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Will the Contentious Central Bucks School Board Race Foreshadow ’24?

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.

Smith, a Democrat, is running seeking a third term. The other Democratic candidates who garnered the endorsement of The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial board are Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, and Susan Gibson. A recent Broad + Liberty editorial highlighted the blatant media bias from The Inquirer and WHYY in their coverage of the Central Bucks School Board.

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.

BARNHART: For Central Bucks, Age Appropriate Standards Are Not a Book Ban

Sadly, the Central Bucks School District’s library policy continues to be mischaracterized by many as a “book ban” that discriminates against LGBTQ+ authors and people of color. Likewise, a handful of media outlets continue to publish articles that propagate the same harmful and misinformed narrative, further dividing the community and villainizing the school board majority.

The reason behind these false allegations is puzzling, as the policy is entirely neutral regarding sexual orientation and gender identity issues and treats explicit content equally regardless of whether the sexually explicit depictions happen to be between straight, gay, or transgender persons.

The board and superintendent have tried to set the record straight several times, but it doesn’t seem to correct the deceptive rhetoric. Board President Dana Hunter and Supt. Abe Lucabaugh clearly stated that the intention of the library policy is to “prioritize materials that support and enrich curriculum and students’ personal interests and learning” and to provide standards for age-appropriate materials.

The policy also states, “district libraries must comply with the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) as specified in 47 U.S.C. §254(h)(5), including technology protection measures, and all state and federal laws relating to the prohibition on pornographic and other harmful materials for minors.”

Seems reasonable for our libraries to abide by the law, right?

It is interesting that a book containing graphic sexual content is seen as appropriate for a school library. Yet, if you post images from that very same book on Facebook, your account gets locked for “violation of Facebook’s community guidelines.” That happened to a Central Bucks parent.

To provide some history, before the last school board election, parents discovered numerous sexually explicit books in Central Bucks schools. But they found they had no recourse. The library policy had been archived. It was clear that Central Bucks needed a new one. The new policy resurrected a book challenge process, providing parents with the option to challenge books they deemed inappropriate for students.

Shannon Harris, a concerned Central Bucks parent, recently explained that “more than 60 challenge requests were submitted to the district to date. The administrative regulations allow for 60 days to review the books being challenged.” Harris also stated all 60-plus books being challenged were due to sexually explicit content. Harris explained the book challenges would be reviewed by committees of Central Bucks staff members, who will read the challenged books and present their findings within 60 days.

This process is anything but a book ban. It is the best of both worlds. It provides a balance between upholding parental rights and trusting in the professionalism of an educated staff to weigh in on the decision-making. It seems measured and cautious. It gives parents a voice and provides enough time for school staff to form an opinion.

Parents across the district remain grateful that the school board majority honored their campaign promise to defend and uphold parental rights. They listened to concerned parents about the lack of standards regarding sexually graphic content in elementary and secondary libraries, and thankfully, the school board majority is doing something about it.”

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Upper Darby Administrator Vince Rongione Steps down, Ending Months of Controversy

This article first appeared in Broad & Liberty.


Despite tenaciously clinging to power in a months-long saga of accusations, financial investigations, firings, and legal maneuvers, Upper Darby administrator Vincent Rongione stepped down Wednesday from his position as the township’s chief administrative officer — but he says the motivations were personal, not political.

Rongione confirmed his exit to Broad + Liberty Wednesday afternoon, saying, “Everything in life is timing.”

“We had three very successful, very productive, hard years with the administration, and I’m very fortunate. [My wife and I] just had our second baby and I decided the time was right to focus on my family and spend some time on that,” Rongione explained.

An email from Mayor Barbarann Keffer to township employees announcing Rongione’s departure said, “Vince helped us build an incredible team, modernize many government operations, and make historic investments in our municipality all under the impossible and unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic and a generational transition in the government.”

Rongione declined to comment when asked to describe any benefits package or severance package he may have received on his way out.

Rongione has been the center of a political storm in the township that first erupted last February, when the township treasurer made a presentation to the township council alleging that the balance of some bank accounts were lower than they should have been, given that one of those accounts in particular housed the funds the township received from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA.

At that moment, the township council cleaved into two factions that would remain steadfast in the following months. A group of five Democrats solidified behind Rongione and Mayor Barbarann Keffer while a bipartisan group of six — three Republicans and three Democrats — demanded more financial transparency before they would agree to approve any spending of the ARPA monies.

