Democrats won big across the Delaware Valley in last Tuesday’s election. It was clear that abortion rights and, to some degree, possible challenges to the 2024 presidential election carried the day. After the election, Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, reportedly said Dobbs and democracy won the 2023 election, and those issues will carry Democrats to victory in 2024.
Dobbs is a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court decision that overruled Roe v. Wade and sent abortion rights battles back to the states. Democracy is a reference to President Donald Trump and the challenges he raised about the 2020 election results.
But I don’t think that Dobbs or democracy gave us the Democrats’ victory in the Central Bucks School Board elections. I think the unrelenting and false attacks by The Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY demonized people like school board President Dana Hunter and Superintendent of Schools Dr. Abraham M. Lucabaugh.
The theme of both news outlets was that Lucabaugh, Hunter, and other Republican board members were on wholesale book-banning campaigns and were callous or biased toward students who were gay or transgender.
In my view, this coverage was so intense because the district is one of the biggest, wealthiest, and most educated in the entire state. It also had a fairly conservative board elected after bitter battles about masking and school closures during the COVID crisis.
I think the election of that conservative school board was a message that citizens in Central Bucks thought the previous COVID policies were too restrictive. And the demotion of Dr. David Damsker, Bucks public health chief, at the behest of the Wolf administration and carried out by the Bucks County commissioners also created a backlash.
Damsker had gained a large following across the state as he advocated loosening masking restrictions and early return of students to school even if they had previously had a fever.
The next firestorm for that board involved whether parents should be notified if their child wanted to be identified by pronouns that didn’t match their sex at birth. The superintendent said there would be discussions around each individual case, but the indication was that parents would be told.
How is this hateful to kids? It is the essence of parental rights that you be told about your child when, for whatever reason, they ask that their pronoun be changed. Do the newly elected school board members think parents should not be notified because they might get angry and abuse their child? Do they really believe collaborating with the child and lying to parents is a good policy? Somehow, with their allies in the media, the new board members were able to make a civil rights matter for kids as young as 7 or 8.
The media already mentioned, along with the Bucks County Courier Times, also conjured up the notion that Hunter and the others were on massive book-banning crusades. I interviewed Hunter and others extensively, and it was clear they crafted policies that restricted only very sexually graphic materials.
These were the books that you’ve seen parents stopped from reading passages from at school board meetings because they were so graphic. Any legitimate school district should not be making books like “Lawn Boy” or “Gender Queer” available to students.
So, what happens next? I like the thoughts of defeated school candidate Dr. Stephen Mass, who was interviewed by the DVJournal.
He said, “The only winners in Tuesday’s elections are the private schools, who will see their enrollment skyrocket in the next few years when parents see what policies are coming into our district.” I think Mass has a good crystal ball.
The Democrats won all five seats on the Central Bucks School Board Tuesday, sending a message that voters were unhappy with the GOP-controlled board’s direction. Reforms such as allowing challenges of patently pornographic books in school libraries and keeping political banners and other items out of classrooms, unless those were part of the curriculum, will likely be swept aside.
Democrats Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, Susan Gibson, and incumbent Karen Smith won handily.
“I am so very happy and relieved to have won reelection and to share this victory with all my running mates. But this isn’t just a victory for me or my fellow candidates,” Smith said. “This is a victory for our students, our teachers, our support staff, and our community. With this vote, we showed that love is stronger than hate and compassion is stronger than fear. And voters made clear they will not be divided or distracted from working together — all of us — to solve the real issues our students face.
Aarati Martino, who lost to Haring, thanked her supporters.
“I learned a lot and have not a single regret for running,” said Martino. “And congratulations to my opponents for winning the board race. Good luck!”
Martino told DVJournal, “We lost because not enough voters saw the danger in the policies that our opponents will propose and effect.
“We conservatives have this Cassandra-like curse of seeing the longer term and unintended consequences of actions that intend to help people but usually make things much worse. I predict our district will not be as effective in educating our children and preparing them for the future as they were for this past generation. It will take time for these policies to degrade the system because the district internally has been run extraordinarily well with many amazing people in charge, not to mention the superb teachers and staff on the front lines. And the press will not be transparent on this matter, so parents will have no idea that things could (have) been so much better. In fact, now that their endorsed candidates are in charge, at least now, the media will give us a reprieve from the constant negative media barrage!
“It is sad because I know for a fact many people voted against us because of unhappiness with their families, with their children, with their lives. These new progressive policies will do nothing to improve their situation and will likely worsen it. And I feel bad for them because I do believe our slate could have led the way in showing a much better way for nurturing and educating our children together,” she said.
Her husband, Paul Martino, also shared his thoughts on Facebook. =Paul Martino founded a political action committee, Back to School PA PAC, in 2021 and successfully backed school board candidates across the state, with 60 percent of those candidates winning.
