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In divided Pa., school boards emerge as political battlegrounds

  • Ivey DeJesus/PennLive
  • Charles Thompson/PennLive
Across Pennsylvania this spring, dueling slates of candidates are seeking school board seats as the once non-partisan job becomes a proxy for all things political.

 Sean Simmers / PennLive

Across Pennsylvania this spring, dueling slates of candidates are seeking school board seats as the once non-partisan job becomes a proxy for all things political.

School board elections used to be dominated by discussions about property taxes and hyper local issues like whether to install turf on the football field.

Not in 2023.

Attend a school board candidates’ forum in this spring, and you’ll hear traditional concerns giving way to inquiries like:

What would your response be to parents who complain about the presence of trans students in their child’s classroom?

What is your understanding of the purpose of social / emotional learning and how much academic learning time should be sacrificed for it?

Would you vote to mandate that a student receive a new, vaccine – with no studies about long-term effects – in order to attend school in person or participate in athletics?

It’s a wildly different time out there, as partisan politics and red/blue divides are playing out on school boards, traditionally one of the most non-partisan of local elected offices.

State lawmakers are publicly endorsing slates of candidates. Deep-pocketed donors are pushing forward stacks of cash to help like-minded candidates amplify their campaigns.

And election ballots are on steroids.

In Cumberland County, the fastest-growing county in the state, there are 133 candidate on the ballot for school board seats across nine districts, up from 98 candidates in 2021.

The growth is even more explosive in Lancaster County, with its blend of rural fast-growing suburban districts. There, 194 candidates have filed in 17 school districts, up from 127 two years ago. In rural Perry County, the total field has more than doubled, from 20 in 2021 to 43 this spring.

Some, including those who identify as supporters of traditional public schools and everything they represent, are alarmed.

They see the surge of candidates as the end result of national political strategists like Steve Bannon’s “Precinct Strategy,” originally aimed at remaking the Republican Party by recruiting candidates and installing office-holders from the grassroots up.

“School boards have become a target of extremists who have a political agenda and who see our public schools and our kids as the way to further that agenda,” said Susan Spicka, a former Shippensburg Area School District board member who now leads the advocacy group, Education Voters PA.

“It’s highly organized. It’s highly-funded. It has been in the works for the past two years.

“You cannot overstate the catastrophic impact communities could feel if five people who want to wage the culture wars in our school districts take over their school boards,” Spicka said. “So I think people really need to be talking to their friends and neighbors about what is at stake in the school board races this year.”

That’s exactly how the other side sees it, too.

Many believe they are pushing back against a public school establishment that has fallen into the control of left-leaning union bosses and elitist educators who are trying to subvert the role of parents in raising their kids.

“It’s one thing when you make adults sit through indoctrination training and tell them they’re biased and tell them they’re racists. That’s one thing,” said Lois Kaneshiki, founder of a Cumberland County-based political action committee called “Take Back our Schools.”

“But… we’re not going to sit around and let them do it to our kids without a fight.

“So, that’s what this is about. The kids need to learn to read. They need to learn to write. They need to learn to do math and science properly. That’s what education is for, primarily. And that’s what we want to focus on,” Kaneshiki said.

Her group sent questionnaires to school board candidates in the nine districts in Cumberland County. Kaneshiki expects to post the results and make endorsements before the primary.

Voters packed into a Camp Hill School board candidate forum at the Mount Calvary Episcopal Church. April 18, 2023.

Voters packed into a Camp Hill School board candidate forum at the Mount Calvary Episcopal Church. April 18, 2023. Sean Simmers, PennLive

Setting the stage

These cultural and political battles were percolating at the school board level since the pandemic began in 2020.

The battle for so-called “parental rights” in education exploded amid outrage over mask and vaccine mandates, and then claims that critical race theory – an academic discipline that looks at the way racism has been woven into the fabric of societal institutions – was being taught in K-12 schools.

The debate has expanded to include the role of race in American history, pronoun use, book banning and even programs to develop good character.

In the Harrisburg area, a group of parents in the West Shore School District filed a lawsuit over “Character Strong,” a popular social skills curriculum that teaches compassion and empathy for others, as being too radical and anti-white.

The suit is being guided by the Trump-aligned America First Legal Foundation, headed by former Trump advisor Stephen Miller, and activists from the national group Moms for Liberty that its website says aims to educate and empower parents to “defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”

In 2021, the Central York School District drew widespread attention for freezing classroom use of some 300 books compiled on a “diversity resource” list created in response to the murder of George Floyd until the books could be further reviewed for age-appropriateness or pornographic content.

A school district in Bucks County is considering adopting a controversial “patriotic curriculum” that critics say diminishes the role of non-whites in U.S. history. Another has banned students from wearing any image of the gay pride flag.