The rest of the year was consumed with financial investigations, one launched by the mayor, the other launched by the group of six. The group of six also voted to fire Rongione on multiple occasions, but were sometimes stymied in those efforts by legal uncertainties and technicalities.

In July, Rongione sued the township council, arguing the group of six had conspired against him. His suit asked for an award for damages of no less than $50,000.

As to the question of whether the township council had the authority to fire Rongione, the group of six took that matter to court, asking for a bench ruling affirming that the council had that authority to take the action under the township’s home rule charter. The case fell to Delaware County Court of Common Pleas Judge Angelos Spiros, who earlier dismissed one of the council’s efforts to fire Rongione because the council had not met all of the particulars of the Pennsylvania Sunshine Law. But the council pressed the judge for a ruling on the sole matter of whether it possessed authority to fire him.

Council President Brian Burke said he expected the subsequent ruling to be delivered anytime.

“I do know that Judge Angelos, as of two weeks ago, was going to come down with a decision by the end of the month,” Burke told Broad + Liberty.

“I don’t know if [Rongione] knew that. They [the court] weren’t waiting till March 13. So I kind of find it odd that he’s resigning two days before the end of the month,” Burke added.

Rongione said Burke’s theory, the idea that a ruling was eminent, was “not a factor.”

“The matter was scheduled for the March term so I wouldn’t imagine a ruling anytime soon and our case remains incredibly strong on the law,” Rongione said.

In a Facebook post, CBS 3 reporter Joe Holden noted Rongione’s tenure was marked by controversy, in part because of the station’s reporting.

“That includes reporting by CBS3 over questions of delivery of services and management of personnel during the pandemic (trash collection delays for weeks), the fallout over attempted politicization of the township’s beloved and long-running summer theater program and questions about federal Covid-19 funds allocation.”

Broad + Liberty also reported in May that Upper Darby’s former finance director, Gary Merron, said he had been cooperating with an investigation into Rongione led by the Delaware County district attorney’s office. When asked on Tuesday, Rongione said he had no indication of any such thing. No charges have ever been announced.

Mayor Keffer responded to several questions by providing a copy of a press release.

Requests for comment to the five Democrats on council who supported Rongione were not immediately returned.

In State College, a Failed Racial Justice Center Creates Tension at PA’s Biggest University

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, Pennsylvania State University announced the creation of a new Center for Racial Justice.

The university called it “part of ongoing efforts to address the challenges of racism, racial bias, and community safety that persist in our nation.” The center was set to advance the work of fighting racial inequalities on campus and academic work around racial biases.

But just a year after its announcement, PSU scrapped it.

What came next was outrage from students and faculty who advocated for the center’s creation. A campus protest campus quickly followed the decision, and 400 faculty members signed a letter criticizing the move.

“The decision to no longer proceed with funding for the Center for Racial Justice was certainly a shock to many,” PSU student body president Sydney Gibbard said. “This decision certainly felt like a step in the wrong direction.”

Gibbard said there was a lot of hope among students when the university’s new president, Neeli Bendapudi, the first female and person of color to hold the position, was announced and that there had been improvements in race relations and equity at the school.

Bendapudi explained in a press release announcing the decision she viewed it as more important to invest in already-existing efforts to make PSU more equal, like improving graduation rate gaps and diversifying the faculty, rather than in a new venture.

But Breslin Toles, who chairs the Justice and Equity Committee within PSU’s student government, said she doesn’t believe that argument is sufficient. “I get the point of monetary restrictions, but Penn State is a school that has repeatedly let down students of color. When a promise is made to those students it should be done in complete confidence that the promised act is obtainable.”

Both Toles and Gibbard said the announcement came during an already tough period for the university when an event that featured a founder of the far-right Proud Boys group led to a protest against his presence on campus that turned violent. The event was eventually canceled.

Following the center’s cancellation and uproar, Bendapudi hosted a town hall detailing the other ways she is working to improve equity on campus. She also hinted she would entertain conversations this year about reigniting the development of a Center for Racial Justice or something similar to it.

Toles and Gibbard were both pleased with the efforts by the president to reach out to the community. However, Gibbard said to gain more trust among students Bendapudi needs to say more about her plans.

“One of Dr. Bendapudi’s goals is the retention of students of color, and she has been challenged to not just have that as a goal,” she said, “but to clearly outline the metrics she hopes to achieve over a very specific timeline.”

That looks like detailing the steps she plans to achieve the goal and who will be included in making decisions surrounding it, Gibbard said.

Toles believes that Bendapudi is genuine with her goals, but doubts how familiar the administration is with how to develop policies to actually achieve them. What she is certain about is that PSU could be doing better.