“The first big message here is that Pennsylvania is a blue state and has been since 2020,” he said. “We stuck our finger in the dike in 2021, but the water has fully crested now. We lost pretty much everywhere last night, from row offices to the state Supreme Court. And, of course, in many school board races, including CBSD and Pennridge.
“This bodes poorly for the 2024 nominee for president here in the previously purple state of Pennsylvania, despite the recent polling. I think the current polling methods don’t reflect the now baked D advantage that the voting changes of Act 77 (mail-in ballots) brought.”
“That’s terrible news if you want to keep the prestige of the district, as the Ds have made their priorities clear:…going back to advocacy in the classroom, DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) initiatives, more social-emotional learning, etc. None of this makes education outcomes better but promotes their social agenda. The kids are the real losers here.”
Dr. Steven Mass, Smith’s opponent, said, “The only winners in Tuesday’s elections are the private schools, who will have their enrollment skyrocket in the next few years when parents see what policies are coming into our district.”
Smith said, “Now that the election is behind us, I am eager to start working on some of the priorities I shared with voters during the campaign. Restoring civility to our meetings, beginning to revise these policies that have divided us over the last couple of years, working to bring additional mental health supports for our students, and ensuring we are providing a safe and inclusive environment for all our students and staff.”
Ten candidates are running for five seats on the Central Bucks School board, including two incumbents, Board President Dana Hunter and Karen Smith.
The candidates are running in slates of five, with the Republicans led by Hunter and the Democrats led by Smith.
The district is the fourth largest in Pennsylvania, with nearly 18,000 students and 3,000 employees. The current Republican majority board has been besieged by outside organizations, such as the ACLU, after it passed policies to allow parents to challenge inappropriate sexually explicit books in school libraries and to keep political message signs out of classrooms, from gay pride flags to Trump banners.
DVJournal asked all 10 candidates to answer five questions. Only two responded. Their responses are below.
The questions: 1) Would you use the Act 1 exceptions to raise taxes? Why or why not? 2) Many students have experienced learning loss. What are some solutions you would bring? 3) Mental health is another crisis. How would you address this in the CBSD? 4) There is a multi-million-dollar lawsuit pending over teachers’ pay. Should that be settled? 5) How do you see the role of the school board director regarding the teachers’ union?
Dr. Stephen Mass, a surgeon running against Smith in Region 1, submitted these answers:
1) With inflation and rising mortgage rates, the average taxpayer can ill afford a tax hike—especially seniors on fixed incomes. An Act I exception (raising the taxes for specific costs without voter approval) is an absolute last resort. As a board member, I would need to do the due diligence and have a transparent conversation should any potential need arise.
2) It will take years to reverse the learning loss from the lockdowns. We start by focusing on a rigorous math, writing, and reading foundation at elementary levels and more individualization in the curriculum at all levels. Where we see large learning losses, we need to expand on in-house tutoring programs, including peer tutoring
De. Stephen Mass
3) We can be better about individualizing the curriculum so kids are happier with their academic path. We can promote after-school sports and clubs to give kids a sense of community. And we need evening programs involving parents regarding mental health-related topics such as sleep, exercise, nutrition, screen time, bullying, and more.
4) An attorney representing the Pennsylvania School Board Association presented on Sept. 12. He was clear that we should not settle due to the shocking $119 million and lack of merit. I agree and think the union should also answer. I refused an opportunity to meet with the lawyer for the lead plaintiff, the spouse of a candidate, a concerning conflict of interest.
5) The union’s goal is to extract for its members, while the board’s mission is to sustain excellent schools while protecting the taxpayer. A board member should, therefore, not accept money or seek endorsements from the union. It’s concerning my opponent sought this endorsement.
Glen Schloeffel is a former school board member with a bachelor’s in marketing and retired from the U.S. Navy Reserves. He is running in Region 3 and gave these replies:
1) If the highly disputed Cartee-Haring lawsuits are settled, taxes will have to go up significantly, and an Act 1 exception will likely be the only way the school district, vis a vis our taxpayers, can pay for it, in addition to eliminating jobs, education, and sports programs. During my previous term on the school board, we never raised taxes, and it will be my mission to not raise taxes if elected in November.
2) I will task the administration to develop a plan within 45 days to address the learning loss due to COVID-19. We have some of the best educators and administrators in the state who have dedicated their careers to the education of our children. They are the teaching experts, and we should rely on them for the solutions.
3) Central Bucks Pupil Services has worked hard to create and implement a comprehensive support system that has become a model for the state. This model encompasses a wide range of services and resources, all aimed at nurturing and safeguarding the mental well-being of our children. We also have a team of counselors and support staff assigned to each middle and high school in the district. The CBSD also closely collaborates with NOVA (Network of Victim Assistance), and we are seeing terrific benefits and results from this collaborative relationship that is helping our kids. `I will always advocate for ways that we can draw on additional resources that address ongoing student mental health concerns.
