School board races used to be down-ballot sleeper contests. These days, the local races bear much of the national partisan rhetoric, making, in some cases, for combustible local politics. The Camp Hill borough school board race is one local contest being buffeted by hyper partisanship.
Enterprise and public advocacy reporter at PennLive.com.
(Harrisburg) — School board races used to be sleeper, down-ballot contests hinging on local taxes and sports complex expansions.
Suddenly they have become contentious political battlegrounds. No longer simply the entry point for political careers, school board races these days resonate with the hyper partisan debate of national politics.
Take the school board race out of Camp Hill, a leafy and affluent Harrisburg suburb that has increasingly contributed to the purple tone of Cumberland County.
At issue is an anonymous letter recently sent to some borough residents, targeting several Democratic candidates.
The letter warns that the election of school board candidates Karen Mallah, Josceylon Buchs, and Melanie Gurgiolo, “will do serious and permanent harm to our exception (sic), small and excellent school district due to their radical agenda they intend to jointly pursue if elected.”
The letter accuses the three Democratic candidates of supporting the teaching of critical race theory in schools; advocating bathroom access for transgender students; teaching of racial sensitivity to teachers; and mandating the teaching of The New York Time’s “1619 Project” in schools.
Sent to borough residents who have yard signs supporting Buchs and Mallah, the letter has sparked outrage among candidates from both parties.
Buchs and Mallah both say they consider the letter slanderous and riddled with falsehoods (as well as grammatical and spelling mistakes).
Dan Gleiter / PennLive
Camp Hill school board aspirant Josceylon Buchs says she was not prepared for the volatility of the local race.
“The response that has rippled through the community has been that that letter was so very divisive,” Buchs said. “I think a lot of people felt it wasn’t really indicative of the majority or even the feeling within the community from a political perspective.”
Mallah said she was disappointed and annoyed, and welcomes borough residents to reach out directly to her for any clarification of the facts.
“The things the person is saying are not true,” she said. “I think people should be making their own decisions and it’s ridiculous for someone to be going around trying to influence votes this way, especially in an anonymous way.”
The letter arguably seems benign in the wake of a volatile season that has seen school board members and superintendents across the country become the target of scorn and threats as incensed community members debate mask mandates and topics like critical race theory.
“What is happening in Camp Hill and all over the state and county is the nationalization of localized elections, and school board elections are the epitome of local elections,” said Christopher Borick, professor of political science and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
Heated debate is nothing new in the school board arena. Certainly schools in the past have tackled divisive topics, such as segregation and busing. But the divisions in the country, Borick said, have stoked a different tenor in these local elections.
“It’s not that it’s never happened before but in this moment where everything seems to be becoming nationalized, it’s probably not that surprising that in an off-year election where there are no congressional races or governor races, the venue for a lot of national debates has become the school board election,” he said. “Given the emotional nature of schools and children, and overlay them with these types of nationalized issues, they become pretty combustible.”
Indeed conservatives across the country are increasingly seizing on topics such as critical race theory and transgender rights to energize the conservative base ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.
Melinda Deslatte / AP Photo
Angry, largely unmasked people objecting to Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards’ mask mandate for schools shout in opposition to wearing a face covering at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting on Wednesday in Baton Rouge, La.
“This is where the day-to-day battles have emerged in this off year,” Borick said. “There, policies are being debated in an open forum. They provide easy entries into the big battles.”
School board meetings at locations across the country are now being patrolled by state and local police. They’ve been disrupted by incidents involving assaults, threats and even Nazi salutes. A survey of 429 members of the Pennsylvania Principals Association found that 44 percent of those who responded said they’d been threatened “by a parent, student, or community member” as a result of the mask mandate.
Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan political encyclopedia, said it had tracked 80 school board recall efforts against 207 board members in 2021 — the highest number since it began tracking in 2010, according to a New York Times report.
The volatile debates have even fueled a rift between the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and its national counterpart.
Just this week, the governing board of the PSBA voted unanimously to withdraw from the National School Boards Association after the latter sought federal help to address harassment and threats of violence against school board members.
“Attempting to solve the problems with a call for federal intervention is not the place to begin, nor a model for promoting greater civility and respect for the democratic process,” PSBA wrote in a statement to its members.
Camp Hill is not an outlier, and that has some candidates questioning whether the letter – which mirrors common talking points from national right-wing proponents – is the work of a local resident at all.
“This divisive letter misrepresents how I have served and would continue to serve if re-elected, and it is unfortunate that it was sent; however, it may be the work of one individual and may not have even originated within the borough,” Gurgiolo wrote in an email to PennLive.
“The letter certainly does not paint a fair and accurate picture of the wonderful community in which I have lived for the past 25 years, and I really do not want to give it any more thought or attention.”
