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Competitive Pennsylvania school board races draw attention, and critics

  • Anne Danahy
A man feeds a ballot into a voting machine with help from an election worker.

 Min Xian / WPSU

A man feeds a ballot into a voting machine with help from an election worker.

It’s less than two weeks before Pennsylvania’s primary election, and a group of candidates running for office is holding a meet-and-greet in State College.

The race is for the school board. And, like other school board races playing out across the county and state, it’s piquing voter interest. Among those to turn out for this event at an American Legion post is Susan Rogacs, a registered Republican.

“I think the way our children are being taught in the schools needs to be more traditional,” Rogacs said. “The reading, the writing, the arithmetic, the science, that type of thing. And less of the social issues. Those issues belong in the homes, for parents to do.”

Many school board races in Pennsylvania districts are competitive this year, and slates of candidates with very different viewpoints mean voters will have choices when they cast their ballot in Tuesday’s primary.

Chris Lilienthal is a spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which endorses candidates in some races through a political action committee. Lilienthal said more engagement in school board races is good. But there are concerns about where the focus is.

“What we would like to see happen is a focus on student success, what students need to do well in the classroom now and succeed later in life,” Lilienthal said. “And I feel like that is a value that isn’t getting addressed as much. That’s where our concern would be. We’d like to see that focus shifted away from some of the culture war issues that some candidates have been bringing, and focusing more on what do students need to succeed.”

How schools should be run, what should be taught in classrooms, security measures, athletics, the response to the COVID pandemic, even school mascots — all of those issues have been at the center of debates driving attention in school board races.

State College is not alone when it comes to giving voters choices. Races are competitive in Bellefonte, Altoona, Hollidaysburg and Penns Valley too.

Berwood Yost, is director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll, which tracks public opinions on issues and politics. He says opinions about schools and school performance are probably more divided than they once were.

“Normally, people felt pretty good about their local public schools, even if they weren’t happy with or didn’t think that the schools statewide were doing well. They normally thought their local schools were doing pretty good. And these numbers indicate that there’s some dissatisfaction about the performance of local schools,” said Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research and the Floyd Institute for Public Policy at Franklin and Marshall College.

A recent Franklin and Marshall poll of Pennsylvania voters found only 9% say their local schools are performing at an “A” level — about the same number who say they’re failing.

Nearly half (47%) say the quality of education in their local public schools has gotten worse in the past few years.

And then there are the cultural and political issues —like book bans — that have made national news.

Yost said their last survey found that about two-thirds of Pennsylvania voters say books should not be banned from public schools.

“And this is a strong partisan, ideological issue,” he said. “We’re asking questions that are going to be answered locally. I don’t know if that makes it a national issue, or a local issue. I think it’s a local issue, because people don’t want these kinds of discussions that are happening nationally, to happen without local input.”

The Bellefonte school board in Centre County is one school district that saw a national issue coming out locally. The district was divided over its nickname, the “Red Raiders,” and the use of Native American imagery. The board had voted to change it, but a new board voted to return to using “Red Raiders.”

The sharpened divisions playing out in school districts across the state is a concern to some.

Susan Spicka is executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, which advocates on public education issues.

Spicka noted that because school board candidates in Pennsylvania can cross-file — run on both the Republican and Democratic ballots — elections can be decided in the primaries.

“People really need to take seriously this May 16 primary, and make sure to go out to the polls and vote for people who represent their values,” she said.

She said more candidates are running with a political agenda.

“We used to be able to kind of assume that anybody running for school board was just a decent person who had good intentions who wanted to do something good to serve the community. That is not the case in Pennsylvania anymore. There are many candidates who are running because they have a political agenda they want to impose on our children and on our community,” Spicka said.

Bob Lumley-Sapanski feels like a board member’s political party didn’t used to matter. He was on the Bellefonte Area School Board for 20 years, before losing in 2019.

His time on the board included six years on the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, where he met with elected officials at the state and national levels. He said everyone didn’t agree all the time and there was opposition to some policies from both political parties.

“But it wasn’t anything like ‘Our party is not going to support you if you don’t vote this way.’ We never had any party contact in the 20 years I was on the board pushing their own political interests or agendas,” Lumley-Sapanski said.

He does not like seeing candidates running as organized slates.

“I’m not a big fan of group think, and I think if you get elected as part of a group, you’re taking money from donors as part of a PAC,” he said. “I think your agenda is going to be controlled by somebody. And if you happen to vote against what the slate overall is asking you to do, then I think the next time you’re in for trouble.”

But Michelle Young, who’s running for State College school board with a group, said working together is good for practical reasons.

“Campaigning is a lot of work. I think that when you combine together as a slate you can share the workload,” she said. “You can fundraise together and there’s some cost efficiencies to being able to pay for campaign materials as a group versus individually.”

She says her group wants to talk about issues that are important in the school district. That’s what candidates across the board are saying, but ideas about which issues they should be addressing and how they should do that vary widely.

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