4) My understanding is the school district has committed no wrongdoing in the pay dispute, and the board was advised to not settle under any circumstances by Michael Levin, Chief Defense Counsel for CBSD, who publicly stated at the September board meeting that “No unlawful discrimination has occurred” in our district. Mr. Levin has served as legal counsel to the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA) and is considered an expert who has written state education and school board policy. If the school board majority changes (from Republican to Democratic) in November, the lawsuit will be settled, and the spouse of a school board candidate will benefit handsomely, while taxes for the rest of us will be raised over $3,500 on average to pay their $120 million settlement demand. Ed Mazurek, the attorney for Rick and Becky Cartee-Haring, contacted the Republican school board candidates and said that he has already briefed Democrat school board candidates Dana Foley, Heather Reynolds, Karen Smith, and Susan Gibson on the case and offered to do the same for the Republican candidates. This is a tremendous conflict of interest that would bias these candidates should they be elected to the board, especially since Rick Haring is their running mate. I, as well as the other Republican candidates, declined the offer to be briefed on the case because of the inappropriate conflict of interest and bias that meeting with the Harings’ attorney creates for potential school board members. It is extremely unethical that the Democrat school board candidates have already been briefed on the case by the Harings’ attorney since they have all said they believe the case should be settled and that they’ll vote to give the Harings a settlement. This should greatly concern every taxpayer and voter.
5) The school board and the teachers’ union should stand shoulder to shoulder to ensure our children get the best education possible to prepare them for life. Beyond that, the CBEA represents the teachers, and the school board represents the community and taxpayers. We must balance their concerns and priorities, especially in these very trying financial and economic times.
In addition to Mass, Hunter, and Schloeffel, the Republican candidates are Aarati Martino and Tony Arjona. The Democrats are Smith, Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, and Susan Gibson.
Update: After publishing this story late Sunday evening, Broad + Liberty was made aware on Monday morning of a social media post appearing to show an internal email indicating Central Bucks Education Association President Joe Kirsche resigned on Sunday. Broad + Liberty offers this as context with the understanding that it has not been able to authenticate the email.
Five candidates for board seats in the Central Bucks School District are crying foul over new campaign signs saying their opposition was endorsed by “teachers and staff” of two unions in the district, especially given that the leader of one of those unions said in an email he didn’t approve the signs and was disappointed in them.
The sign says “teachers and staff” of the Central Bucks Education Association and the Central Bucks Education Support Professionals Association “endorse” candidates Karen Smith, Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, and Susan Gibson.
Although school board elections in Pennsylvania are ostensibly bipartisan, that group of five Democrats is hoping to overturn the Republican majority of the current board, which was elected in 2021 in the wake of frustrations about how the district was managed during the pandemic.
The five Republicans say that, while it’s true the CBEA union has voted to support the five Democratic candidates, the sign is a historic breach of norms, and they’ve published an email from CBEA President Joe Kirsche which they say proves it.
“In response to the recent signage posted amongst our voting community, I want to be perfectly clear with both of you. CBEA did not know the signs were being printed and posted. I did not endorse the signs beforehand,” Kirsche wrote to CBSD Board president Dana Hunter, who is up for re-election, and CBSD Superintendent Abraham “Abe” Lucabaugh.
“In fact, had I been approached to support the signs posted, I would not have approved them with the current verbiage as the signs are not inclusive of the opinions of all my CBEA members,” Kirsche continued. “I am disheartened and disappointed that it appears as though the teacher’s union has become an additional pawn.”
Hunter provided a forwarded copy of that email to Broad + Liberty for authenticity, and the political action committee supporting the five Republicans says in a Facebook post that it was authorized by Kirsche to release his email.
Kirsche did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Emailed requests for comment to all five Democrat candidates were not returned. Broad + Liberty also reached out to those campaigns through their Facebook pages. Broad + Liberty further attempted to reach out to the Haring and Gibson campaigns through the phone numbers listed on their Facebook pages, but those calls went to voicemail.
“I deeply value and appreciate all our teachers and support staff and all they do every day to support our students. I believe the unions play an important role in representing their members in the district and value the working partnership between the board, unions, and administration,” Hunter said in a statement.
“While I respect the endorsement process, Republican candidates did not seek union endorsements because we believe that our district functions best when our school board represents the entire community and not the interests of one specific group,” Hunter continued. “The unsanctioned verbiage on the signs paid for and created by the Democrat School Board candidates is yet another example of actions that divide our community and take focus away from educating our children. I have a wonderful working relationship with CBEA President Joe Kirsche. I think he is a great leader and admire the position he has taken on this matter.”
