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New Pa. school board group aims to push conservative values

  • Jillian Forstadt/WESA
Central Bucks School District board at a board meeting on Jan. 10, 2023.

 Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Central Bucks School District board at a board meeting on Jan. 10, 2023.

A new organization for Pennsylvania school board members launched in March.

The Pennsylvania School Directors Coalition has billed itself as a resource for all school board members, “regardless of political viewpoint or ideology.” But its website doesn’t detail its leaders’ history with the state’s conservative education movements.

Pennsylvania already has a long-established, non-partisan organization for school board members: The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) has been around since 1895, and provides support and services to the Commonwealth’s school boards.

The organization has also advocated for policies that benefit the Commonwealth’s public schools, voicing its interest in cyber charter reform and opposition to student vouchers for non-public schools. Those stances tend to be popular with Democrats, though the organization has presented awards of recognition to lawmakers across the political spectrum.

Similarly, the new Pennsylvania School Directors Coalition (PSDC) will also provide “a much-needed resource for elected school directors throughout Pennsylvania,” according to its website. But when asked what sets her organization apart, PSDC founder and president Christina Brussalis said that her organization shouldn’t be compared to any other.

“We’re not for or against anyone else. Our view is that the state is big, and there’s a lot of room for a lot of different ideas, and there’s certainly room for both of us in the conversations around education,” Brussalis told WESA.

Though the website itself doesn’t include any information about the nonprofit’s board or funders, Brussalis said that its leadership is primarily composed of sitting school board members, including one from Pine-Richland and another from Mars Area School District.

Brussalis is no stranger to the Commonwealth’s school boards, either. She currently serves as a school board director at Pine-Richland, one of the largest suburban districts in Allegheny County.

Brussalis came onto Pine-Richland’s school board in 2021 as part of a slate of conservative candidates — known as PR Kids First — calling for a return to in-person classes and balking at masking requirements. The group received $10,000 from a PAC funded by conservative venture capitalist Paul Martino, who gave money to mostly Republican candidates across the state as long as they pledged to keep schools in-person.

In the years since, the board has amassed a conservative supermajority, and indefinitely tabled a proposed equity policy that would have protected students of color and prioritized more diverse hiring. The board has also recently considered banning several books that feature LGBTQ authors or themes, and challenged counselors’ decisions regarding social-emotional learning curriculums.

Central YorkCentral Bucks, and Hempfield Area are just a few of the districts statewide grappling with similar decisions in recent years.

Brussalis, who has a background in political communications, filed a request with the state in February 2023 to reserve the rights to “Pennsylvania School Directors Coalition.” One month later, she spoke on a panel about “Empowering Parents and Students” at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference outside Harrisburg last year. The event also featured a keynote from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and a school board campaign workshop led by an executive at Moms for Liberty.

“When you get elected, I want to know who you are,” Brussalis told the crowd. “Because we have been working statewide to try to connect the conservative school directors so that we can have a collective voice in Harrisburg,”

Brussalis — who is married to Point Park University President Chris Brussalis — added that, most of the time, she doesn’t agree with PSBA’s policies.

“And they had an entire workshop about creating parents groups and having a goal of having parents groups in every school district,” she said. “We need to beat them to it. We need to plant parents groups that are conservative and fighting for conservative values in every school across the state.”

When reached for comment, PSBA said the Commonwealth’s public education system was “too important for PSBA to be distracted by any individual or group attempting to impose their personal ideology onto their local schools.”

Training guests also promote conservative stances

Brussalis maintains that her organization will support everyone, no matter the political affiliation. Trainings the organization has scheduled for this spring cover more practical topics, such as “how to understand school district finances” and “legal basics.”

Guest speakers the organization is bringing in also promote conservative stances. Republican state representative Barbara Gleim, who has repeatedly introduced bills to restrict trans athletes’ participation in school sports, spoke at the organization’s first training. And an upcoming training will be taught by Bill Gillmeister, a consultant at the Christian Massachusetts Family Institute.

“I have done trainings with Dr. Gillmeister, and he is by far one of the better parliamentary procedure trainers that I know,” Brussalis said. “And I’m excited to bring his knowledge on parliamentary procedure — which is not partisan by any means — to school directors across the state.”

The PSDC comes at an interesting time in school board politics: Conservative movements like Moms for Liberty have lost some momentum, and Democrats swept school boards previously held by conservatives during last year’s election (though that wasn’t the case at Pine-Richland).

How this new organization fits into the national picture is unclear, especially given that Brussalis reiterated that it isn’t aligned with any political movements.

Adam Laats, who studies cultural battles over school reform at Binghamton University, said it’s possible the coalition will spread the same messages as other conservative education groups — just in a different tone.

“I think it’s politically very savvy to say we don’t need to be the ones who are screaming and shouting,” Laats said. “We can talk in very bureaucratic tones, convince people of our technocratic credentials, and when we achieve the levers of power over school curriculum and things like that, then we can change the curriculum the way we want.”


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