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In Pennsylvania, Serpents and School Boards and the Independence Law Center

Here's another story about how Pennsylvania's leading right-wing law firm is weaving its way into local districts. The Central York School District in Pennsylvania was one of the first poster children for the reactionary culture's adoption of panic boards, and they plunged straight into banning books—and then backed off again because it caused a big stir. And then arguments continued over banning books, particularly a ban that seemed aimed at erasing LGBTQ and non-white voices.

This was a place that made its banning decision by looking at a list of 300 works recommended by a diversity committee and saying “no” to all of them, including works like Brad Meltzer's I'm Rosa Parks (a children's book).

In the middle of all this noise were board members Vicki Guth and Veronica Gemma, who faced calls for their resignation back in August 2020 over comments questioning the need for education on tolerance and racism.

Gemma was chief executive at the time and when she didn't resign, voters took the old-fashioned route and harshly voted her out of office. Gemma didn't do it quietly; A lame duck, she attempted to launch an investigation into the book ban controversy, adopting an argument later used by Ron DeSantis, arguing that some people interfered with the list only to make the board look bad . “It was a concerted effort to destroy our reputation for political reasons,” Gemma said. Because, you know, banning diversity texts wouldn't have looked bad on its own.

Gemma has found a job that suits her. She now works as the district office manager for York County State Rep. Joe D'Orsie (R-Mount Wolf). D'Orsie introduced a law exempting school employees from honoring the pronouns of LGBTQ+ students, similar to a policy drafted by the ILC and adopted by the Red Lion Area School Board last year.

READ: The Independence Law Center is attempting to impose its biblical worldview on Pennsylvania school districts

But that's not her only new appearance. She is also the Education Director of the PA Economic Growth PAC. The PAC is led by John Davis, who owns a shopping center in York, along with Kristen Rohrbaugh, an “experienced brand specialist,” and Don Yoder, all of whom have donated a small pile of money to the group. The group stands for “defending freedom, preserving capitalism, demanding transparency and empowering people,” although, like many right-wing groups, these positions come with asterisks.

For example, the issue of transparency.

Here, Gemma speaks to Epoch Times about her stand to combat critical race theory and DEI.

PAEGPAC did a lot of campaign mailing work (with Rohrbaugh's firm apparently doing the design work), but donated $500 to Project PAC of 1776, a million-dollar PAC targeting school board elections.

But now The York Dispatch has discovered emails that show the PAC did more than just send out mailings.

Meredith Willse, writes for To shipshows how Gemma arranged some secret meetings to act as an intermediary between York school officials and the right-wing law firm Independence Law Center, the firm that specializes in drafting anti-LGBTQ, anti-DEI, and anti-book policies for The state has specialized districts around the world.

In a March 4 email, Gemma invited members from 12 school districts throughout York County, specifically warning them not to bring more than four members or the meeting would be subject to Pennsylvania sunshine laws. It turns out that there are some exceptions to the PAC's interest in transparency.

The secret meeting took place on March 15 at an East York warehouse located in the back of a shopping center and was hosted by Round the Clock Diner. It won't surprise you that no one responded to Willse's request for comment.

READ: Christian nationalists are closer than ever to establishing church-run public schools

The email referred to ILC, a company that many York County counties hired this spring. And the email makes it clear that this is a regular meeting:

We finally found a date that works for most people. Remember, we hold these meetings every quarter. So if you miss this one, we can see you next time.

In a separate editorial, the York Dispatch Editorial Board succeeds in making the connections clear. They look back to a 2005 meeting with ILC general counsel Randall Wenger, who had worked with another firm as counsel in the case that ultimately scuttled the Dover school board's attempt to integrate creationism into science classes. In his opinion, board members had been too clear and transparent about their intention to bring religion into schools.

He told attendees, “I think we need to be better at being smart as snakes.”

Now ILC and its allies are showing their commitment to behaving like snakes, because lying and sneaking are consistent with Christian values.

Secret meetings appear to be a special technique that has also resulted in secret meetings with board members in my corner of the state.

READ: Pennsylvania Conservative Group recruits whistleblowers for reporting on public schools

At this point, it's best to assume that if your board is making noise about anti-LGBTQ and anti-book policies, ILC is in your area and sniffing around and you just need to start turning over stones to get them to find.

It reminds me of a saying a friend had hanging on his fridge. It's about using every means to an end, with the result that since we rarely fully achieve our goals, we become much more defined by the means we use. If you're really good at being a snake, don't be surprised if at the end of the day you find that you can no longer shed your skin.

This was originally published on the progressive education blog Miserand has been lightly edited.

Anna Harden

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