The Red Lion Area School District recently voted to require students to use bathrooms or locker rooms that align with their sex at birth.

“The sheer number of districts (in Pennsylvania) allows the potential venues to carry these battles out,” said Chris Borick, professor and director at Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “There’s a great opportunity to influence. We see small groups rally at the school district level and be pretty successful.

“Both sides see opportunities and they see threats in terms of their preferences and therefore they get played out,” Borick said.

This spring, the battlefield is shifting to school board elections to an extent that has not been seen before.

The front lines

“We want basic education. We want academic skills taught,” said Kelly Potteiger, a Cumberland Valley School District mother whose dissatisfaction with the direction of that district prompted her to run for school board. “We just feel there’s a lot of other ideology and information coming in for our students and taking up academic time. When we ask about that information it’s really hard to get.”

Potteiger is vice chair of the Cumberland County chapter of Moms for Liberty which, in Cumberland Valley, has been vocal about its objections to a character education program called “Portrait of a Graduate.”

“It’s not the place of the public school system to develop a child’s character,” said Potteiger. She and members of Moms for Liberty do not want curriculum such as “Character Strong,” banned, she explained, but want parents to have the right to opt their children out of such programs.

Kelly Potteiger, the vicechair of the Cumberland County chapter of Moms 4 Liberty, is a candidate in the Cumberland Valley School Board race.

Kelly Potteiger, the vicechair of the Cumberland County chapter of Moms 4 Liberty, is a candidate in the Cumberland Valley School Board race.

Potteiger said she specifically objects to the emphasis in the program on inclusivity and community over the rights of the individual.

“Our responsibility is to ourselves and to our belief system,” Potteiger said. “Everything we do is not for the common good. That’s communism. That’s Marxism. That’s socialism. It’s that nudging of that ideology that we have a concern about.”

The pushback from the opposite side of the political spectrum, what some might refer to as the education establishment, is strengthening too.

Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, has already made candidate “recommendations” in about 25 districts, and additional endorsements are expected.

PSEA spokesman Chris Lilienthal said the union is concerned about some of the extremist agendas advocated by candidates in those districts.

“We need more school board candidates who are going back to the basics, who are going to focus on the needs of students. What are the capital projects? What are the building needs? Are buildings safe? Are there upgrades that need to be made? Do we have enough teachers? Do we have enough school nurses and school counselors?

“Ultimately all of this is going to impact the quality of education students receive and the quality of the work environment for educators and support staff,” he said.

There are still some races where there are fewer candidates than seats, to be sure.

But in many communities, the battles are pitched.

In the Central Bucks School District, north of Philadelphia, the increasingly conservative actions of a Republican majority board alarmed parent Diana Leygerman, who said she believes the policies don’t reflect the district as a whole.

“They have started bringing in all the policies that you are seeing in Florida and Texas into our school district,” Leygerman said. “They are marginalizing LGBTQ students, students of color and Jewish students and creating policies that essentially are hurting our kids.”

That includes: a book ban policy that allows anyone to challenge library books; establishing an internal committee that must sign off on all materials used by teachers; and banning staff from displaying any symbol not related to curriculum.

“You would think the school board would have spent the last year or so trying to target learning laws and mental health issues,” Leygerman said. “All these other issues that are serious issues and yet they have been latching on to furthering this culture war that is relevant in some parts of our country. It shows me they have no interest in doing actual work and helping kids.”

Audience members wave Pride flags while a parent speaks during the public comment period of the Central Bucks School District meeting in May 2022.

Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer

Audience members wave Pride flags while a parent speaks during the public comment period of the Central Bucks School District meeting in May 2022.

On the other side is Paul Martino, a Central Bucks parent and businessman who made headlines in 2021 for investing $500,000 of his own money into school board candidates around the state committed to returning to in-person instruction during the pandemic.

This year, Martino said, his Back to School committee will shift its primary focus on retaining some of the Republican majorities he helped establish like in Central Bucks, where Martino’s wife, is on the ballot this year.

He’ll pick his specific battlefields after the primaries, he said, leaning on local voters to help distill the fields.

“But the way my new majorities have been attacked? Damn right I’m going to go defend them, because I see how my people were treated,” Martino said. “They have literally been the subject of just hate campaigns for two straight years… And it’s a disgrace.”

Martino stressed his primary interest in doing this is in making the public schools – which his kids attend – better.

“I want it to offer more STEM careers, which is where me and my wife are from,” Martino said. “We want better computer education in our school. These are the kind of things that we care about. We care about high-quality education in our public schools available for everybody in the district.”

In Carlisle, four incumbent school directors have teamed up with one newcomer in opposition to a self-proclaimed “Team for Change” group of conservative challengers backed by, among others, state Rep. Barb Gleim, a Republican from Middlesex Township.

