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The pandemic and bitter partisanship polarized 2020. Now it’s seeping into school board races.

Typically low-profile school board races are now playing host to some of the most contentious political battles of the moment.

Clarice Schillinger, founder of the Keeping Kids in School PAC, (center), campaigns in Horsham Township Saturday with Hatboro-Horsham school board candidates Tara Conner-Hallston and Maggie Kistner.
Clarice Schillinger, founder of the Keeping Kids in School PAC, (center), campaigns in Horsham Township Saturday with Hatboro-Horsham school board candidates Tara Conner-Hallston and Maggie Kistner.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

The month after she announced her run for Central Bucks school board, Diana Leygerman noticed a website set up against her. “Diana Leygerman is simply unfit to lead,” the top of the page blared, listing tweets by Leygerman accusing parents of criticizing teachers because “their bubble of privilege has burst” and characterizing supporters of former President Donald Trump as “Nazi sympathizers.”

It wasn’t the only online pushback. Leygerman, a Jewish immigrant, says she has received anti-Semitic harassment and escalating threats. On Facebook last week, a woman who had criticized Leygerman’s supporters wrote: “Voters … do your civic duty and due diligence. I believe the correct sequence is ready … aim … fire.”

Leygerman said she contacted the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office, the Anti-Defamation League, and the NAACP. A spokesperson for the district attorney said Warwick Township police are investigating.

The national divisions that crystallized over the course of the pandemic and came to a head during the presidential election have spilled over into Pennsylvania’s typically low-profile school board races, which are now host to some of the most contentious political battles of the moment.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania voters will head to the polls for the first time since November, taking the first step in electing hundreds of unpaid school board directors who will set budgets, approve curriculums, negotiate with unions, and authorize tax increases.

But the contests over those duties have taken on new fervor this year — from parents in favor of school reopenings forming a political action committee and endorsing candidates across the region, to residents mining social media and tying one candidate to the QAnon conspiracy movement, to debates around hot-button issues like antiracism efforts in schools.

“It’s rare that we have this scope of districts all over the country dealing with this really national, partisan framing. School reopening and masks have become proxies for whether you’re a Republican or Democrat,” said Leslie Finger, an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Texas who published a study in the fall finding the main factors in district decisions to open in person were the level of community support for Trump in 2016, and the strength of teachers’ unions.

School board veterans — who note many factors played into reopening decisions — say the pandemic dilemmas facing local boards have generated new interest in the positions.

“Every parent really did have to watch and learn to determine how their child would be able to go to school this year,” said Beth Darcy, a former Central Bucks school board president who stepped down in December. While heightened awareness is a positive, she said, “my concern is that as people have questioned every institution of government throughout COVID — and in some cases for very good reason — it destroys people’s faith and trust in government entities.”

» READ MORE: A debate in the Philly suburbs on bringing more students back to classrooms is ‘as political as the presidential election’

Most schools around Philadelphia have reopened in person, with many moving back to full-time instruction. Still, a number of parents spurred to run for school board by the pandemic said they are fighting to ensure schools are open in person this fall.

“We’re just afraid that after the election, they could shut the schools down again,” said Lisa Licwinko-Engleman, a mother in the Norristown Area School District. She moved one of her children in with his grandmother this year so he could play sports at another school while Norristown remained closed for in-person instruction and activities.

She is one of about 80 candidates backed by the Keeping Kids in School PAC — a committee started by Clarice Schillinger, a mother in the Hatboro-Horsham School District.

“These candidates are moms, dads, taxpayers, that are really concerned with the face of education being changed,” said Schillinger, a former aide to State Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery), who launched the statewide PAC in January. They “all stand for the option — if you need five days a week in-person learning, you should have that.”

Local political parties often endorse school board candidates — whom Pennsylvania allows to cross-file and appear on both Democratic and Republican primary ballots. (Area school boards differ in whether they select at-large members or members by region; the top vote-getters Tuesday will advance to November’s election.)

Schillinger views her group as a counterpoint to the teachers’ union, which also endorses in some races. But she said it was bipartisan and had endorsed both Republicans and Democrats.

