Central Bucks reportedly plans to spend $1 million-plus in legal fees in response to allegations of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in schools

The Duane Morris law firm is reportedly charging Central Bucks School District $300,000 to $500,000 a month, for at least three months.

Listen 5:00
A group of people sit in chairs, and other people sit in a table at the front of the room.

File photo: About 100 people fill a Central Bucks School Board meeting room on Feb. 7, 2023. More waited outside who were denied entrance to avoid overcrowding. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Got a question about life in Philly’s suburbs? Our suburban reporters want to hear from you! Ask us a question or send an idea for a story you think we should cover.

The Central Bucks School District is estimated to amass at least $1 million in legal fees to defend against allegations of discrimination toward LGBTQ students, according to the district’s Chief of Operations Tara Houser.

Details of the price tag for the Duane Morris law firm, the district’s legal counsel, was revealed at the school district’s finance committee meeting Wednesday night.

Houser told the school board and four other people in the public section of the meeting room, “I’ve been estimating around $350,000 to $400,000 per month for December, January, and February.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The Philadelphia-based Duane Morris LLP is one of the largest firms in the region, and has dozens of offices nationwide and overseas. The Duane Morris law firm has represented WHYY.

Central Bucks hired the firm to represent the district in connection with the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s federal complaint alleging the district created a “hostile environment” for LGBTQ students. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating the district. The firm is also conducting an internal probe into the allegations within the ACLU complaint and two other complaints that were filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), according to its letter of agreement to the district dated Nov. 1.

Board members Karen Smith and Tabitha Dell’Angelo were asking questions about the district’s budget for Duane Morris, the firm’s invoices, and if the district would pay in one lump sum. Houser did not pinpoint when the legal work would conclude. She said, “I was under the impression that February was the end, but … I haven’t seen another bill so I can’t speak to that.” She said the district has received just one bill from Duane Morris for November’s work, despite the firm’s agreement letter to the district stating it would bill monthly.

Houser was asked by board member Mariam Mahmud if Duane Morris gave the district a monthly estimate. Houser confirmed, and said that’s how she came up with the projected cost of “$300,000 to $500,000 a month” — a wider range than she first shared.

The district has previously indicated that insurance would help cover the legal fees, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. But Houser did not specify on Wednesday what that looks like.

District officials, school board members, and Houser did not respond to WHYY News requests for comment. WHYY News was first to report that the law firm charged the district $114,106 for one month of work in November, according to financial records WHYY News obtained through an open records request under Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

In the firm’s letter of agreement, Bill Mcswain, the former U.S. attorney leading the Central Bucks legal team with partner Michael Rinaldi, wrote the legal fees are unpredictable. “Accordingly, we have made no commitment to you concerning the maximum fees and costs that will be necessary to resolve or complete this matter.”

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Community members have criticized the district for choosing McSwain, who sought the Republican nomination for governor in 2022. During his campaign, McSwain posted a photo of a West Chester Area School District Gay-Straight alliance club sign on Facebook captioned, “This ends when I’m governor.”

PennLive reported that McSwain, along with the other GOP candidates, opposed allowing transgender women to play girls or women’s sports. McSwain also defended the Boy Scouts after Philadelphia attempted to evict the group in 2010 over its anti-gay ban.

District parent Laura Napier, in a November school board meeting, criticized the school board for hiring the law firm and Philadelphia public relations firm Devine & Partners, and said both moves were to protect “cruelty” and to “defend the indefensible.”

The PR firm charged the district just under $144,000 for nine months of work, from May 2022 to January 2023, according to financial records obtained by WHYY News.

“Because you cannot take the heat you brought upon yourselves with your poor choices, your own politicization of our children … cruelty to those entrusted in your care, you’re hiring a costly lawyer with very political views,” Napier said.

In an October memo to the school community, school board president Dana Hunter wrote, “Both Mr. McSwain and Mr. Rinaldi have decades of investigative experience and are well-suited to serve and advise the board as it works to ensure a safe learning environment for all the district’s children.”

The district has the option to take the issue to court rather than immediately complying with the U.S. Department of Education or U.S. Department of Justice, said Mike Dimino, law professor at Widener University. Dimino said it’s possible the district is gearing up to defend itself in a court case against the U.S. Department of Justice or the resolutions the Department of Education or Department of Justice enforce.

But, Dimino said, the district likely won’t describe it that way. “I think that the school district would say, ‘We need to be prepared in the event that the Department of Education claims that our legal responsibilities are different from what we think they are.”

Though it makes sense to hire legal counsel to navigate these allegations, Dimino said, “A school district doesn’t want to spend over $100,000 on getting ready for a case if it foresees just caving in and doing whatever the Department of Education wants the school to do.” He continued, “It doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense for the school district to say to its taxpayers, ‘We’re going to spend all of this money and then cave.’”

Inside the ACLU complaint, and what’s next

The ACLU complaint presents the experiences of seven students and families who allege anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

The ACLU complaint states that LGBTQ students, especially transgender youth, have endured bullying for years under an unresponsive district administration who were aware of the “pervasive” harassment. The ACLU alleges the district is therefore in violation of Title IX, the federal law which is enforced by the OCR and prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools that receive federal funding.

Along with demonstrating a “chronic failure to take reasonable and necessary measures” to address the bullying, the ACLU alleges the district also exacerbated the “toxic” environment for LGBTQ kids with a series of directives, behaviors, and policies, including ordering teachers to remove Pride flags, directing teachers to not use students’ preferred gender pronouns or names without parent permission, punishing staff who speak out against anti-LGBTQ directives, and enacting policies that censor books.

The seven families anonymously cited in the complaint demand that the Department of Education order the district to “rescind its discriminatory policies and directives” and to follow federal recommendations for creating an inclusive and supportive school environment for transgender and gender non-conforming students.

How the OCR investigation process works

  • The OCR is investigating the merits of the ACLU’s complaint and acting as a “neutral fact-finder”
  • If the district is interested in a resolution at any time during the investigation, and the OCR believes the resolution is appropriate, the agency may negotiate an agreement with the district and conclude the investigation early
  • If by the end of the investigation, the OCR determines that the district violated federal law, the district can agree to resolve the complaint. The OCR and the district can negotiate an agreement that describes how the district will take “remedial actions” to address the discrimination allegations
  • If the district is not interested in a resolution that the OCR believes is adequate, the OCR may initiate an administrative process, or refer the case to the Department of Justice for “judicial proceedings to enforce the specific terms of the resolution agreement and the applicable statute(s) and regulation(s)”

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal