What if school boards start legally silencing tax payers who just have questions?

March 8 – Following a cease and desist order sent to a Chambersburg Area School District tax payer last week, serious questions and concerns have come up about what actually happened and what is considered a threat.

Valerie Jordan, of Fayetteville, received a cease and desist order from the law firm of Appel, Yost & Zee on behalf of the Chambersburg Area School Board that says she can’t talk to any employee of the district or go on school district property until further notice. Read a bit of the background here.

The glaring question surrounding all of this is:  what actually happened to result in legal action from an outside firm? Doesn’t the public, and even Jordan, have a right to know?

And the scariest one:  can a school board just silence people when they tire of the questions?

Attorney Clint Barkdoll, Pat Ryan and Michele Jansen on 103.7FM discussed the issue today.

“I think we deserve to know,” Jansen said. “Where’s the standard here? Where do you draw the line and say something’s a threat. Are you going to say because I raise my voice and get passionate, somehow I’m a threat. I want to understand. Maybe there’s something we don’t know. Maybe she made some very obvious threat. It sounds like (even) she doesn’t know what it was.”

Ryan added, “What about the rest of the tax payers? You don’t like what they say, so you’re going to send everybody a cease and desist letter?”

Also puzzling is that the school board would use an outside law firm to send the letter – to the tune of $2,000 to $3,000 of tax payer money – when they have an in-house solicitor.

“People are just easily throwing extreme terms at people,” Jansen said. “You’re a racist, you’re some kind of threat, you’re a domestic terrorist. We know that’s a way to shut people down, by labeling them something. Without a clear explanation from the district, what exactly did she do that’s threatening?”

Ryan pointed out that from the school district’s side, Jordan was a tax payer who asked a lot of questions. “Quite frankly, if you don’t like the questions and you don’t like the way she’s approaching the day after day and the email after email, if you don’t like it then don’t sign up for the gig. But silencing people? This is very dangerous here. Think about it as a tax payer. Imagine if you have a question or you’re not getting quick enough answers.”

Getting this on the agenda for a school board meeting could also peel back the curtain.  

“I think step one is to try to get this on the agenda before the full board to first determine, did all nine of you weigh in on this and vote on it?” Barkdoll said. “If not, we want it put in for a vote. Either rescind the letter or confirm the letter and if you confirm the letter tell us why.”

In terms of getting the issue on the agenda for a school board meeting, how can Jordan do that if she’s forbidden from contact with anyone in the district?

“I think there are scenarios that she could still have this put on an agenda through an agent to force the board to address this,” Barkdoll said.

Another recourse would be for Jordan to petition a judge to review the situation or maybe issue a complaint through an agency in Harrisburg.

“The problem right now there seems to be an awful lot we don’t know,” Barkdoll said. “And there’s where I think it’s incumbent on the district to come out soon with what evidence they have to justify this action. If they won’t address it, well then I think they’re looking at some kind of a court action or administrative action. The board would be smart to just come out and address this now. Come out early, be transparent and get it all out – the good, the bad and the ugly. Each day that passes that the district doesn’t address this, they are inviting more problems.”

Transparency could be the key to unlock this situation. Either Jordan or the school district could open up all correspondence on a website or social media platform to present what really occurred – put it all out there for the public to see.

“You can’t just allow a group like this to cover up why,” Jansen said. “Maybe it’s legitimate. But we deserve to know how and why.”

Ryan asked, “What are you hiding? These are the same people (school board) that threw 3.5 mils (raising taxes in a pandemic) on your backs. These are the same ones that are hiding on their Zoom platform. God bless Valerie Jordan for actually doing the digging and asking some questions. And all of a sudden just because you don’t like the questions or you think there are too many questions or maybe something was out of bounds here? What was out of bounds? Don’t hide anymore, damn it. Don’t hide behind a whole bunch of freaking lawyers, either. How will I ever know if they just hide behind a whole bunch of whereas and where withs? I’m losing my mind right now.”

Jansen added, the school board is “intimidating people from interacting with you and asking questions by doing this. Truly, they’re the ones actually causing someone to feel threatened because if I wanted to bring a complaint I’d be a little bit worried now. How am I going to be looked at? What am I going to be branded?”

Have there been other cease and desist orders filed on other tax payers? Has this been an ongoing solution for the school board to questions they don’t want to answer?

A Right to Know request would also open this up.

From the Pennsylvania Freedom of Information Coalition:  Under the Right to Know Law, all government records in the possession of a Commonwealth or Local Agency are presumed to be accessible by the public. This means that you may access any government records you request unless the agency is able to prove that the record you requested is not public under the law. Agencies have the burden of proving that records are not public. If the agency fails to prove that a record is not public, that record must be disclosed.

News Talk 103.7FM would welcome the opportunity to interview Jordan and someone from the school board on air to hash out these issues and get down to what’s really going on here.