And Toles hopes that now is the moment when PSU can start making improvements to make the campus in her eyes more welcoming for students of color.

“I am certainly disheartened at the center being cut, but I think this offers Penn State an opportunity to reassess, listen to students and work with us on a campus that will be better for all.”

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McSwain’s Criticism of WCASD ‘Gender-Sexuality’ School Club Sparks Backlash

When Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain called out a student Gender-Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club at Fugett Middle School as “leftist political indoctrination,” it sparked a reaction from both sides of the gender-identity debate.

McSwain saw a poster for the club, which meets during school hours while visiting the West Chester Area School District school and he blasted it on Facebook. He later deleted the post.

“Whether it is the hateful and racist critical race theory or the ‘deep social change related to racial, gender, and educational justice,’ training promoted by the GSA network, it is inappropriate for public schools to encourage the progressive social justice agenda,” said Rachel Tripp, McSwain’s campaign spokeswoman. “As governor, Bill McSwain will protect parents’ right to have their children educated free from political indoctrination of any sort, and will end the liberal brainwashing of children in Pennsylvania public schools.”

Some parents were unhappy with how McSwain handled the situation.

“I immediately was like — what is ‘this’? The lives of kids? Places where they can be themselves?” Steph Anderson, whose daughter is part of the club, told The Inquirer. “These are grown adults, these are politicians … who are attacking kids.” She said her daughter learned about the posts while at school and came home “really frustrated and concerned.”

One party activist who asked that his name not be used said, “Even though (McSwain) says he stands by his comments, he seemed to cave in the face of opposition from parents going after him on Facebook.”

Tripp said the message needed to be given in a different way where “liberal trolls” would not be able to mischaracterize it. She pointed out that a recent bill in Florida keeping sexual material out of kindergarten through third-grade classrooms was completely twisted on social media to become controversial when it should not be.

“It’s not about backing down,” she said. Tripp said that parents deserve a school where “children are not indoctrinated.”

Many parents have been complaining about the schools teaching children Critical Race Theory and other Marxist-inspired ideas. McSwain promises if he is elected governor he would root out such dogma.

Anita Edgarian, a WCASD parent said, “It is not acceptable if these clubs are meeting during school hours. This is an extra curriculum activity and should not take time from the education time.”

“We need leaders who will take all sorts of propaganda out of the schools and concentrate on education. Our kids suffered plenty with school shutdowns and lack of online learning,” she said.

Meanwhile, a Chester County resident also saw the GSA poster and alerted the Delaware Valley Journal.

From the GSA website

“I did some research on the GSA and was stunned with what I saw. I then sent the following email to Superintendent Bob Sokolowski and Equity Director Dawn Mader,” he said. He was also concerned that the GSA club met during school hours. And when he checked out the GSA website he saw posters with Marxist imagery with “the clenched fist is a symbol that originated during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and continued to be used in propaganda posters during the Soviet era.”

He also cited the GSA club’s platform:

“We, the National TRUTH Council of 2017-18, draft this document in the radical tradition of creating manifests in order to define our revolution and achieve liberation. The manifesto was inspired by and builds upon the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program, the Young Lord’s 12 Point Program and Platform, and the Third World Gay Revolution.

“We demand abolition! Abolition of the police, abolition of borders and ICE, abolition of the current punishment-based justice system. We demand for our communities to be empowered to take care of themselves, for no borders, for rehabilitation and healing justice. Abolition is a process that we are committed to fight for.

“We Call for an End of the Cisgender Heterosexual Patriarchy.

“We recognize that the current state of the world centralizes the stories of White cisgender heterosexual men. We call for the end of a social structure that separates or determines the value of people on gender expectations from historical Europe. We demand that queer and/or TGNC people no longer be oppressed by these frameworks, institutions, and their enablers.

“We Call for an end to global white supremacy.

“We call for the end of this racist system that profits off of the devaluing of Black people, Indigenous people, and all other people of color. We believe in exposing the history of global white supremacy and its discriminatory practices.”

The resident concluded his letter by saying, “All of this brings me to one overarching question: Why are regular school hours being provided for a Marxist-inspired, anti-capitalist, and anti-American group, with a manifesto that contains revolutionary language and expresses hostility for the police, American capitalism, and straight White people?”

However, Molly Schwemler, a spokesperson for the school district said the local club is not part of the larger group.

“While the GSA club at Fugett Middle School is a student-run club that offers a space for LGBTQ+ and allied youth, it is not affiliated or registered as a club within the larger organization of a similar name, the GSA Network,” she said.

