Judge removes five Pa. school board members in response to masking opponents’ petition

Maddie Hanna
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — A Chester County, Pennsylvania, judge has ordered the removal of five of the 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.

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.

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One of the five members ordered to be removed, Chester, a Democrat, won reelection in November with 5,400 votes, or 63% of the vote in her region, compared to 3,100 votes for her Republican challenger.

Similar petitions are pending against board members in four other Chester County school districts, including Downingtown, Great Valley, Tredyffrin/Easttown and Coatesville, Rosica said.

Beth Ann Rosica, a West Chester parent and executive director of Back to School PA, addresses the West Chester Area School Board during the public comment time at their meeting on March 28, 2022. On Tuesday, a Chester County judge ordered the immediate removal of five members of the board. (Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

“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 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.

A lawyer for the school board members, Ken Roos, said he would be filing a petition to reconsider, but declined to comment further. It wasn’t immediately clear what outcome that petition could have.

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.”

Rosica said board members never responded to the petition, which she filed without a lawyer using an apparently little-known provision in Pennsylvania’s Public 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.”

According to Mahon’s order, board members were served with the petition Feb. 22. Rosica said they never responded, and that she filed another petition with the court last week seeking a declaratory judgment due to the nonresponse.

Mahon gave Rosica and the board members seven days to each submit a list of five proposed replacements.