Democrats who swept Moms For Liberty off school board fight superintendent's $700,000 exit deal
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Pennsylvania school board that banned books, Pride flags and transgender athletes slipped a last-minute item into their final meeting before leaving office, hastily awarding a $700,000 exit package to the superintendent who supported their agenda.
But the Democratic majority that swept the conservative Moms For Liberty slate out of office hopes to block the unusual — they say illegal — payout and bring calm to the Central Bucks School District, whose affluent suburbs and bucolic farms near Philadelphia have been roiled by infighting since the 2020 pandemic.
“People are really sick of the embarrassing meetings, the vitriol, they’re tired of our district being in the news for all the wrong reasons. And … the students are aware of what’s been going on, particularly our LGBTQ students and their friends and allies,” said Karen Smith, a Democrat who won a third term on the board.
The district, with about 17,000 students in 23 schools, has spent $1.5 million on legal and public relations fees amid competing lawsuits, discrimination complaints and investigations in the past two years, including a pending suit over its suspension of a middle school teacher who supported LGBTQ and other marginalized students.
The jostling — and spending — look likely to continue as Democrats who won a 6-3 majority in the Nov. 7 election prepare to challenge the severance package for superintendent Abram Lucabaugh, which was added to the Nov. 14 agenda only the night before.
Meanwhile, several voters in the quaint town of Chalfont filed a court petition Monday challenging the school board election tallies, alleging unspecified “fraud or error.”
Student Lily Freeman, a vocal critic of board policies on LGBTQ issues, decried the district’s spending priorities. She called the severance package a bad deal for both students and taxpayers.
“It’s kind of like a slap in the face,” said the senior at Central Bucks East High School. “Teachers are struggling, and there’s a lot of students that are struggling.”
“There are so many resources out there that we could be putting that money to,” she said, noting her school desperately needs better WiFi.
Neither Lucabaugh, who skipped the final meeting, nor outgoing board president Dana Hunter returned calls for comment. School board solicitor Jeffrey P. Garton said he was not involved in the severance agreement.
“I didn’t prepare it and gave no legal advice concerning its content,” Garton said in an email.
Some of the incoming Democrats tried to warn the outgoing board that the payout violates a 2012 state law designed to curtail golden parachutes bestowed on school superintendents, including one that topped $900,000. The law now caps severance pay at a year’s salary, along with limited payments for unused sick time and other benefits.
“The particular circumstances in this case are even more egregious. The board gave Dr. Lucabaugh a 40 percent salary increase (to $315,000) in late July of this year, making him the second-highest paid school district superintendent in Pennsylvania, and is now using that increase less than four months later to calculate a severance payment,” lawyer Brendan Flynn, who represents them, wrote in a letter distributed to the board before the vote.
Lucabaugh’s package includes more than $300,000 for unused sick, vacation, administrative and personal time during his 18 years in various roles with the district; $50,000 for signing the deal; and health insurance for his family through June.
The package also includes a puzzling ban on any district investigations of his tenure and an agreement that he can keep his district-issued laptop as long as he wipes it of school records.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage nixed that last provision on Friday when he ordered Lucabaugh, a defendant in middle school teacher Andrew Burgess’s retaliation suit against the district, to preserve documents that may become evidence in the case.
“It’s hard to imagine a lawyer drafted that contract,” said Witold “Vic” Walczak, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, who represents Burgess. “No lawyer would think that a school board could insulate an employee from any kind of of court action or criminal investigation.”
Freeman, the high school senior, declined to revisit the threats and sense of danger she said she and her family have endured as she took on the board the past two years. However, her forceful public remarks at last week’s meeting, posted to TikTok, have drawn thousands of views and comments.
“It was never about protecting kids. It was about erasing people like me from Central Bucks,” she told the board last week as it voted to make students play on sports teams based on their gender assignment at birth. “You continue to make policy after policy preventing people like me from just living our lives.”
On Monday, Freeman said she’s hopeful the tensions will ease under the new board: “I feel as if we shouldn’t have to worry about a lot of these things if our needs are being met.”