Current board member Leigh Vlasblom, a member of the conservative contingent who is not up for re-election this year, shared on social media an email from the CBEA from 2019 in which the CBEA official was asking candidates if they wanted to be considered for “recommendation.”
The email notes that the CBEA would not be considering making endorsements in two regions, and both of those regions had incumbent board members that year.
To Vlasblom and Hunter, the email shows that the CBEA in years past aimed to stay out of races with incumbent members — regardless of party or ideology — because the CBEA wanted to build a working relationship with all sitting board members.
Another problem is that the sign puts the union names in small, faint print, such that the distinction that the endorsement came from the unions is meaningless. Given that the CBEA does not represent all teachers in the district, the sign will nevertheless appear to some as though each and every teacher and staffer in the district is in support of those candidates, something Kirsche positively refuted in his email.
Candidate Aarti Martino echoed the same ideas as Hunter.
“From that email, you can see that the president of the CBEA (Central Bucks Education Association, the local public school union) was working well with Mrs. Hunter and Dr. Lucabaugh and making good progress. He did not want the signs,” Martino said.
“I wish more people understood that we are not the ones causing division in our district. It is a select few activists who are turning neighbor against neighbor. And they are taking advantage of this chaos to settle a $119M lawsuit that hasn’t even gone through discovery yet and that will bankrupt our schools and our taxpayers.”
Martino is referring to an ongoing suit in which hundreds of female teachers, current and former, allege the district has paid its female teachers less than its male counterparts. A settlement of $119 million was recently floated.
Martino is the wife of Paul Martino, a venture capitalist who previously supported the conservatives, who won the majority in the 2021 elections. Martino has made significant investments in the current election as well. Their children are students in the district.
The board elections in the Central Bucks School District will be closely watched not just in the county but across the commonwealth and even in the D.C. beltway.
The district has been the center of a political maelstrom ever since a conservative majority took the reins in early 2022.
In particular, the political left in the county has waged an unceasing attack on the board, alleging it is hostile to LGBT issues. Those arguments were fueled in large part by the controversy surrounding a single teacher in the district, Andrew Burgess.
In May of 2022, the district suspended Burgess. Critics of the board said his suspension was retaliation for his support for LGBT students.
In response, the board hired the law firm Duane Morris to investigate the allegations that it was biased against LGBT students. In the final report, investigators for Duane Morris alleged Burgess had withheld information about the bullying one transgender student faced to manufacture controversy against the board.
In a more recent twist on the Burgess controversy, the conservative majority on the board has alleged that the U.S. Department of Education failed to report the abuse of a student when it was contacted by those who wanted the department to investigate the district for discrimination based on sex. Essentially, the current conservative board majority is saying Burgess’s allies told the DOE about the student abuse, which then turned a blind eye, even as Burgess was allegedly keeping the district in the dark.
Bucks County is in many ways the center of political gravity in Pennsylvania this cycle. Political insiders from both sides of the aisle are looking to this year’s election results, both in Central Bucks School District and the hotly contested county commissioner races, as harbingers of what might come in the nation’s largest swing state in 2024.
The five Republican candidates for office are incumbent Board President Dana Hunter, Dr. Stephen Mass, Tony Arjona, Glenn Schloeffel, and Aartai Martino.
Steve Sullivan, Central Bucks School Board Member Tabitha Dell’Angelo’s husband, picked up a chair and appeared to brandish it as a weapon during a tense moment at a school board meeting Tuesday evening.
Tim Daly, a speaker at the meeting, had criticized Dell’Angelo, referring to the results of his various right-to-know requests. Daly said he had proof Dell’Angelo was using her work emails at The College of New Jersey for district business and that she had reached out to the state School Boards Association to ask how to get away with leaking information.
Daly then tried to drop those papers on a chair next to Sullivan as he returned to his seat but said they accidentally flew out of his hand.
“I said, ‘Here are your wife’s emails for you to take a look at, buddy,’” Daly said.
That was when Sullivan picked up the metal folding chair and turned toward Daly but was prevented by Lela Casey, who grabbed the chair leg. Another man stopped Sullivan from walking further, and then two police officers came into the room and escorted Sullivan out.
The official video of the school board meeting does not show the incident but is focused on a list of names of the speakers.
“Oh my gosh,” someone says, and there are unintelligible voices until a board recess is announced.
Mara Witsen filmed the incident and posted it to @protectbucks on X (Twitter).
Resident Paul Martino also spoke at the meeting and witnessed the event.
“Tim Daly, in public comment, shared some harsh truths about sitting board member Tabitha Dell’Angelo. After his comments, he walked by her husband, Steve Sullivan (also campaign manager for the Democrats running in the 2023 school board election).
“There were words of some kind said, nothing too serious when Tim said something: ‘Read these, buddy.’ He threw the papers at Steve and Lela Casey, who was sitting next to him.”
