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Secret meetings spark criticism of Pa. opioid trust

Plus, Pennsylvania officials spent millions to challenge a school funding lawsuit.

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This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

June 1, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Lack of trust, bag of cash, daily calendar, elder law, election misinformation, suit cost, rebate rescue, culture clash, teacher turnover, and stop and frisk.
A new trust is responsible for ensuring counties and other local governments appropriately spend hundreds of millions of dollars intended to help Pennsylvania respond to the opioid crisis. 

But despite being subject to the state's Sunshine Act, the trust met secretly for months. During that time, board members selected a bank to administer the funds, discussed how counties are allowed to spend money, and more.

Experts told Spotlight PA's Ed Mahon and WESA's Kate Giammarise the group should err on the side of transparency.

Also this week: On the heels of City Manager Herm Suplizio's March arrest in a sprawling corruption case, DuBois' solicitor showed up at City Hall with $93,920 in cash tucked inside a gift bag and no word on where it came from.

The mysterious origin and handling of the cash are now at the center of yet another storm in a community already reeling from scandal.

And finally, Gov. Josh Shapiro is declining to make public his daily calendar, a policy that obscures many of the details about who he meets with and what they discuss.

"It’s always concerning when a new board comes in, but thankfully the election deniers didn’t win."

—Melanie Ostrander, who runs elections in far-western Washington County, on the failed bid of a county commissioner candidate; elsewhere in Pennsylvania, election deniers advanced to the November ballot

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WE NEED YOU NOW: We've got just **3 more days** and we still need to raise $11,000. It's a tall order, but we've seen the generosity of our readers in ensuring this vital work can continue. Now we need you. Don't miss this chance for your support to go twice as far by getting your gift DOUBLED.

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ELDER LAW: Join us TODAY at 6 p.m. ET via Zoom for a free Q&A on Pennsylvania's elder protection laws and how they could be improved. Register here and submit questions to events@spotlightpa.org
» 18 Pa. candidates who spread election misinformation are poised to oversee local voting in 2024

Fight over school funding suit cost taxpayers $12.6M

A Pennsylvania court earlier this year found the state’s system for funding its public schools is inequitable and disproportionately harms poorer districts. It’s a landmark decision that is widely expected to cost billions of dollars to correct.

The legal battle could soon be over, but the years state officials have spent fighting the challenge have come with a high price tag.

The state legislature and the governor's administration have spent upwards of $12.6 million to hire a bevy of private lawyers since 2019, records obtained through a Right-to-Know request show. 

The money went to three private law firms, with legal bills starting to spike in late 2021. That is when a four-month-long trial in the case began in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, culminating in this year’s ruling.

The legal battle, two state officials privately acknowledged, carries one of the highest price tags for outside lawyers in decades.

The GOP-controlled state Senate, for instance, has spent $3.1 million on legal fees since the start of 2021. The money went to lawyers for K&L Gates, which charged the chamber $475 per hour for work by its attorneys and $280 per hour for services provided by its paralegals.

That is on top of another nearly $1.6 million the chamber paid K&L Gates lawyers in 2019 and 2020, according to a prior analysis by Spotlight PA and The Caucus.

GOP leaders in the state House have shelled out nearly $2.5 million since 2021 to Dilworth Paxson LLP. The firm charged $238.50 per hour for work by its associates and $595 per hour for work by its senior lawyers. The state House paid Dilworth Paxson an additional $1.5 million in 2019 and 2020.

The governor’s administration, too, has racked up millions in legal bills. It has paid out just over $4 million since 2021 to Blank Rome LLP, whose partners charged $495 per hour.

The school funding case is complex and has far-reaching repercussions. 

Six school districts, together with a group of parents and two statewide organizations, sued the legislature and governor’s office nearly a decade ago. Commonwealth Court initially dismissed the case, but Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court reinstated it in 2017.

The school districts and other plaintiffs argued the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide fair and equitable funding to all public school children. GOP legislative leaders have taken the opposite position, arguing that the Pennsylvania Constitution sets a lower educational standard than the plaintiffs believe, and noting that the state has provided historic increases to public education funding over the years. 

During the trial, former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf took a more nuanced position, acknowledging shortcomings in the state’s funding formula, but also highlighting improvements to it over the last decade.

In February, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in favor of the school districts. She did not prescribe a remedy, so it is now up to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and the now-divided legislature to hammer out a plan to address it.

State officials can appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, though Shapiro does not plan to do so. While Shapiro said this spring that Republican leaders had signaled to him that they would not appeal, neither the state House nor the state Senate has officially ruled it out. Angela Couloumbis, Spotlight PA

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This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaREBATE RESCUE: A bill that would expand Pennsylvania's rent and property tax rebate to potentially include an additional 173,000 people moved one step closer to reality this week with unanimous 20-0 approval in the state House Finance Committee. Next stop: Consideration by the full chamber. Spotlight PA has the background on the program's decade of decline and the push to reverse it.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaCULTURE CLASH: A conservative legal group is suing to stop Pennsylvania's plan for "culturally relevant" teacher trainings, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. The Thomas More Society and a group of western Pennsylvania school districts, school board members, teachers, and parents argue that the state informally and improperly imposed the guidelines to address bias in the educational system. 

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaTEACHER TURNOVER: A Penn State study says teachers are leaving Pennsylvania classrooms at a record rate, with 7.7% of the workforce, or 9,587 teachers, having left between 2021-22 and 2022-23, The Inquirer (paywall) reports. Many were teachers of color or charter school instructors. Gov. Shapiro wants to implement a tax credit to grow the ranks, but it's drawn a rare lukewarm response in the Capitol.

STOP AND FRISK: The likely next mayor of Philadelphia supports stop and frisk, a controversial police tactic that drew a class-action lawsuit against the city. Cherelle Parker, winner of the pivotal May primary, has been credited with providing a blueprint for tough-on-crime Democrats. Parker says she supports the "constitutional" use of stop and frisk, while her GOP opponent says there's no such thing, per WHYY.

MMJ SUIT: A federal court in Pennsylvania says a discrimination lawsuit can proceed against Cleveland Cliffs Steel over its rescinding of a job offer to a medical marijuana patient who tested positive for the drug. The company argued that the engineer's marijuana card was expired. Spotlight PA found vague legal safeguards for patients in Pennsylvania that force some to choose between their job and medicine.

» APGOP field in Pennsylvania Senate race still wide open

» CITY & STATE: Pa. failed to identify 1000s of unserved internet areas

» LNPLancaster home rule study commission sets first meeting 

» PUBLICSOURCEFederal financial aid is returning to PA prisons 

» TRIBLIVEPittsburgh synagogue shooting survivors testify

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

WORD FINDER (Case No. 202)I am a five-letter word and people eat me. If you remove the first letter I become an energy form. If you remove the first two letters, I am needed to live. Scramble the last three letters and I am a drink. What word am I?
 Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: Jimmy Carter and "retrace." (Find last week's clue here.) 
Congrats to Jeff B., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Jon N., Pete S., Michael H., Martina M., Fred O., Michelle T., Judy A., Nathan B., Ted W., Norman S., Wendy L., Johnny C., Phil C., Diane D., Karen W., Tish M., Annette I., Beth T., Mary S., Sheryl W., Bruce B., Carl A., Elizabeth W., Mary B., and Seth Z.
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