A Chester County judge has ordered the removal of five of nine West Chester school board members, granting a petition from residents opposed to masking requirements.
In an order Tuesday, Judge William Mahon said the five members — Sue Tiernan, Joyce Chester, Kate Shaw, Karen Herrmann, and Daryl Durnell — were removed after failing to respond to the February petition against them. A hearing will be held Friday on a motion by the board members to reconsider.
The petition was filed by Beth Ann Rosica, a West Chester parent who has opposed district pandemic measures and who is executive director of Back to School PA, the pro-school reopening political action committee backed by a Bucks County donor who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into school board races across the state in November.
One of the five members removed, Chester, a Democrat, won reelection in November with 5,400 votes, or 63% of the vote in her region, compared with 3,100 votes for her Republican challenger.
She and the four other members removed all had voted for a health and safety plan in August that included a mask requirement. (A sixth board member also serving last year, Gary Bevilacqua, was not present for that August board meeting and was not named in the petition.)
Similar petitions are pending against board members in four other Chester County school districts — Downingtown, Great Valley, Tredyffrin/Easttown, and Coatesville, Rosica said.
“I did not believe they had the legal authority to mask our children. I want to ensure they will never be forcibly masked again,” Rosica said of her reason for filing the petition against the West Chester board members. While masking in West Chester is now optional — as it is in schools across the region — Rosica noted that the district’s health and safety plan includes a provision to return to a mask requirement if COVID-19 transmission rates increase.
Lawyers for the school board members filed a motion to reconsider Tuesday night, saying the court had adopted the wrong timeline for setting a due date to respond to the petition. It asks the judge to reinstate the board members and give them until April 5 to file a response.
In response, Mahon issued an order Wednesday, scheduling Friday’s hearing to consider their arguments.
In a message to the community Tuesday night, Superintendent Bob Sokolowski said that “special counsel to the district is in the process of preparing a substantive response on behalf of those school board members named in the petition.”
“While we do not have all of the answers at this time, please be assured that the West Chester Area School District and I remain deeply committed to the mission of educating and inspiring the best in our students,” Sokolowski said. He noted that the order called the ruling a “procedural result,” adding that it “does not address any of the allegations made in the complaint.”
The petition refers to masks as “unapproved medical devices,” argues that schools aren’t allowed to exclude children who have COVID-19, and says that by requiring masks without informed consent, board members have committed “medical battery” against children. It also claims the board implemented policies falling under the definition of “suffocating” and “child abuse.”
The petition was written by Shannon Grady, a Downingtown parent who said she felt board members hadn’t listened to her and other parents calling for an end to mask requirements.
“I started the research on this back in August, when I realized the schools were going to continue to mask children,” Grady said. Reading Pennsylvania’s Public School Code as she tried to determine “do they actually have the authority” to require masks, “I found that loophole for removal of the school board.”
Grady’s petition — which she shared with Rosica and parents in other districts — uses an apparently little-known provision in the school code that allows for the removal of board members “for failure to organize or neglect of duty.”
Under the law, “any ten resident taxpayers” can file a petition with the Court of Common Pleas, and the court “shall grant a rule upon the school directors, returnable in not less than ten or more than twenty days ... to show cause why they should not be removed from office.” It also says board members “shall have at least five days’ notice of the granting of the rule.”
Rosica said her petition was served to board members Feb. 22. In a March 15 order, Mahon said that a “respondent shall file a verified answer to the petition within twenty days of service upon the respondent.”
Last week, Rosica wrote to Mahon, asking for clarification on the timeframe. By her count, she said, 20 business days from service of the petition was March 22.
Mahon then issued his order removing the board members Tuesday — saying that “despite the important issues raised in the petition,” the members had “failed to comply with the Rules of Civil Procedure” and his March 15 order. He gave Rosica and the board members seven days to each submit a list of five proposed replacements.
But lawyers for the board members said in their motion for reconsideration that the 20 days should have been counted from when the judge issued the rule on March 15 — which would have given them until April 4 to respond.
Parents like Grady are now watching to see what happens with petitions in other districts. Grady said Mahon is also handling her petition against Downingtown board members — which she said she had originally filed in December. But not being a lawyer, she said, she had made some procedural errors.
“The judge gave me two lifelines with it,” Grady said, allowing her to refile. A physiologist, she said she was frustrated she wasn’t allowed to testify in a lawsuit against the Tredyffrin/Easttown district last year, when she proposed as a witness to perform a demonstration in which she would put a carbon dioxide meter under her mask. Lawyers for the district called it “junk science.”
A federal judge rejected parents’ call for an order against that district, with claims that masking violated their religious beliefs and that the district couldn’t order masking because masks are “unapproved medical devices.”
In Chester County, Mahon was accused by a defense attorney last year of failing to wear a mask in the courthouse, despite county requirements to do so.
Billy Penn reported that Mahon sought to have an 88-year-old woman arrested after her attorney said she missed a court appearance due to coronavirus symptoms. Sheriff’s deputies found the woman too frail to detain, according to the report.