Martino added, “Then he just lost it. You can see the video. He got crazed, picked up the chair, and lunged toward Tim, who walked down the aisle. The closest person to Steve was my 85-year-old dad, John Martino. Instead of backing away, John stood up immediately. Another larger and younger gentleman then escorted Steve back to his original seat.”
“There were no fists thrown,” said Martino. “I was there for the entirety, sitting next to my dad, who had the closest view of anyone.”
“They were swearing behind me while I was talking. That’s the reason I tossed (the papers) onto the chair,” said Daly. He noted the papers were flat, not rolled as reported in another publication.
“These hard-fought RTKs showed her unethical behavior,” said Daly. “I hit the nail on the head. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have responded the way he did. These people are very upset when the facts come out.” Daly said he did not swear at Sullivan, which had also been reported.
Police talked to both men afterward. Daly said he declined to file charges against Sullivan since he was not hurt.
Neither Sullivan nor Dell’Angelo responded to requests for comment. Democratic Party Chair Steve Santarsiero, also a state senator, did not respond to a request for comment. And the Democratic candidates for the school board did not answer DVJournal’s request for comment.
Some of the 17,000 Bucks County voters who received a political mailer with lewd images were shocked. The real shock for others, however, was the fact that all the lewd content came from books until recently found in a local school library.
The Stop Extremism in Central Bucks Schools PAC sent the mailer and featured a warning on the envelope that it contained graphic images. That sexually explicit content came entirely from the pages of two books that previously were in the school libraries in the Central Bucks School District.
The mailer also names five Democratic candidates for school board who oppose a new policy adopted by the Republican-controlled school board that allows parents to challenge age-inappropriate content.
So far, just two books have been deemed unsuitable for the students out of some 60 reported: “Gender Queer” and “This Book is Gay.”
Political consultant Bob Salera founded the PAC. Though currently based in Arlington, Va., Salera grew up in Pittsburgh and has been involved in Pennsylvania politics for years, including working on Dave White’s gubernatorial campaign. He told DVJournal he was approached by some Bucks County residents to get involved with the Central Bucks School Board race.
Image from “Gender Queer”
The mailing also included an application for a mail-in ballot and a postage-paid envelope.
Asked if he was concerned about a backlash from voters who opened the envelopes and saw the lewd pictures, Salerna said the message was too important not to share.
“Our thought is that parents and voters should know what these Democrat candidates want in their kids’ schools. Some of the Democratic candidates compared people who don’t think these types of images should be in middle schools to Nazi book burning,” said Salera. “So we wanted to make sure that voters were aware of exactly what it is that they’re defending, and the only way to do that is to show them.”
He noted that they pushed the Nazi smear of these school board members despite the fact that the president, Dana Hunter, is Jewish.
Chalfont parent Jamie Cohen Walker said, “I think it’s an informative mailer because the Central Bucks School Board was being called ‘book banners’ and anti-LGBTQ.”
The PAC, which Salera said has multiple donors, plans to continue its campaign against the five Democratic candidates until the election.
Salera asked why he was interested in a school board race, saying, “I think people are seeing how important local races are, school boards and local councils. (They) really impact your day-to-day life more than any other level of politics because these are the people that are dealing with your day-to-day life, with your kids’ schools.
“So it’s important to take them seriously, and when folks came to me, wanting to do something about the school board in particular, I was more than happy to start this PAC,” Salera continued. “And to help with that effort to beat these extremist Democrats at the local level.”
As for whether conservative voters will be turned off by the mailing, he said, “I certainly don’t think that receiving this is going to make them vote for the people that want to put it in their schools.”
Walker said, “If people are shocked at the pictures, they should remember that Democrats are strong advocates to keep these books in school. They will be right back on the shelves if they are elected to the board.”
As for the criticism of the mailing, Walker said, “If they want the books, I don’t understand why they are upset.”
Bob Salera, a political strategist, heads the political action committee (PAC), whose mission is to defend candidates who want to keep what they believe is inappropriate content — such as depictions of sex acts — out of public schools.
Front and center in its first email is a picture of the five Democrats running for school board: incumbent Karen Smith, Dana Foley, Suan Gibson, Heather Reynolds, and Rick Haring, along with the slogan “The Corrupt Five.” They are posed with the books “Gender Queer” and “This Book is Gay,” opened to pages that illustrate a graphic sexual act and a cartoon of a man’s genitalia, along with the caption: “Bum: Up your bum you have a prostate gland which feels nice when massaged. The anus is also sensitive and responds to being played with.”
The ACLU and others have attacked the current Republican-controlled school board for the misnomered “book banning” for enacting a policy that allows school library books to be challenged and reviewed if they have gratuitous sex, violence, or pornographic illustrations. In CBSD and other Delaware Valley districts, parents have objected to those books and others that they deem unsuitable, especially for younger children.
