After last year’s turbulent presidential election, some of the most heated battles on the ballot in Pennsylvania this year were for school board races — ground zero for national culture wars that drew far more attention and money than any in recent memory.
Whether school boards went the way of other offices around the state, which saw widespread Republican gains, wasn’t immediately clear, with mail-in ballots still being counted across hundreds of races.
But it seemed apparent a combination of national fervor around school issues and a $500,000 infusion from a Bucks County venture capitalist fueled at least some strong Republican showings.
“This is a direct result of national politics infecting our purest form of local democracy,” said Jonathan Kassa, a Democrat seeking reelection in the North Penn School District, where Republicans supported by Paul Martino’s political action committee were potentially poised to win seats on the board. Kassa was trailing Wednesday but waiting for mail-in ballots to be fully tallied.
Others downplayed the PAC’s specific impact, saying candidates had merely tapped into parental frustration.
“Our parents have been asking to be heard for a year and a half, and they tried all of the traditional channels to engage the administration and the current board directors,” said Stacey Whomsley, a Republican who appeared likely to win a seat in the West Chester Area School District and was backed by a PAC that drew $13,000 from Martino’s group.
Whomsley, a mother who battled the district over closures last year — including petitioning to start a charter school — said the money had helped. But “social media, which costs nothing, is what really put this on the road map,” she said.
The political clout of angry parents was a question in elections across the country Tuesday — not just for school boards. In Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin was elected governor after vowing to prioritize school choice and ban critical race theory, polling showed schools’ handling of COVID-19 and the critical race theory debate were top issues for voters. (Educators say CRT, the legal framework for examining racism embedded in institutions, is not taught in K-12 classrooms, but the phrase has become a rallying call against schools’ discussion of racism in America.)
And invoking CRT, along with a more general rejection of Democrats who control the White House, appears to have motivated Republicans, who turned out in higher numbers than Democrats in Pennsylvania, GOP strategist Mike Barley said.
“It’s a sign that the national issues resonated. It bubbled up from the grassroots,” Barley said. “These are issues close to a lot of parents’ hearts. What is my kid learning? So to hear politicians talk about that, I think that’s stuff that did not work out well for Democrats.”
Democrats have criticized Martino for dumping money into school board races and trying to capitalize on that emotion — though Martino has said his funding was borne out of frustration over how school boards handled pandemic closures, not curriculum.
A Central Bucks parent and major GOP donor, Martino wrote $10,000 checks to local PACs promoting slates of primarily Republican school board candidates — including in about half the school districts in the Philadelphia suburbs. He also took in other conservative money, spending nearly $700,000 heading into the elections.
He appeared to get a mixed return on that investment.
Martino said Wednesday afternoon that about 60% of the races his PAC supported had been called, and that 72% of the candidates it supported in those districts had won. He didn’t specify which districts or comment further.
In some cases, Back to School PA spent more than $10,000 per district — including in Radnor, where campaign finance records show it directed an additional $5,000 last month to challengers voicing continued anger over school closures and trying to unseat Democrats.
That effort appeared unsuccessful Wednesday, with all four Democrats on the ballot in Radnor poised to win reelection.
“I certainly think that education has been at the forefront of the election this year, throughout the country,” said Radnor school board president Susan Stern, one of the incumbent Democrats, who said she was grateful for the results and “looking forward to reaching out to those who didn’t agree with us on certain issues.”
Anna Moreland, a parent leading the Reimagine Radnor PAC that received funding from Martino and supported the Republicans in the race, said the group was encouraged by “increased bipartisan support” for their effort.
“We … continue to believe that we must remove politics from our school board and vote person over party,” Moreland said in a statement.
National political debate, however, was ubiquitous at the polls Tuesday. Outside Radnor High School, Sandy Mainardi, 61, and Michael Mainardi, 66, said they were “very disgusted” by the current all-Democratic panel.
“CRT is coming into play,” Sandy Mainardi said. “It’s really divisive.” Another woman said she opposed “indoctrination” in schools.
Maya Van Rossum, 55, and her husband, David Wood, 57, praised the school board’s approach to reopening schools and dropping the district’s Native American mascot — an issue that had animated some of the Republican opposition. To Van Rossum and Wood, it felt as if Donald Trump were still on the ballot.
“This is a very consequential election,” Van Rossum said. “This is going to dictate the path moving forward and whether the Republicans can maintain a foothold with Trump politics.”
In Central Bucks, the state’s third-largest district, three Martino-backed Republicans and two Democrats were ahead Wednesday in a battle for five seats, though some races were too close to call.
The district has been roiled by debates over school masking and COVID-19 mitigation policies — with a board member’s resignation after a death threat — and the school board campaign featured bitter attacks. A fake newspaper produced by a Martino-backed PAC accused the Democrats of “masking the children, the curriculum, and the truth.”
Tabitha Dell’Angelo, a Democrat who had a sizable lead in her race Wednesday, said she’s unsure how much the added funding helped the Republican slate. She attributed their success in part to fervor over critical race theory, which she said she encountered repeatedly on the campaign trail and at the polls Tuesday.
“Even people I knew … they were like ‘You’re for CRT. You want to make our kids feel guilty,’” said Dell’Angelo, an education professor. “And even when I was trying to say, ‘No. I’m not trying to bring CRT into elementary schools. This is what antibias training is,’ and I’m trying to have a legitimate conversation … they’ve already decided who I am.”
Dell’Angelo said she’s grateful for the support but anxious about how the board will work together coming off of such a bitter election, in which she was subjected to personal attacks.
“We’re just neighbors. Our kids go to school together,” she said. “This isn’t a presidential race where you throw out an attack and you don’t see that person at Target.”
Jim Pepper, one of the Central Bucks Republicans who was ahead in voting, declined to comment on the still-indefinite results. But he said the campaign and harassment had taken a toll on his family.
“This has been a horror show going through this,” he said.
Staff writers Erin McCarthy and Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.