Like many parents, Paul Martino was frustrated when his children’s Bucks County school district announced it would start virtually last year despite broad support in his community for in-person instruction.
As a venture capitalist, he also saw an opportunity.
“It was an execution failure. It wasn’t a COVID issue,” said Martino, 47, who has a fifth and seventh grader in the Central Bucks School District. “School administrators were just scared and didn’t attack the challenge. I’m not saying everyone’s gonna be built like a Silicon Valley CEO … but once you work with people like that and an unforeseen challenge comes in front of them, they solve the problem.”
Schools around the region opened in person this fall. But across Pennsylvania, hundreds of candidates are now running for school board seats backed by $500,000 from Martino — who says he wants to ensure those closures don’t happen again.
His “Back to School PA” effort, which Martino says has given $10,000 to 50 local political action committees, appears to be unprecedented in Pennsylvania’s school board elections — and marks a significant infusion of cash into typically lower-budget races.
It’s also infuriating Democrats who view the effort by Martino, a longtime GOP donor, as funneling money toward mostly Republican bids to gain traction on local boards while schools have become the center of a culture war. Around the country, conservatives angered by pandemic restrictions and former President Donald Trump’s loss last year have zeroed in on school board races as places to grow the party and take back some local control.
But on both sides, school boards had already garnered increased attention and tension this year, with campaigns that have become not only highly partisan, but, at times, highly personal. Candidates and supporters have framed the contests as a battle for the future of education controlled by one extreme or another.
“We truly see the future of our country is at stake,” said Vicki Flannery, the cochair of Montgomery County Moms for Liberty, one of 14 chapters of the national conservative grassroots group that sprouted this year. “We’re fighting against indoctrination.”
Colleen Guiney, chair of the Delaware County Democrats, sees that fight resulting in upheaval. “Someone with a lot of money decided to sprinkle it around the state of Pennsylvania to begin to build a bench of people … they can in the short term enact anti-science policies,” Guiney said. “And in the long term disrupt our education system.”
The influx of money to local races in a state with no campaign contribution limits is something observers are closely watching. A typical school board race, depending on the district’s size, will cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to up to $10,000 to run, strategists said. An infusion of $10,000 per slate could fund the type of campaign literature needed to boost name recognition and get votes.
In Philadelphia’s suburbs, Martino’s money is fueling a lot of races in largely Democratic areas where Republicans have struggled to run competitive races in recent years. The four collar counties include 29 districts where political action committees backing slates of candidates each received $10,000 checks each from Martino’s group.
Montgomery County GOP Chair Elizabeth Preate Havey said this year brought more candidates interested in running, several dozen of whom now have the boost of Martino’s financial backing.
“I’m hoping we see some victories here that will wake up these Democrats who are used to not being challenged,” Havey said. “Are we going to see sweeping victories? I don’t know, but the enthusiasm and quality of the campaigns is something I’ve not seen in many many years.”
A graduate of North Penn High School in Lansdale, Martino attended Lehigh and Princeton Universities. He founded Bullpen Capital, a Silicon Valley venture fund, and lives with his family in Doylestown but spends about a week each month in California.
A self-described “hardcore Republican,” Martino has given thousands to GOP candidates over the past decade, including Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Senate hopefuls David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia. He gave $5,800, the maximum allowed, to Kathy Barnette and Jeff Bartos, both Montgomery County Republicans running for Senate.
He also poured $25,000 into a PAC that ran a 2019 attack ad setting fire to a picture of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and has donated to conservative activist James O’Keefe — describing himself as playing a “mentor role” to the Project Veritas founder, who has targeted liberal groups in undercover videos.
Despite his political views, Martino insists his interest in school boards isn’t partisan and says his group hasn’t taken positions on hot-button issues like critical race theory or masking.
Backing 50 slates of up to five school board candidates, Martino calls says his donations are funding members of a “big tent” that includes a Black progressive political action committee in Harrisburg intent on keeping schools open because of the impact closures have had on urban districts. Also funded are multiple Republican candidates campaigning against critical race theory, some of whom have voiced fringe viewpoints, including that masking can damage kids’ brains and contribute to youth suicide rates.
And while Martino characterizes the PAC funding as about transparency and open schools, he also said he sees it as an ongoing effort to counter Democratic-backed unions and “perpetual sources of money on the other side.”
”I think there is a life after Nov. 2 for this, to kind of get a national group together to even the playing field,” he said.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association — the union whose political action committee is recommending 116 candidates in 36 of the state’s 500 districts — says it doesn’t comment on election spending beyond what it discloses in its campaign finance reports. Those reports include spending in support of state candidates, in addition to school board candidates.
But a spokesperson for the PSEA, the state’s largest teachers union, said its PAC was “not spending anywhere near $500,000″ on the school board races.
“When you think about the two PACs, one is being funded by teachers and bus drivers and cafeteria workers. And then you have a rather large check on the other side,” said PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal.