The Democrats, using the title “Neighbors United,” did not respond to requests for comment. The GOP candidates–Dr. Stephen Mass, Board President Dana Hunter, Glenn Schloeffel, and Tony Arjona could not be reached for comment. Aarati Martino said that she had never heard of the group.
“Everyone already knows about the disgusting agenda being promoted by the extremist Democrats running for Central Bucks School Board,” said Salera, who described the sex acts promoted in these books. “But what isn’t as widely known is their corrupt actions that have simultaneously been occurring. These morally bankrupt extremists can be assured that we will be relentless in shining a light on all of it between now and Election Day,” said Salera.
He added, “This has nothing to do with sexual orientation or sexual identity. This is about smut like this not belonging in school libraries. If The Corrupt Five think it is inappropriate to share these images on a website, then why do they think it is acceptable to share them with 11-year-old children? These are very sick people.”
Salera is well-known in GOP circles.
Before starting his firm, Salera was Dave White’s campaign manager when White ran for governor in 2022. He is a Pennsylvania native who worked for former Gov. Tom Corbett, worked on his gubernatorial campaigns, and worked on GOP presidential campaigns in Pennsylvania. He has also helped shape the NRCC’s messaging strategy as a senior communications team member in 2020 when the GOP made history by flipping 15 House seats when race prognosticators predicted the GOP would lose “dozens of seats.” Salera was also a senior NRSC communications team member when it defeated four incumbent senators (Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota, Joe Donnelly in Indiana, Bill Nelson in Florida, and Claire McCaskill in Missouri).
The battle between progressive activists and advocates for parents’ rights at Central Bucks School District will be settled at the ballot box this fall.
Both sides are fielding full slates of candidates for November’s election. The Republican primary slate is Dr. Stephen Mass, Board President Dana Hunter, Glenn Schloeffel, Aarati Martino, and Tony Arjona. The Democratic candidates are school board member Karen Smith, Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, and Susan Gibson.
A backlash to what critics call far-left policies imposed on the Central Bucks School District resulted in a Republican-controlled school board in 2021. Progressive activists immediately went on the warpath, making allegations of bullying and bigotry to discredit the Republican board.
The ACLU targeted the district, which filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) and activist groups. It was also the brunt of bad publicity as critics brought out protestors to fight alleged “book bans” and support transgender rights.
However, an exhaustive report by the prominent law firm Duane Morris found many of the allegations, including not acting against bullying of LGBTQ+ students, made by the critics turned out to be false.
Delaware Valley Journal’s previous reporting showed the controversial Policy 321, which was widely protested as a way to keep gay pride flags out of classrooms, actually kept all displays of political content, including Trump flags, out of classrooms unless they were part of the curriculum being taught. Teachers must also refrain from advocating their own political points of view to their students.
Image from “Gender Queer”
The school board also drew heat for a new policy that allows people to ask for school library books to be reviewed if they have gratuitous sex and violence or pornographic illustrations.
Mass, a Republican candidate, said, “If some of our opponents were somewhat more rational, we’d never have had the acrimony.”
He noted that his opponent, Smith, had reported the district to the DOE. The district subsequently paid $1 million in legal fees to defend itself.
Smith, who is running for her third term against Mass in Region 1, denied she filed a formal complaint against the district. Rather, she said, she emailed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona “and asked for his help.” At that point, she said the ACLU and other groups were threatening to sue the district. She claimed the Duane Morris lawyers never interviewed her. “I was doing my duty as an elected official,” said Smith.
If she is re-elected, along with others on the Democratic slate, “I would like to return the focus to academics and making positive changes for students. The last year or so, there’s been quite a lot of negative attention (to the district).”
“The board majority, their agenda, has not taken us in a positive direction,” said Smith. “I would like to return to fundamentals and away from the national culture war.”
As for allowing parents to review books, many of those books “have images that can’t be printed in the newspaper,” Mass said. He supports the steps the Republican majority board has taken to protect students.
Reportedly, two books, “Gender Queer” and “This Book is Gay,” have been reviewed and will be replaced with other books. “Gender Queer” has caused controversy in other Delaware Valley districts, where parents are dismayed at seeing graphic depictions of sexual acts.
“The majority of people, Democrat or Republican, would be shocked” to see what’s in these books, Mass said. And “This Book Is Gay” describes itself as a “how-to” book for having sex, including illustrations depicting explicit nudity and sexual activities.
Smith said part of the complaint by the ACLU was regarding the board’s library book policy, which she had no part in.
“Obviously, I’m happy to make a change there,’ said Smith.
“The elephant in the room is kids aren’t reading,” said Mass. “They’re not reading anything challenging.” That is an issue the district needs to focus on.
As for the primary, “It’s the warm-up for the general election,” he said. The slate of Republican candidates will “concentrate on getting our message out.”
