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Settlement Talks, Legal Arguments Continue In Case Over McKeesport Black Student Union

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
McKeesport schools superintendent Mark Holtzman speaks with reporters Tuesday

Settlement talks were underway in an ACLU lawsuit against the McKeesport Area School District on Tuesday afternoon, although a resolution didn’t necessarily sound close. 

District superintendent Mark Holtzman told reporters that officials hoped to settle the suit, which concerns an effort by students to form a black student union. But he said if talks failed, he was willing to fight in court. He blamed the ACLU for using the media, including WESA, “as a platform to argue this case in public.” And he said the mother of one of the students, Fawn Walker-Montgomery, had sown division to advance her own political agenda.

“The political ambitions of one person have jeopardized the relationships and resources of the McKeesport Area School District,” he said at a press conference convened in the school board chambers.

At issue is a bid by Walker-Montgomery’s daughter and other students to form a black student union to use school facilities to discuss issues like racial disparities in school discipline. When the district balked, the ACLU filed a suit in federal court, arguing that students have a Constitutional right to form a club.  

Holtzman’s remarks Tuesday, and those of assistant superintendent Tia Wanzo, largely repeated arguments the district made in its own legal filings late last week.

While federal law generally requires districts to afford a “fair opportunity” to students seeking to form groups, it also mandates that “non-school persons may not direct, conduct, control, or regularly attend activities” held by those groups.

The district argues that the proposed student union ran afoul of that provision. It cites a proposal to allow two civic groups, including one tied to Walker-Montgomery, to serve as advisory board members that would sit on an executive committee and cast tie-breaking votes.

Walker-Montgomery has denied that she was the driving force behind the group. And in any case, the ACLU complaint faults the district’s response, which included gathering 15 students to discuss a student union. The group, which was largely made up of students who hadn’t backed the black student union, decided not to create one.

Holtzman said the ACLU misstated the facts, and that the gathering was "something we agreed upon … to create a group to get some feedback on what the students want.” Convening the students "gave the opportunity for the students to have a voice on what they prefer as in their best interests."

Holtzman said that while he urged students to create a black student union, "Our students decided that’s not what they wanted,” instead creating a student group that didn't foreground racial concerns.

The ACLU, Holtzman said, wasn’t “happy with the outcome of it, so therefore unfortunately they said in some way I was pushing students into a particular idea or another.”

ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczak called that a “red herring.” He said that during a phone call, Holtzman had indicated a desire to solicit student input, but “he’s the superintendent – he can convene a group of students any time he wants.”

Students have the right to decide for themselves whether to form a club, Walczak said, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to make that choice for each other – any more than students who want to form a chess club need to consult with students who play checkers.

“His comment that we weren’t happy with the outcome doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, unless it means that he let the students decide what group to create and they decided it wasn’t the black student union,” Walczak added. “If so, this wasn’t just to hear from students, but an effort to create a different group.”

Both sides say there are active negotiations to settle the dispute, even as district administrators bemoaned the bad blood the dispute created on social media and elsewhere.

Wanzo expressed frustration that students “feel that we are telling them, ‘no you cannot do that. You’re not allowed to have this club,’ because that was never ever stated by any of us."

She added that the district “struggled each year to balance the budget …. And this year, we are forced to waste valuable resources to defend ourselves against an illegal claim.” She said she couldn’t quantify the cost.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.