Gleim made waves last year when she urged parents in a Facebook post to get into schools as substitutes or via other means to help “reveal” teachers who are “indoctrinating children.”

In an interview, Gleim said while she is concerned about some of the national trends filtering into Pennsylvania and the districts she represents – Big Spring, Carlisle and Cumberland Valley – her endorsements are first and foremost meant to let the region’s Republican voters know who the committed Republicans in the races are.

Paula Bussard, the longtime Carlisle school board president, says it’s making for a more intense campaign than she’s ever run before, and at times she feels like she’s battling phantoms, because Carlisle’s board meetings generally have not featured a lot of culture war debates.

She and her running mates, on a slate calling itself “Citizens for Carlisle Schools”, Bussard said, would like to keep it that way, so the board can be focused on things like improving graduation rates, or increasing post-pandemic academic recovery.

“Those are harder issues to address. But if you’re going to focus on micro-managing curriculum or banning books, you miss those things,” she said.

“Our surveys show our parents and our students pretty satisfied with their teachers and their schools,” said Bussard. “So it is disconcerting to bring in political partisanship. To have individuals running who say, you know, we need to stop teaching trendy topics; one of the individuals saying the schools are no longer an asset to the community. There’s a lot that’s disconcerting.”

But one of the “Team for Change” members, Heather Leatherman, asked that voters be wary of too-easy characterizations that people running against longtime incumbents must be extremists.

Leatherman said she’s never had a problem with books or lesson materials assigned to her kids, and she’s had a good experience across the board with their teachers. But she also believes the district could do better in several ways, and adding fresh perspectives to the board can help stimulate that debate.

Her running mate, Walt Brown, noted in the most recent Keystone Exams administered to high school juniors across the state, just 61.3 percent of Carlisle High students scored proficient or better for algebra, lower than all but one high school in the county. That also lagged behind statewide results, which had 63.9 percent at proficient or above.

“The current school board seems very elated with the status quo and I struggle with that,” Brown said, “because that’s not an acceptable status quo for me.”

“It’s not to be divisive or to cause problems,” Leatherman added of the Team for Change’s bid. “But let’s make sure that we’re looking at ways to improve. Let’s make sure that we’re really reflecting on, do we have best practices in our curricula.”

Others present their candidacies as a form of preventive medicine.

In West Perry School District, candidate Jennifer Bidoli wrote in a voter’s guide submission to PennLive that voters should support her because “a standard needs to be raised up against an agenda that does not have the children’s best interest at heart being pushed across the country’s school systems, and I will be that standard.”

In an interview, Bidoli said that agenda includes what she sees as cutting parents out of the process, promoting gender identity concerns at age-inappropriate levels, or teaching history in a way that apologizes for, rather than honors, America.

She also conceded she hasn’t seen direct evidence of those things happening in West Perry, but she feels the time is right make sure they won’t. “This is a time where I can step up and do my part,” Bidoli said.

In some ways, the school board elections are local proxies for battles that are stalemated statewide.

A slew of bills have been introduced in the Legislature, for example, to require districts to inform parents of any “mature or sexual content” provided in school, banning transgender youth from participating in scholastic sports and defining parental rights as a fundamental right, shielded from court action.

But the bills likely won’t advance in the Legislature, and if they did would run into a certain veto by Gov. Josh Shapiro.

“Over the past half-century, we have fought to protect athletic opportunities for female students,” state Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair), one of the main sponsors of the legislation, said at a rally in early June. “And now these opportunities are in jeopardy.”

“Over the past half-century, we have fought to protect athletic opportunities for female students,” state Sen. Judy Ward (R., Blair), one of the main sponsors of the legislation, said at a rally in early June. “And now these opportunities are in jeopardy.”

Which brings us back to the 2023 ballot.

“We have been using metaphor – brush fire,” said Daye Pope, of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Trans Youth, founded in 2021 in response to anti-trans youth legislation. “There are local brush fires breaking out where the fight is happening because there is a vacuum of state leadership answering these questions.

“We can’t just rely on having a governor that will veto bad bills.”

Some candidates are still jumping in, even though deadlines to make the primary ballot passed weeks ago.

John Flood is running a write-in campaign for a Cumberland Valley board seat representing Silver Spring Township. That pits him directly against Potteiger, the Moms for Liberty leader, and incumbents Jessica Silcox and Jevon Ford for two, four-year seats.

The Navy veteran and computer software programmer said he is alarmed at the rhetoric of candidates looking to implement “Florida-style” regulations.

“I think most of my community would be against a lot of the principles Moms For Liberty is advocating,” he said. “They don’t want to ban books. They believe social and emotional learning does positive things for children. Teaching responsibility. These are good things.”

The first real measuring stick will come primary election day, May 16. The last day for voters to register for that election is May 1.


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