Martino said, “I am honored and excited to be the Republican candidate for Central Bucks School Board. When campaigning, I enjoy talking to many of my fellow citizens and making new friends in our community. It is also clear that I have to set the record straight with many of my fellow neighbors.”
Rick Haring, her opponent in Region 6, did not respond to the DVJournal’s request for an interview.
His website states that if elected, he will “fight “to prevent book bans on material with literary merit” and sup” ort LGBTQ+ students.
Not so long ago, school board elections were sleepy affairs. Candidates cross-filed. And the meetings themselves were snoozers.
But with the advent of COVID-19 lockdowns, parents noticed the curriculum being taught to their children and grew alarmed. Many ran for school board seats and won.
In the Central Bucks School District, when Republicans won control of the board in 2021, the angry reaction from a group of activists was a constant drumbeat of negativity, reinforced by a barrage of negative press. The 2023 school board election may prove a referendum on the district’s new direction and a harbinger for 2024.
The writing is in some ways already on the wall. An investigation last month by Duane Morris, a top legal firm led by former U.S. Attorneys, showed that partisan complaints had been brought against the district leading to an ACLU filing with the Department of Education. And board Vice President Karen Smith had filed a separate complaint with the DOE without mentioning it to fellow board members.
Board President Dana Hunter and newcomers Aarati Martino, Dr. Stephen Mass, Glenn Schloeffel, and Tony Arjona are the Republicans running.
Mass said, “It sounds like The Inquirer is so happy with the results the schools in its own backyard are getting that they decided to offer us advice out in the suburbs.
“What’s really amazing about their editorial is what they don’t state: They offer absolutely no rebuttal of the facts in the report. If the report is misleading, please let us know what facts are inaccurate. They do not seem to contest any fact in the report. Also, The Inquirer loves to talk about books being limited in our libraries. I would like them to publish some of the controversial graphic images. Let them run them on their editorial page so that the readers can decide. But wait, they can’t do that because the pictures are obscene. They’re OK for our 12-year-old students, but not for the readers of The Inquirer?”
Paul Martino, the venture capitalist who funded slates of conservative school board candidates around the state in 2021, said, “The Philadelphia Inquirer today wrote an endorsement for Central Bucks School Board primary. The primary! If you don’t think school boards matter, this is your evidence. Naturally, they back the wrong candidates, including Karen Smith, who was exposed as the person who ran to the office of civil rights without informing the rest of the board.”
In an interview with DVJournal, Mass emphasized that he can be calm and defuse emotional situations as a surgeon.
He said the COVID era was a wake-up call.
“I was really amazed by the depths of learning loss and the mental health issues that came with COVID and the lockdowns,” said Mass. “No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, everyone agreed the lockdowns were really horrendous on their kids.”
And as for the criticism of the board’s rule to ban political flags from classrooms, Mass said, “You think that was a good idea. I don’t think kids should know what party their teacher belongs to or how they’re voting.”
And while the board was accused of banning books, “the policy is pretty narrow.”
“It’s pretty much a commonsense thing,” he said. “I don’t think very many parents want their children to see porn, seeing images which are inappropriate, age-inappropriate.”
Mass thinks many challenged books should stay, but a few “bad apples” should go.
“The bigger scandal is that kids, generally, aren’t reading. Every teacher has told me they don’t have the concentration span,” he said. And depression and mental illness have increased, especially for girls.
But people, including board members, just kept yelling, he said.
“The person I’m trying to replace (Smith) is someone who’s been sort of an epicenter of a lot of bad will,” said Mass. “Not only reporting our district to the Feds but a lot of (her) remarks, a lot of acrimony and name-calling, calling other board members’ Nazis,’ it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost irreparable damage. It’s going to be hard to move forward unless we change this position.”
Aarati Martino said, “It is very sad that the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer has been taken in by these political arsonists. It is true that we have had drama after drama after the 2021 election, but it has been manufactured by a small minority of activists that want to besmirch our district so that they can obtain control of our kids. If you notice, it is the same group and the same names. I do not doubt that these kids have been mistreated; we should help them. But overall, our district has a lower-than-average rate of bullying.
“We have 18,000 kids in the district, and according to the CDC, at least 25 percent of students are not straight. This means we probably have about 1,500 high school-aged LGBTQ kids in the system. But so far, only seven detailed cases of mistreatment in the ACLU complaint, so 0.4 percent of all LBGTQ kids in our area. Also, remember that the original complaint filed by (teacher Anthony) Burgess to the Department of Education was dropped.
