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The tension and political movement that rose from Pa.’s school board elections might be here to stay

“We’re just going to find something else to argue about now,” said an unsuccessful Central Bucks school board candidate.

Paul Martino, a Central Bucks father and longtime GOP donor, spent $500,000 on school board campaigns — primarily on behalf of Republicans.
Paul Martino, a Central Bucks father and longtime GOP donor, spent $500,000 on school board campaigns — primarily on behalf of Republicans.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

After a campaign season that featured deep divides over masking, feuds related to teaching about racism, and an unprecedented influx of cash to candidates running under the banner of keeping schools open, there was no Republican sweep of school board races in the Philadelphia suburbs.

But the attention and controversy that surrounded those campaigns is unlikely to go away. The Bucks County venture capitalist who poured hundreds of thousands into Pennsylvania school board races is now looking at how to harness voters who became newly engaged around school issues. Parents riled up by heated elections remain polarized, while board members in politically divided districts are bracing for new clashes with former opponents they now must work with.

“I just keep telling myself, I’m not one to hold a grudge and it won’t serve us on the board,” said LeeAnn Wisdom, a Downingtown Democrat who won reelection despite signs blanketing her neighborhood that read: “Protect Our Children. Vote Wisdom Out.”

» READ MORE: School issues dominated Election Day conversation. Here’s what happened in Pa. races.

Jim Pepper, a Republican who will be joining the board in Central Bucks, said the prospect of “four years of this type of intensity is completely and utterly unpalatable.”

The elections in both communities drew involvement from Paul Martino, a Central Bucks father and longtime GOP donor who spent $500,000 on school board campaigns — primarily on behalf of Republicans. Martino said candidates he supported around the state won in about 60% of the races; in the Philadelphia suburbs, their success rate was closer to 40%.

Martino stressed that the Back to School PA PAC he founded had also supported Democrats, but his tally in that category counted anyone who had cross-filed to run on both the Democratic and Republican tickets, a common practice in historically less partisan school board elections. An Inquirer analysis found at least 26 candidates classified by Martino’s PAC as Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs were registered Republicans.

In an interview, Martino downplayed the partisan imbalance, instead characterizing the local political action committees he funded — 54 in all — as a coalition focused on parental rights.

“Our objective was to put a parent-first organization in as many places as possible,” said Martino, whose committee also drew funding from conservative school-choice groups. “What that means, we haven’t figured out yet. But it’s what we’re spending serious time on now that we’ve got this really interesting network of concerned — and previously, a lot of them, apolitical — parents involved.”

‘What do we take on next?’

The local PACs will continue to exist and can use unspent money. Martino said his larger PAC would stay focused on school board races and won’t be involved in Pennsylvania’s 2022 midterms, although he will support individual candidates.

» READ MORE: School board meetings turn tense with debates over critical race theory and masking

He disputed any suggestion that he had created division in communities but acknowledged that he contributed to it.

“Because I gave a voice to a set of parents who didn’t have one,” he said. “And I’m not upset at all about that.”

Margie Miller won a seat on the Downingtown Area School Board by two votes, thanks in part to Martino’s support. She’ll be one of two Republicans on the nine-member board next year.

“I don’t think this goes away,” Miller said of the enthusiasm drummed up this year. “You have people now that have felt like, ‘Hey, what do we take on next?’ ”

But it’s also daunting, she said, to be in the political minority. “It very easily could get ugly.”

Despite Miller’s victory, Republicans in Downingtown lost two other seats, reflecting trends across the suburbs, where Democrats in control of boards largely retained or grew their numbers.

“Unfortunately, even at the school board level, people voted party lines,” said Mike Kennedy, a history teacher at Frankford High School and one of four Republican candidates in North Penn who were backed by Martino’s group but lost to Democratic incumbents.

Kennedy said he wants to stay involved in school board issues but he’s worried about speaking out at meetings and being viewed by board members as their opponent — or “that guy who ran under that flag.”

Kennedy said he views himself more like “just a guy who was trying to help.”

Jonathan Kassa, one of the North Penn Democrats who won reelection to the board, saw the results as a “counter backlash” to the parental backlash Martino says he helped galvanize.

“Rallying around parental choice, to me it’s a transparent, obvious political action,” Kassa said.

Calls for “parental choice” and “parents’ rights” have gained increased traction among Republicans, including in Glenn Youngkin’s successful bid in the Virginia governor’s race as well as in Pennsylvania, where it popped up in campaign statements by several GOP gubernatorial and Senate candidates.

In Hatboro-Horsham, the Martino-supported PAC spent more than $47,000 on five Republican school board candidates. Three won, though two Democrats also won and in the end Democrats gained a seat on the board.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to work in the least partisan way possible,” said board president Jennifer Wilson, who won reelection despite an online attack ad produced by the Martino-backed PAC that blamed her — wrongly, she says — for falling school rankings. Wilson said she was backed by the Horsham Democratic Committee, which spent $11,800 on candidates.

Trying to move forward

In Central Bucks, where the rancor over school board elections drew coverage by the New York Times, three Republicans backed by Martino were elected. Two Democrats also won.

The vitriol of the last year tarnished the reputation of the district, said Diana Leygerman, a Democrat who lost by about 200 votes. She now worries about being recognized at her kids’ soccer games by parents who saw campaign smears about her.

“As far as political aspirations, I have none,” Leygerman said. “I never want to run for office ever again.”

She’s unsure the divisiveness will end. The clashes this year started over COVID health measures, then morphed into debates about curriculum.

“We’re just going to find something else to argue about now,” Leygerman said. “Now it’s going to be [diversity, equity, and inclusion], so I don’t see an end in sight.”

Her opponent, Pepper, also remains upset by what he saw as a “particularly vicious” campaign: Pepper says Leygerman unfairly labeled him a “true Trump Republican” in her ads and said she tried to paint him as working against the district, misportraying a lawsuit he filed on behalf of his disabled son.

“It’s very frustrating to me that I am caught up in this insanity, when this is not why I got involved,” said Pepper, a plaintiffs’ lawyer who says he ran for school board to focus on students with special needs.

As in most districts, the newly elected board in Central Bucks won’t convene until December. In the meantime, there’s concern that politics could impact routine things like giving board members their committee assignments.

The board must first vote to select who will serve as its president and that person will dole out committee assignments.

Tabitha Dell’Angelo, a Democratic newcomer to the board, is worried she won’t get on the curriculum committee, given the political connection Republicans have made between Democrats and critical race theory. (CRT is not taught in Central Bucks schools and Dell’Angelo does not support it being taught there.)

Even if the board president assigns committees in a bipartisan way, Dell’Angelo said, it might not be perceived as neutral.

“There’s just this culture of mistrust,” Dell’Angelo said.

Current board member Karen Smith says she wants to try to work with everyone. But polarizing debates threaten to complicate that goal.

In the days following the elections, board president Dana Hunter asked administrators to remove from its meeting agenda a request to send five teachers to an English conference with an equity and social justice theme, Smith said. Hunter, a member of the controlling Republican majority, later told members there “wasn’t board support” for sending the teachers, Smith said. Hunter didn’t return requests for comment.

Smith, a Democrat and two-term board member who previously ran as a Republican, said she will no longer hesitate to speak up when she disagrees with the board’s actions.

“I can’t remain quiet about some of these issues any longer,” she said.