The letter asserts transphobic talking points about transgender student athletes, as well as racist rhetoric about the 1619 Project, an award-winning work that dives into the U.S. racial legacy from slavery, and has become a flashpoint in the culture war against critical race theory.
“Their election will create significant division in Camp Hill, pit parents against parents, neighbors against neighbors, deprive girls of opportunities to participate in sports and diminish the reputation of the school district,” the letter states. “Their extreme and radical views have no place in this already inclusive community where the common goal to support this excellent independent school system has brought both democrats and republicans together to support this common goal for decades.”
Marta Lavandier / AP Photo
Joann Marcus of Fort Lauderdale, left, cheers as she listens to the Broward School Board’s emergency meeting, Wednesday, July 28, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A small but vocal group spoke vehemently against masks, saying their personal rights were being eroded and their children were suffering socially.
None of the three Democratic candidates who spoke to PennLive for this article say they support the teaching of critical race theory, which is not part of the school district’s curriculum. In fact, the National School Boards Association say it is not being taught in any K-12 schools across the country.
Some educators — and indeed, Camp Hill school board candidates — say that conservatives are labeling any effort to diversify schools or curriculum as critical race theory.
“I’ve said it a million times that I would like to see more diverse literature in our schools,” said Mallah, who is Black. “I would like history to be taught in a more comprehensive way and not omit as much as traditionally has been omitted. I would like the success of more people from diverse backgrounds to be taught, but CRT is a graduate-level program. None of that is relevant in a K-12 setting.”
Buchs reiterates that the charges laid out in the letter accusing the candidates of advocating the teaching of critical race theory is false, and a conflation of the fact that some of the candidates were members of a so-called Equity Advocacy Council, which promoted diversity and inclusivity, but had nothing to do with the hot-button debate over critical race theory.
“None of it is true,” Buchs said. “That’s the part I felt most upset by. It was total national rhetoric… To the extent that anyone would take issue with the word diversity or inclusivity or equality. It’s a twisting of words and underlying thought that there is a lack of transparency, that these terms are code for something else. It’s simply not true, and truth matters.”
The letter has equally incensed Republican candidates.
David La Torre, a GOP school board aspirant, swiftly denounced the letter on his Facebook page, noting that serving as a school board member is “among the most noble endeavors a person can do for their community.”
LaTorre said he isn’t surprised by the culture war playing out in the borough.
“The anger and vitriol are just a symptom of the broader divisions we have in our country,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it manifests itself at the local school board level.”
LaTorre said the letter crossed a line, but he added that attacks had been waged on both sides of the political aisle.
“People need to recognize that,” he said. “For a community like Camp Hill to have this much division and resentment I think everybody needs to take a deep breath and take a step back. I think we share a lot of the same beliefs and values. We have a lot more in common than we don’t. I think politics at the national level unfortunately influence the way people think today. That’s unfortunate.”
For now, the anonymous letter has brought out supporters and detractors.
Colleen Gray Nguyen, a state House aspirant tweeted: ”The homophobia, transphobia, and racism of the … GOP are on full display here. It also shows how critical school board elections are this year.”
At the other end of the political spectrum, Camp Hill parent and attorney Marc Scaringi, an outspoken supporter of former President Donald Trump, penned an op-ed asserting that the candidates do indeed advocate for the teaching of critical race theory. Scaringi offers the qualifier that the critical race theory in question is not the literal academic definition, but the one “as it is commonly defined.”
“(…)I will assume the claims in the letter are true because the candidates have chosen not to deny them,” Scaringi wrote in an op-ed published by Harrisburg100. His opinion piece was in response to an article on the school board race published by The Capital-Star.
In an interview with PennLive, Scaringi reiterated that the Democratic candidates essentially advocate the incorporation of critical race theory, intersectionality, anti-bias and anti-racism education in school curriculum, all of which he opposes.
“I don’t want to see taxpayer money go to teaching anti-racism in a school district that is already not racist,” he said.
The letter, he said, was on point.
“Political campaigns can get very nasty,” Scaringi said. “This letter, however, was not nasty. It was not vile. It was focused on the issues. What I would like to see come out of it is the three Democratic candidates for school board identified in the letter to answer questions about the four particular issues, and answer questions directly and completely.”
Mallah said she will take on a good political debate — it’s just the distractions that bother her.
“There has been so much misinformation around the race,” she said. “That’s the problem. If it was engagement and a need for people who wanted to create community and truly engage on a personal level, that’s one thing. I’ve done that. Those have all been civil conversations. I don’t know that everyone has the goal to come together. There’s a lot of engagement but I don’t know that everyone wants to come together…unfortunately.”
For Busch, the local contest is her first foray into a potential public service career.
She had not banked on needing encouragement to stay in what is typically a sleepy race.
“I feel a little naive,” Busch said. “I went into this thinking the school board was going to be a non-partisan position. I’ve been hit so hard. I’m not a political person. I consider myself a moderate. It’s really been hard for me.”