“We’ve hashed this drama over and over again for months now,” she said. “It has only led to more angst in our district, pitting neighbor against neighbor. Let’s get back to investing in our kids and ignore this rancor. The kids are the reason we all moved here in the first place, right? Let’s start talking to each other and appreciate the diverse viewpoints in our community instead of bringing in the Feds like Ms. Smith elected to do. Let’s stop paying attention to the media and their fiery clickbait headlines that gain clicks at the expense of destroying our community bonds and our schools’ reputations.
“I do agree with the editorial that ‘public education is about accepting and educating everyone.’ Let’s get off social media and start talking to each other as regular people again. Let’s set a better example for our kids.”
Neither Smith nor Haring, who are running against Aarati Martino and Mass, responded to requests for comment.
Claims that the Central Bucks School Board has engaged in discrimination against LGBTQ+ students are unfounded and based on false claims made by partisan activists, a new report released Thursday says.
The district has been embroiled in controversy since the ACLU filed a complaint against it with the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) in November.
The investigation by the Duane Morris law firm is based on a review of 23,000 pages of documents examining complaints from the ACLU and the DOE. According to Duane Morris attorney Michael Rinaldi, the firm interviewed 45 people, including principals, staff, and community members.
“The ACLU complaint has hung over this district for months now,” school board President Dana Hunter said at Thursday’s meeting. “And this board took those allegations very seriously, which is why we engaged Duane Morris to do an independent investigation.”
Among its findings, the attorneys recommended that middle school teacher Andrew Burgess be suspended without pay. Burgess allegedly told vulnerable LGBTQ+ students who sought his help to refrain from telling the principal or guidance counselors about bullying issues. Instead, Burgess allegedly created a dossier to send to DOE.
He reportedly discouraged a parent from talking to the principal, saying the principal would not act.
Burgess planned to use those students’ problems to chip away at the Republican majority school board through a planned media campaign, Rinaldi said.
Paul Martino, a parent and conservative donor whose Back to School PAC helped flip the board in 2021, called the board’s criticisms “a coordinated effort that was launched the day they lost the campaign.”
“What this report shows clearly is that the leftists in Bucks County were so mad that they lost that they were going to lie and manufacture stories so that they could get back into power in two years.
“We have all suffered because of the strategy they launched over their kitchen tables the day they lost that election in November (2021). They’re bad actors. This report makes it clear,” said Martino.
The lawyers interviewed Burgess, the middle school teacher, under oath. Rinaldi said the firm created a timeline from his emails and interviews showing Burgess’ actions.
Several of Burgess’s emails to other teachers praised Principal Geanine Saullo’s quick actions in bullying cases, belying what he told the LGBTQ+ students and the parent.
Burgess himself did not respond when asked to comment on Friday. Witold Walczak, legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, answered in his stead, calling the investigation “worthless.”
“A credible investigation would not have hired people who have an obvious bias against the trans and non-binary students who complained,” Walczak said.
“Credible interviewers would not have told witnesses that the district’s recent homophobic policies were legal and reasonable, or they would not have argued over that point with the witnesses.”
Rinaldi, in the report, also revealed that Democrat School Board Member Karen Smith had written an email to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona complaining about the district and asking for help after the Republican majority passed policies that she disagreed with. The review found that Smith never told the board or administration that she had complained to DOE.
During the meeting, Smith herself complained she had not had time to read the 151-page report the law firm had produced and that even though students’ names were redacted, the facts reported could identify them.
Rinaldi also addressed claims the district was engaged in so-called “book banning,” an accusation he said was not supported by the facts.
“No book has been removed, and any removal decision will be made by professionals based on neutral, educational criteria,” Rinaldi said. “Books don’t spontaneously appear on the shelves.”
Reacting to the report, vice president Leigh Vlasblom said: “I have a board member who lied to the federal government and, in doing so, has cost this district $1 million. I would have paid $10 million to protect my children and protect my staff.
“If you come at my teachers, or you come at my administrators, or you come at my children, you’d better bet there is no price tag too big to protect them,” added Vlasblom. “So, I’m angry.”
Hunter told radio host and DVJournal columnist Dom Giordano Friday that the findings in the report are supported by “a lot of documents.”
“Everybody wonders why did the district go to these lengths?” Hunter said. “We had to go to these lengths. I believed, and I still believe, and we got the proof last night that the administrators and staff in this district care deeply for every child.”
Once Smith’s allegations went to the DOE, Hunter argued, “We had an obligation to look into those allegations and make sure our children were being properly cared for, and make sure the administrators and our staff are defended properly.”
After the Thursday meeting, parent Jamie Walker said, “Honestly, nothing that Karen Smith does shocks me. She worked very hard to keep kids out of school during COVID. She sent a doctor’s email full of incorrect information and lies about (Bucks County Health Director) Dr. (David) Damsker to our previous board and administration. She continually voted against kids being normal in school.”
Walker added, “It’s really scary that a teacher (who works at my kids’ school) would hide bullying from the administration to seek fame and hurt a school board.”