Crawford Central meets with controversial law firm

May 1—VERNON TOWNSHIP — Crawford Central School Board members met behind closed doors last week with representatives of a Harrisburg law firm that has gained attention for its recent efforts to help school districts create policies that draw distinctions based on biological sex for athletics, restrooms and pronouns.

The nearly two-hour meeting took place following the adjournment of the board's April 22 voting meeting and was not publicly disclosed until a board member questioned the board president about it following another meeting this week.

As meeting participants gathered their things to leave after a brief meeting Monday on an unrelated real estate purchase, Jan Feleppa remained seated and addressed board President Kevin Merritt, saying she had been "blindsided" by the unexpected presentation.

"Why did you feel that you needed to bring the Independence Law Center into our meeting?" Feleppa asked as Merritt stood to leave. By this time, the five board members who had attended via videoconference had ended their connections. Feleppa, Merritt and Ed DeVore were the only board members present along with Superintendent Jenn Galdon, another district employee, and a Meadville Tribune reporter.

Merritt said that he and Vice President Jeff Rose had requested the meeting. Rose later confirmed the request in a phone interview.

"You didn't feel the need to inform us of what we were going to be sitting through?" Feleppa asked.

"Well," Merritt replied, "I did not."

Lack of transparency

Merritt and district administrators also elected not to inform the public about the meeting.

The board adjourned its April 22 meeting after about 30 minutes for what was described at the time as an executive session on student discipline and potential litigation. Executive sessions allow public agencies to hold private meetings to discuss certain specific topics outlined by Pennsylvania's Sunshine Act.

When holding an executive session regarding potential litigation, agencies must state the nature of a complaint. Immediately after the April 22 executive session was announced, the Tribune questioned whether "potential litigation" was sufficient explanation. The district's lawyer, Rachael Downey Glasoe, stated that it was and declined to elaborate.

Student discipline and potential litigation were briefly addressed during the executive session that followed, according to interviews with multiple meeting participants. The vast majority of the meeting, however, was devoted to what Superintendent Jenn Galdon more than a week later described as an online information session on Title IX, the federal statute prohibiting sex-based discrimination in federally funded education programs, led by the Independence Law Center.

The Independence Law Center (ILC) is the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a nonprofit whose mission is "to strengthen families by restoring to public life the traditional, foundational principles and values," according to its website. The ILC has recently played a central role in controversial policies adopted in Central Bucks and South Side Area school districts.

When the executive session was announced, there was no indication to the public and to at least two board members that the board would be hearing from the ILC. Feleppa and fellow board member Ryan Pickering said the presentation came as a surprise.

"There was communication by email that there was an executive session about Title IX," Galdon said in an email Tuesday regarding the apparent surprise on the part of some board members. "There was not clear communication about the presentation."

Galdon did not respond to a question about why the nature of the meeting was not disclosed when the executive session was announced.

Days after the meeting came another unexpected announcement, according to Feleppa. An email from the district's administration informed board members that after additional consultation with Glasoe, the board's executive session would be considered to include only the beginning and closing portions, not the bulk of the time spent with the ILC.

Galdon confirmed that after the meeting took place the beginning and ending were determined to be executive sessions, while the ILC presentation was not considered an executive session.

Red flag

The series of events raises a red flag with regard to Sunshine Act compliance, according to Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association. The Sunshine Act is Pennsylvania's open meeting law.

"If the board simply sat and listened to a presentation, then by definition there was no quorum deliberation and the Sunshine Act doesn't not require a public meeting," she said. "However, it's not clear that's what happened here, and even if the law didn't require a public meeting, the board could have heard from ILC as part of a public meeting."

After discussing the meeting with Feleppa on Monday, Merritt declined to comment further on the board's meeting with the ILC, as did DeVore.

Rose compared the meeting to past board retreats that have been held privately and described the focus as informational and educational.

"We tried to very strictly adhere to not deliberating or discussing too much," Rose said.

The Sunshine Act requires that any deliberation by the board be conducted in public.

At this point, the only way for the public to know how successful the board was in avoiding deliberation, Melewsky pointed out, would be to put them under oath and have them testify.

The question could have been avoided entirely had the board conducted the meeting in public rather than shielding the nature of the meeting and holding it privately.

Citing several Pennsylvania school districts facing lawsuits following their involvement with the ILC, Melewsky said transparency with the public was even more important in this instance.

"The taxpayers have a vested interest not only in the policies that could result from this kind of meeting but from the litigation that could result as well," she said.

Following the original publication of this story, Randall Wenger, ILC's chief counsel, emailed a response to Melewsky's comments.

"Despite claims to the contrary, no Independence Law Center policies have ever been challenged in court anywhere, and no legal liability has ever been imposed," Wenger said. "Advocacy groups complained to the Biden Administration's Dept. of Education regarding two districts in Bucks County, but neither the Biden Administration nor the advocacy groups saw fit to file a lawsuit."

The Education Law Center, along with several parents and two other organizations, filed a 77-page federal civil rights complaint in November alleging discriminatory policies and "hostile environment rife with race- and sex-based harassment" in Pennridge School District. Independence Law Center is not named in the complaint, which cites athletics and bathroom policies similar to those reviewed by Crawford Central.

Board member Holly Chatman described the meeting as both informative and timely, given new rules issued April 19 by the Biden administration regarding Title IX enforcement. The new rules extend the law's protections agains discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Chatman said the meeting had another purpose as well.

"Truthfully, from my take on it, it seemed more like they were trying to get us to utilize their law firm and pay for services," she said in a phone interview Monday. "We have a law firm and they're wonderful. ... We have our policies in place and we're in compliance with everything."

Board interest in ILC policies

The presentation after last week's meeting is not the board's first encounter with the ILC's work.

At their April 15 work session, board members discussed three policies adopted earlier this year by South Side Area School District in Beaver County. According to the Beaver County Times, ILC senior counsel Jeremy Samek said in December that the firm drafted the policies.

Crawford Central's discussion of the policies featured sharp division between board members DeVore and Ron Irwin, who supported the policies, and Pickering, who questioned their legality.

The policies in question restrict participation in athletics and restroom use according to biological sex, defining sex in terms of "reproductive biology and genetic make-up." They also address name and pronoun usage, allowing nontraditional pronoun usage and unofficial name changes under certain circumstances, but stating the school personnel cannot be compelled to address students "in any manner that would violate the conscience of the speaker."

Glasoe, the district's lawyer, urged the board to take a cautious approach to such policies, suggesting they were likely to violate Title IX and result in costly lawsuits.

"My read on this is South Side (Area) School District is looking for a fight in court and that is what will happen down there," Glasoe said. "If we look to these as a model, I would say this school district is going to also get a fight — is going to get a big legal fight."

In an interview after the board's April 15 discussion, which also featured discussion of a projected $4.3 million deficit and 5.5 percent tax increase for next year, Merritt said he didn't consider the policies an urgent issue.

"I think at some point," he said with regard to the policies, "but right now with the advice of the solicitor we need to just wait and see. I'm thinking at some point in time there's going to be a discussion of it."

One week later, the board he leads was meeting outside public view with representatives of the ILC.

For Melewsky, the key question regarding the meeting involved the purpose being served by excluding the public.

"With regard to this type of Title IX policies, they often involve controversial issues and they often involve the potential for litigation," she said. "I would argue the controversial nature of the policies that are being discussed calls out for public participation, not the opposite.

"The best public policy," Melewsky added, "is the result of an informed and actively involved citizenry."

Editor's note: This article was updated May 1 to include a statement from the Independence Law Center.

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at