Central Bucks School District spent over $250,000 to defuse anti-LGBTQ criticism

The school district has spent at least a quarter of a million dollars on attorney’s fees and public relations services since May, and the full amount is likely much more.

A building seen from the distance on a sunny day.

Central Bucks School District headquarters (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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The Central Bucks School District has spent at least a quarter of a million dollars on attorney’s fees and public relations services since May, and the full amount paid out is likely much more, WHYY News has learned.

Philadelphia-based Duane Morris LLP was hired to represent the district in connection with the ACLU of Pa.’s federal complaint alleging it created a “hostile environment” for LGBTQ students. The U.S. Department of Education is now investigating the district.

In an invoice dated Dec. 8, 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.

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Those records also show Philadelphia public relations firm Devine + Partners charged the district just under $144,000 for nine months of work, from May 2022 to January 2023.

Both the firms’ work appear to have started before their contracts were voted on during public meetings, raising concerns about whether payments are being properly reported to taxpayers.

The Pa. Office of Open Records advises public agencies to proactively publish information on its website, according to Paula Knudsen Burke, an attorney with the nonprofit Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

“The taxpayers are entitled to know how much money is being spent on these lawyers,” Burke said.

According to Duane Morris’ letter of agreement, dated Nov. 1, it was also hired to represent the district in connection with two other complaints filed to the U.S. Dept. of Ed. and to conduct an internal investigation into the allegations from all three complaints.

Community members have criticized the district for hiring the firm, calling the decision to use taxpayer dollars to “defend” the district’s anti-LGBTQ measures “fiscally irresponsible.” Critics have additionally questioned the choice of Bill McSwain, the former U.S. attorney now leading the CBSD legal team with partner Michael Rinaldi.

McSwain drew outrage during his 2022 run for governor when he referred to a West Chester Area School District Gay-Straight Alliance club sign as “leftist political indoctrination,” writing in a Facebook post, “This ends when I’m governor.” He also represented a Boy Scouts troop in 2010 through 2012 after Philadelphia attempted to evict the organization for refusing to admit gay members.

Bill McSwain speaks while seated at a table, gesturing with his hands.
In this Oct. 17, 2018 photo, U.S. Attorney William McSwain speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Central Bucks School Board President Dana Hunter defended the district’s choice of attorneys in a memo to the school community.

“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,” Hunter wrote.

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With over 17,000 students, Central Bucks, about an hour drive outside Philadelphia, is the fourth largest school district in Pennsylvania. Its leaders have drawn criticism over the past year for enacting what many allege are discriminatory policies that target LGBTQ students.

The federal ACLU complaint cites the district’s policies that censor books, its procedures about not using students’ correct pronouns and names, and administrative decisions punishing staff who speak out. In January, the district banned Pride flags and other classroom decor it defines as “advocacy activity.” The Duane Morris law firm reviewed this policy in November, according to the documents obtained by WHYY News.

Sixty-five titles are being considered for potential removal from school libraries under a district policy to remove books deemed “inappropriate” for including “sexualized content.” The policy was written with the pro-bono help of the Independence Law Center, a conservative Christian firm that’s an arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a statewide branch of the national Family Research Council, which has been designated an extremist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Over 100 billable hours before contract was approved

The Dec. 8 invoice shows Duane Morris worked for Central Bucks almost every day in November 2022, starting Nov. 1. But the school board didn’t officially vote to hire the firm until a Nov. 15 meeting.

More than 100 hours of work worth $70,920 were accrued before that board meeting. By that date, per the invoice, the firm had already:

  • Corresponded with attorneys hired by the district from Philly-based Cozen O’Connor law firm
  • Corresponded with the U.S. Dept. of Education
  • Helped prepare for the Nov. 15 school board meeting
  • Corresponded with School Board President Dana Hunter, Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh, and District Solicitor Jeffrey Garton
  • Reviewed and analyzed district policies
  • Drafted a “key persons list of school district and board personnel”
  • Reviewed the ACLU’s complaint

The November invoice was the only one delivered in response to WHYY News’ open records request for financial documents dated Sept. 1, 2022 through Feb. 15, 2023, despite the firm’s agreement letter stating it would bill the district monthly.

