When it comes to health and safety in public schools, the county health department calls the shots. At least, it’s supposed to. But email records and other written correspondence obtained through Right to Know requests demonstrate that, in the summer of 2020, Bucks County public education officials chose to ignore local health authorities and instead followed a well-connected lawyer.
On June 15, 2020, Dr. David Damsker, Bucks County’s health director, released guidance that would allow for schools to reopen in the fall with moderate safety regulations — something parents in the grassroots group Reopen Bucks say they supported.
“This was the plan we wanted, staying safe but not stuck in a perpetual lockdown situation,” Jamie Walker, a local parent, said. “If other counties’ schools can open and parents can go back to work, why not Bucks?”
And, it seems, the local education authorities in Delaware, Chester, and Northampton counties along with some districts near Pittsburgh, agreed, according to emails obtained by the group. By the next day, June 16, Bucks officials were claiming Damsker’s guidance as their own model.
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An email from Rebecca Roberts-Malamis, Bucks County Intermediate Unit’s deputy executive director and in-house legal counsel, to Mark Hoffman, the unit’s executive director, on June 16 says, “Look at you… your model is being replicated throughout the state! Kudos! Take a bow!!!”
But within a week, local school districts and the intermediate unit — a state appointed regional educational agency — backtracked from Dr. Damsker’s guidance and began to move toward keeping schools closed.
Parents with Reopen Bucks say this was the final straw that led them to file the RTK requests. The documents they obtained reveal why the officials changed their minds.
On June 24, 2020, Jeff Sultanik, a partner with the Fox Rothschild LLP law firm based in Blue Bell, hosted a webinar sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association of School Personnel Administrators (PAPSA). Sultanik’s presentation evidently served as a catalyst for Hoffman, Roberts-Malamis, and several district superintendents, to withdraw their support for Damsker’s guidance.
An email dated June 27, 2020, from William Harner, superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District, to Hoffman also further illustrates Sultanik’s influence.
“Just off the phone with Jeff Sultanik,” Harner wrote. “He ripped Dr. D[amsker] apart and said he was setting districts up for legal issues down the road…if districts adopt the limited minimalist precautions Dr. D recommends districts will have legal issues when their first COVID positive strikes.”
But even if we could take Sultanik’s intention to help Bucks County education officials avoid litigation in good faith, his reasoning seems extreme. No public school in America has been successfully sued over a COVID-19 infection. And the local health department has the authority and legal responsibility for those decisions — that’s its entire raison d’etre.
Even if we could take Sultanik’s intention to help Bucks County education officials avoid litigation in good faith, his reasoning seems extreme.
Understanding this, parents with Reopen Bucks attended an intermediate unit meeting where they read a letter detailing the key findings of their Right to Know requests. In it, they cite the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955 that specifically says schools fall under the jurisdiction of their local health department. Put simply, the statute provides county health officials with the legal authority to create the health and safety guidance for public schools during a pandemic, not lawyers.
So, where does Sultanik’s influence come from and why did it end up outweighing both the voices of local parents and the authority of Dr. Damsker?
According to his law firm’s website, Sultanik is a “longtime collaborator” with PAPSA, a union that represents public education administrators in districts statewide, including many in Bucks County. He is also a past president of the Pennsylvania School Board Solicitors Association, a division of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association which lobbies on behalf of school board officials. And his work seems to primarily consist of assisting the public-sector unions for municipality and public-education employees.
Union leaders consider him “the toughest contract negotiator in the state,” according to Harner.
With that close of a relationship between Sultanik and public education administrators, and that level of trust in his toughness on their behalf, it’s easy to see why local education officials would choose Sultanik’s word over Damsker’s.
The result: Health policies for Buck County public schools were not made by local public health authorities. And the parents who spoke up to try and reassert the authority of the public in public education, well, they just seem to exist to pay the taxes.
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with the right-leaning Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg.