear. The new Democratic-led board intended to make significant changes. Immediately.
Amid a packed room in a celebratory mood, Smith’s 7-2 election as president brought a standing ovation. Dr. Mariam Mahmud was elected vice president.
Both directors said they intended to represent and work for all the district’s students and staff.
“Most importantly,” said Smith, “to all of our students, I am continuously impressed by you and inspired by you. You will remain my guiding force.”
The board moved quickly to address several controversial policies that divided the district and the larger community over the past two years, casting Central Bucks into national headlines.
Policies 109.1 and 109.2, which many claimed were tantamount to book bans were suspended, bringing cheers from the audience. The first prohibited “sexualized content” in resource materials approved and provided by the district. The second initiated a review process of books with “sexualized content” and a means to remove them from library shelves.
Policy 123.3, which the lame duck board adopted at its last meeting, restricted transgender girls from participating in sports aligned with their gender identities. That policy was suspended, as was policy 321, which sparked protests, when it banned the display of political flags, which included Pride flags from district classrooms, and prohibited teachers from “indoctrinating students.”
Additionally, the new board called for legal scrutiny in two exceptionally large financial matters costing district taxpayers more than $2 million.
In a highly anticipated financial decision, a unanimous board authorized a legal review of the more than $700,000 severance package awarded its former superintendent Abram Lucabaugh during the previous board’s last meeting in November. The deal outraged many in the community, who called for an investigation into its legality. Lucabaugh abruptly resigned following the Nov. 7 election that saw Democrats flip the board’s Republican majority.
In July, the board gave the former superintendent an 85% raise, increasing his salary to $315,000, which also caused alarm for some.
Republican board member James Pepper, an attorney, said the matter will likely lead to litigation and involve the deposing of board members.
“I look forward to that,” he added.
In a second case, the Philadelphia law firm of Duane Morris was hired to investigate an ACLU of Pennsylvania complaint that the district fostered “a widespread culture of discrimination” against LGBTQ+ students.
To date, the firm has billed CBSD $1.75 million. The district’s CFO, Tara Houser, said the billing practices of the attorneys, which sometimes allowed invoices to accumulate, were “out of the norm. I never saw a firm sit on bills of this magnitude this long,” she said Monday night.
Asked about the hourly rate of the Duane Morris lawyers, Houser said the lead attorney, Bill McSwain, charged $950 per hour, while Michael Rinaldi, who presented the firm’s findings, billed an hourly rate of $700. The board’s “panel” attorneys rates are between $200 and $250 per hour, said Houser. She also noted that previous audits of the bills “had several concerns.”
The district’s insurance company paid $250,000 of the fee, its maximum payout.
While the board voted to pay the law firm, citing the district “pays its bills,” it also agreed to further investigate the contract. “We will be taking a closer look at the invoices,” said Smith, “and asking Duane Morris not to bill us further.”
Before the consequential meeting ended, the board withdrew the district’s appeal of a recent court decision requiring Central Bucks redraw its voting regions into three districts rather than its current nine.