Bill Senavaitis, president of the Central Bucks Education Association, said eight district teachers have so far been interviewed by Duane Morris attorneys.

Robi Gluck, French teacher at Lenape and Tamanend Middle Schools, was first contacted by a Duane Morris attorney through email on Dec. 19, according to information she shared with WHYY News. She received a second email from the firm on Jan. 3 and was interviewed Feb. 23 by three Duane Morris attorneys, including McSwain and Rinaldi.

Gluck said she thinks she was chosen to be interviewed because she is the sponsor for Lenape’s Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) student club and was a member of the now disbanded “No Place for Hate” faculty committee. Others sometimes identify her as a “squeaky wheel,” she said, because she “speaks truth to power.” Gluck said she was told by Duane Morris not to discuss the contents of her interview because it would violate an “Upjohn instruction,” which means the material is privileged between the firm and the district.

Two other people who requested anonymity for fear of repercussion told WHYY News that Duane Morris contacted them for an interview. One was a district employee, who said they were contacted in mid-January. The other wished to not to disclose any part of their identity, and said they were contacted for an interview in late December and interviewed in mid-January.

WHYY News subsequently requested all financial records for Duane Morris work between March 1, 2022 and Feb. 8, 2023. The district denied the request and claimed no records exist — a statement that runs contrary to the Dec. 8 invoice already shared.

No one from district administration, the school board’s Republican majority, or Duane Morris responded to WHYY News’ requests for comment. Karen Smith, one of the three Democrats on the board, said she had no additional information about Duane Morris’ work with the district.

How much cash is the district laying out — and how much is coming from taxpayer dollars?

The Central Bucks School District indicated some of the Duane Morris costs would be covered by insurance, according to The Inquirer, but didn’t specify any amount.

An open records request filed by WHYY News requesting information about insurance coverage, however, was denied. The district said “no payments were made by either the district or its insurers, and therefore no record of payment exists.”

In the invoice dated Dec. 8, Duane Morris charged the district for eight employees’ work: attorneys McSwain ($940/hr.), Rinaldi ($640/hr.), Mary Hansen ($740/hr.), Neilay Shah ($415/hr.), Jonathan Helwink ($590/hr.), Eliese Herzl-Betz ($525/hr.), Nicholas Dimarco ($500/hr.), and staffer Christopher Santo ($330/hr.).

Duane Morris and Cozen O’Connor are just two of nine law firms the district is paying.

According to a March 14 cash requirements report, CBSD paid a total of about $122,333 to lawyers during February and March 2023, including:

  • $25,500 to Jacobson & John LLP for “attorney fees”
  • $16,537 to Levin Legal Group for “legal fees”
  • $32,603.83 to Sweet, Stevens, Katz & Williams LLP for “legal fees”
  • $13,552 to Begley, Carlin, & Mandio for “legal fees”
  • $6,500 to Ilene Young Esquire for “legal fees”
  • $25,889.40 to Cozen O’Connor for “legal fees”
  • $838.50 to Wisler Pearlstine LLP for “technology services”
  • $912 to Dischell, Bartle & Dooley PC for “professional services”

In addition to legal assistance, the district has also been pouring cash into public relations.

Devine + Partners, which stopped working for the district in February after its staff and several clients allegedly faced harassment from Central Bucks community members, charged the district a total of $143,664 for nine months of work.

That’s slightly higher than the amount described in the PR firm’s contract — which was adopted after the work actually began.

The contract with Devine + Partners was approved by the school board on July 26 of last year, with an estimated budget of $15,000 a month from July 2022 through June 2023.

But according to invoices WHYY News obtained through an open records request, Devine + Partners started billing the district in May 2022, with about $53,600 of work conducted before the board voted publicly to hire the firm.

“It seems like there should have been a vote prior to that work being performed to authorize it and have the discussion occur in public,” said Burke, the attorney with the RCFP. “Only a judge can determine whether there’s been a Sunshine Act violation, but it raises question marks.”

Editor’s Note: The original published version of this story did not state that Duane Morris law firm has represented WHYY.

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