Among the latter group is Erin Stein, a mother of three in the Upper Dublin School District who “felt like the rug was pulled out from under us” when the school year began virtually.

Stein, who organized a Facebook group advocating for reopening, said she faced “nastiness” and was called an anti-masker, though she said she supports masks and other mitigation measures in schools.

“Wanting your kids in school has nothing to do with being a Republican or a Democrat,” she said.

Some candidates endorsed by the PAC have drawn scrutiny for their political leanings.

In the West Chester Area School District, an anonymous Facebook page, “Concerned WCASD Constituents,” last week called on candidate Ada Nestor to answer whether she was responsible for social media handles that seemed to follow the QAnon movement.

”How many coincidences before you realize #QAnon is real?” read a screenshot of a March 2020 post from an account using Nestor’s first name and photo; other posts, which span multiple years, used hashtags associated with the conspiracy like #GreatAwakening and #TheStorm. One post requested donations for Nestor’s campaign.

In a blog post, Nestor said: “The Twitter handle in question is not a privately used page, and it is not my personal page. … There have been many members of the page who posted research articles and followers who critiqued what was posted.” She said she is “not a member of QAnon.”

Schillinger said she saw the screenshots but wasn’t sure the posts were Nestor’s. “If facts can be provided, we will investigate,” she said.

The election debate has veered into other charged topics. Nestor, for instance, lists among her key issues “protecting our young female athletes from having to compete against male students” and “promoting accurate curriculum programs over fictionalized ones such as the 1619 Project,” a New York Times initiative that reexamines the legacy of slavery in America.

In the Haverford Township School District, Helene Conroy-Smith, who has objected to an antiracism resolution passed by the district, shared a Fox News video clip on her candidate Facebook page. It featured former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson decrying “critical race theory” in schools, which he described as teaching “white kids they’re bad people” and “Black kids they’re victims.”

“Something to consider as Ben Carson does a nice job explaining it,” Conroy-Smith wrote.

In an interview, Conroy-Smith said “a lot of special interests are impacting Haverford” and “when you read about these programs, there’s a level of a value system.”

» READ MORE: Black and Hispanic students in Philly suburbs are disciplined more harshly than white peers, underrepresented in AP classes, report finds

The focus on hot-button national issues fits into a longer-term trend of local elections becoming increasingly aligned with national politics, said Daniel Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. With the rise of cable news in the 1990s and the decline of local newspapers and civic groups, local candidates are more incentivized to draw on “some variant of what’s playing in national politics.”

Given the Democratic organizing at the local level after Trump’s election in 2016, “I would not be at all surprised … if we see something parallel in which Republican activists channel their ongoing sense of threat about the Biden administration and overreach” into local elections, Hopkins said.

Schillinger said Keeping Kids in School isn’t connected to a super PAC and is run by her and two other parent volunteers. Filings show the group has raised about $20,000.

Half of the PAC’s money came from a Doylestown venture capitalist and longtime Republican donor, Paul Martino — who has also put $60,000 into a separate PAC called Bucks Families for Leadership.

That group was behind the website featuring Central Bucks candidate Leygerman’s tweets. The PAC — which formed after the Central Bucks School District announced it would begin the school year virtually — held town halls focused on school reopenings and is supporting four candidates in the Central Bucks race, including Leygerman’s opponent, said spokesperson Nathan Calvert.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association’s political action committee is also backing candidates. Local union representatives decided to endorse in 30 districts across the state, including Central Bucks and seven others in Southeastern Pennsylvania, said PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal. He said the union’s involvement was similar to prior years.

Of teachers and support staff, “we think it’s very important for their voices to be heard,” Lilienthal said.

For candidates who saw the positions as nonpolitical, some of the election dynamics have proven surprising. “I didn’t realize the parties could even pay for a candidate,” said Keven Gessner, a candidate in the Council Rock School District backed by Keeping Kids in School. A Republican who is running independently from the local party, Gessner — who is Korean American — said that after learning his party affiliation, a few people called him and his volunteers white supremacists.

“Everything’s heated right now,” he said.