August 10, 2022

Pennsylvania school board elections sparked tensions and political movements that could be here to stay

After a campaign season marked by deep divisions over masking, feuds over teaching racism and an unprecedented influx of money to candidates running under the banner of keeping schools open, there is no had Republican sweep of school board races in suburban Philadelphia.

But the attention and controversy that surrounded these campaigns is unlikely to go away. The Bucks County venture capitalist who invested hundreds of thousands in Pennsylvania school board races is now seeking to exploit voters who have become newly engaged around school issues. Parents annoyed by heated elections remain polarized, as board members from politically divided districts brace for new clashes with old adversaries with whom they now have to work.

“I keep telling myself that I’m not the type to hold a grudge and that won’t do us any good on the board,” said LeeAnn Wisdom, a Democrat from Downingtown who was re-elected despite signs covering her. neighborhood that said, “Protect our children. Vote for wisdom.

READ MORE: School issues dominated the conversation on Election Day. Here’s what happened in the Pennsylvania races.

Jim Pepper, a Republican who will be joining the Central Bucks board of directors, said the prospect of “four years of this kind of intensity is completely and utterly distasteful.”

Elections in both communities drew involvement from Paul Martino, a father of Central Bucks and longtime GOP donor who spent $ 500,000 on school board campaigns – mostly on behalf of Republicans. Martino said the candidates he supported in the state won about 60% of the races; in the suburbs of Philadelphia, their success rate was closer to 40%.

Martino pointed out that the Back to School PA PAC he founded also supported Democrats, but his tally in that category counted everyone who crossed paths to run on both Democratic and Republican tickets, a practice common in historically less partisan school board elections. An Inquirer analysis found that at least 26 candidates classified by Martino’s PAC as Democrats in suburban Philadelphia were registered Republicans.

In an interview, Martino downplayed the partisan imbalance, instead calling the local political action committees he funded – 54 in all – a coalition focused on parental rights.

“Our goal was to put a parent-focused organization in as many places as possible,” said Martino, whose committee also secured funding from conservative school pick groups. “What this means, we haven’t figured out yet. But that’s what we spend a lot of time on now that we have this really interesting network of concerned parents – and previously, a lot of them, apolitical – involved. “

Local PACs will continue to exist and will be able to use unspent money. Martino has said his largest PAC will remain focused on school board races and not be involved in the Pennsylvania midterms in 2022, although he will support individual candidates.

READ MORE: School board meetings get tense with debates over critical race theory and masking

He disputed any suggestion that he created division in the communities, but admitted that he had contributed to it.

“Because I gave a voice to a group of parents who didn’t have one,” he said. “And I’m not at all upset about it.”

Margie Miller won a seat on the Downingtown area school board by two votes, thanks in part to support from Martino. She will be one of two Republicans on the nine-member board next year.

“I don’t think it’s going away,” Miller said of the excitement this year. “Now you have people who are like, ‘Hey, what are we going to do next? “”

But it’s also intimidating, she said, to be in the political minority. “It could very easily get ugly. “

Despite Miller’s victory, Republicans in Downingtown lost two more seats, mirroring trends in the suburbs, where Democrats controlling boards have largely retained or increased their numbers.

“Unfortunately, even at the school board level, people voted for parties,” said Mike Kennedy, a history professor at Frankford High School and one of four North Penn Republican candidates who were supported by the group. Martino but lost to the Democratic incumbents.

Kennedy said he wanted to stay involved in school board issues, but feared speaking out at meetings and being seen by board members as their adversary – or “that guy who ran under that flag. “.

Kennedy said he saw himself more as “just a guy trying to help.”

Jonathan Kassa, one of the North Penn Democrats who was re-elected to the board of directors, saw the results as a “backlash” to the reaction of parents. Martino says he helped galvanize.

“Coming over to parental choice, for me, is transparent and obvious political action,” Kassa said.

Calls for “parental choice” and “parental rights” have grown in popularity among Republicans, most notably with Glenn Youngkin’s successful candidacy in the race for governor of Virginia as well as in Pennsylvania, where he appeared in campaign statements by several candidates for Governor and Senate of the GOP.

In Hatboro-Horsham, the Martino-backed PAC spent more than $ 47,000 on five Republican school board candidates. Three won, although two Democrats also won, and in the end the Democrats got a seat on the board.

“I hope we can work in the least partisan way possible,” said board chair Jennifer Wilson, who was re-elected despite an online attack announcement produced by the Martino-backed PAC who blamed her – wrongly, she said – for failing at school. rankings. Wilson said she was backed by the Horsham Democratic Committee, which spent $ 11,800 on the candidates.

In Central Bucks, where resentment over the school board election caught the attention of the New York Times, three Republicans backed by Martino were elected. Two Democrats also won.

Last year’s vitriol tarnished the district’s reputation, said Diana Leygerman, a Democrat who lost by about 200 votes. She now worries about being recognized at her children’s football games by parents who have seen campaign smears about her.

“As far as political aspirations go, I don’t have any,” Leygerman said. “I never want to run for office again.”

She is not sure the division will end. This year’s clashes started over COVID health measures and then turned into debates over the school curriculum.

“We’re just going to find something else to discuss now,” Leygerman said. “Now it will be [diversity, equity, and inclusion], so I don’t see an end in sight.

His opponent, Pepper, also remains distraught by what he saw as a “particularly vicious” campaign: Pepper says Leygerman unfairly called him a “true Republican Trump” in his ads and said she had tried to do so. portray as working against the district, wrongly portraying a lawsuit he filed on behalf of his disabled son.

“It is very frustrating for me that I am caught up in this madness, which is not why I got involved,” said Pepper, a plaintiffs attorney who says he showed up at the school board to focus on students with special needs.

As in most districts, the newly elected Central Bucks board will not meet until December. In the meantime, there are fears that the policy will impact on routine things like giving board members their committee duties.

The board must first vote on who will be its chairman and that person will distribute the tasks of the committees.

Tabitha Dell’Angelo, a new Democrat on the board, fears she might not be on the agenda committee, given the political connection Republicans have made between Democrats and critical race theory. (CRT is not taught at Central Bucks schools, and Dell’Angelo does not support its teaching there.)

Even if the chairman of the board appoints committees on a bipartisan basis, Dell’Angelo said, this might not be seen as neutral.

“There’s just this culture of mistrust,” Dell’Angelo said.

Current board member Karen Smith says she wants to try and work with everyone. But polarizing debates threaten to complicate that goal.

In the days following the election, board chairman Dana Hunter asked trustees to remove from the meeting’s agenda a request to send five teachers to an English-language conference on the topic equity and social justice, Smith said. Hunter, a member of the majority Republican majority, later told members there “was no backing from the board” to send the teachers, Smith said. Hunter did not return requests for comment.

Smith, a Democrat and two-term board member who previously ran as a Republican, said she would no longer hesitate to speak out when she disagreed with the actions from the administration board.

“I can’t stay silent on some of these issues anymore,” she said.