Jonathan Kassa, a Democrat running for reelection on the North Penn School Board, said in his district GOP challengers backed by Martino have brought “toxic politics to the local level.”
“What used to be a civil conversation in North Penn is now tilted toward a national swamp,” said Kassa, who ran unsuccessfully for state legislature last year.
In the Avon Grove School District in Chester County, a school board member found himself the subject of an online ad one might mistake for a network TV spot in a bigger-money race. Produced by a Martino-supported PAC, the spot featured an ominously voiced narrator and accusations of “Marxist agendas.”
Martino says he’s funding a grassroots effort, not pushing a top-down agenda.
“If me writing a check to a concerned parent in Carbon County is leading to toxic national politics, then there’s something much more broken than the writing of that check,” he said.
As a newly formed PAC, Back to School PA has not yet had to file campaign finance reports. Neither have most of the new committees it has backed — making it difficult to confirm Martino’s donations or how much additional money is coming in.
But Martino isn’t the only donor to Back to School PA, which he founded as an expansion of the Keeping Kids in School PAC started by Hatboro-Horsham mother Clarice Schillinger for the May school board primaries. (Schillinger is now executive director of the Back to School group.)
The group has received $50,000 from the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund, a pro-school choice PAC that donates to Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers. Martino said Tuesday it had also received money from local business owners and “technology industry veterans” — bringing its reported spending on school board races to $600,000.
And Martino, who has railed against accusations he’s the front man for a dark money group, given he was the PACs lone funder for some time, has signaled there’s more interest.
“If we are going to continually be slandered and defamed with false allegations of dark-money ... we might as well take 3rd party funds from organizations that share our goal for in-person education,” Martino said in a statement.
Jessie Bradica, a North Penn mother of three, is running on the GOP slate against Democrats who are part of a 9-0 board majority. “It meant everything, to be honest,” said Bradica, of Martino’s contribution. “We had no money.”
Bradica started paying closer attention to her school board during last year’s closures and began to suspect political motivations for its decisions. She also became concerned schools were pushing political messages on students.
Bradica, who was criticized for attending the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, D.C, said this race is about more than the current moment.
“There’s no guarantee that schools are going to stay open,” she said.
Kassa, one of the Democratic incumbents, called the Back to School opposition a “campaign of vengeance” and questioned what its candidates wanted to achieve.
“We’re back to school,” he said, later asking: “What would you have done differently?”
But the contrast between public and private schools, which opened in person last year, continues to sting for parents like Anna Moreland, a Radnor mother and college professor who described herself as a lifelong Democrat but is one of the leaders of a Martino-backed PAC supporting Republicans challenging Democrat incumbents on the board.
“Am I still angry about that? You bet I am.” She also felt the board’s focus on dropping the Raider mascot and name was “utterly tone deaf” in light of pandemic challenges.
Board president Susan Stern, who is seeking reelection, said Radnor was first among districts in Chester and Delaware counties to resume in-school learning in September 2020. And she said the board had tackled the mascot issue on top of the pandemic, not instead of it — accusing opponents of misrepresenting the priority given to the matter.
“It’s a real shame that we have to spend money in a local race countering this misinformation,” Stern said. Of the opposition, she said, “It’s GOP money and the playbook is exactly the same all around the country.” She did not specify how much her slate would spend on the race, but said it was from local sources and friends and family.
Moreland said Martino’s $10,000 represents “a fraction of our overall funding,” which is also coming from individual donors.
Some races are also drawing outside Democratic interest. Turn PA Blue, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic PAC, has sent out fundraising emails on behalf of several Democrats running in the suburbs. The national Working Families Party, a left, pro-labor group, is backing a slate of candidates in Central York, where a controversy over banned books recently erupted. The Republican slate in York is backed by a Martino-funded PAC.
In Central Bucks — the state’s third-largest district and home to some of the most heated debates over pandemic policies — the national Democratic Party has made school board races part of its $1.5 million turnout operation, also focused on a highly competitive district attorney’s race in the swing county. The national 314 Action Committee, a PAC that supports Democratic doctors and scientists running for office, threw its support behind Mariam Mahmud, a pediatrician and mother of four running there.
“There’s been so much tension, so many voices speaking out against good science practices, against safety and inclusion,” Mahmud said, citing anti-mask stances by Republicans running for the board. Several GOP candidates and their Martino-backed PAC did not return requests for comment.
Whether Martino’s intention or not, his network of hyperlocal PACs fits in with a national Republican strategy, said Kimberly S. Adams, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University.
“This is about people who feel they’re not being heard and they want to have some power and they want to control the narrative of what’s taught in their schools,” said Adams, who has consulted for Democrats.
The danger with national partisanship seeping into school board races, Adams said, is that neither side finds ways to meet in the middle and the focus shifts away from students’ needs.
“This will be just like at the national level: two competing sides, whether charter versus public, face masks versus no face masks, vaccines versus no vaccines,” Adams said. “What is best for the kids in these school districts will become secondary because we’re not able to compromise.”