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Radnor Ditches Mask Mandate

The Centers for Disease Control on Friday lifted mask mandates across the country, depending on factors such as the number of cases in an area.

But Radnor parents were way ahead of them. Many came to a school board meeting last week to demand the mask requirements be lifted.  After a lengthy meeting the board agreed.

Many residents cited recent graphs to build their case for moving to an optional masking policy in schools.

“The final graph compares the Radnor School infection rates under the mask mandate to four other school districts that are mask optional. The curves are practically identical. I don’t see a correlation between mask-wearing and transmission rate. The scientific evidence that masking is doing any significant amount of good is disappearing,” one woman said to applause.

While the debate over how best to respond to the pandemic is framed as political, Radnor citizens had little to say about politics on Monday night. “…I think that our children have endured the most. These moments are real for them. What’s becoming a normal life for them is not what any of us know as normal,” said Dave Falcone, a parent and former school board member.

A few children and teenagers voiced their thoughts. Still submitted written testimony on the matter. Student Cackie Martin asked, “Do you know how much less frequently students participate… when they have to raise their voice to the level of a yell just to be heard by teachers in their plexiglass cage? Tonight I stand here begging you for oxygen for my classmates and I and I’m just begging to see a friendly smile in the hallways of the high school,” she concluded to a standing ovation.

Many speakers took a strictly scientific approach. Resident Chris Vail cited a variety of studies, including ones from the CDC, WHO, Annals of Internal Medicine, and PLOS1 in his argument for a mask-optional policy. “The fact is we spent two years arguing about whether or not we were following the science— and the science for face masks has never been there. It’s time we stop the madness, we admit that we were wrong, we admit our mistakes and we let the kids breathe freely, finally. As they deserve.”

Christina Heinzer summarized 65 studies that all concluded masks have damaging health consequences. She enumerated the side effects that could be linked to mask use from increases in blood carbon dioxide, heart and respiratory rates to decreases in cardiopulmonary capacity, heart issues, exhaustion, as well as emotional issues, headaches, and dental issues.

While many of the evening’s speakers were sympathetic to how difficult these safety decisions can be for commissioners, none spoke in favor of a mandatory mask policy. Even the commissioners lamented how challenging it had been to preside over the previous decisions made on the matter.

“We don’t take this lightly. This has been the most daunting thing I will ever do in my life— and I raised three children,” said School Board President Susan Stern. In a unanimous vote, the board decided to move the district into a mask-optional phase.


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West Chester Area School District Promises Policy Review After Political Survey Distributed Schoolwide

The West Chester Area School District on Monday said it would review its policies after controversy arose about a schoolwide survey in which high school students were asked about the politics and news-consumption habits of their homelife.

“WCASD is aware of questions regarding a high school student’s survey,” the district said in an email to Broad + Liberty from its communication director as well as in a Twitter thread.

“The survey being shared was created as part of a student’s advanced placement project and intended only to assist with the student’s research. All AP surveys are completely voluntary and anonymous. Once District administration became aware of concerns due to the political nature of the survey, it was reviewed, taken down, and any previously recorded responses were deleted. WCASD is examining its procedures regarding the distribution of surveys to students and taking necessary steps to ensure that future student research projects and distribution occur in a fashion consistent with Board policy.”

The promise for a policy review comes after Broad + Liberty published a story Friday afternoon about the survey which had become a controversy in social media in previous days.

The survey asked students at Bayard Rustin High School how their parents were believed to have voted in the last election, as well as what sources of news the student’s parents relied on the most. Students were asked whether their parents were liberal (“believe in…equality) or conservative (“resists change”).

After the original story, Broad + Liberty also obtained a screenshot copy of an email allegedly sent by the school principal that distributed the survey to all students at Bayard Rustin. The district, however, did not directly confirm or deny the provenance of the email when asked, and instead only produced the above statement.

That email asked students to complete the survey, mentioned that it was in support of a student Advanced Placement Capstone project, but did not specifically inform students that they could opt out.

One person who responded on Twitter to the district’s statement suggested that a review of the survey is first needed, at a minimum.

“Any true (as defined by the HHS 45 CFR 46) research conducted with humans as participants should go through an Institutional Review Board, does the district have one, or an IRB they utilize?”

Other instances show that districts often go to significant lengths to notify parents of when students will be surveyed.

For example, the Penns Manor district in Indiana County sent out a press release to news outlets in late January to let parents know a questionnaire would be distributed asking students “how they feel about themselves as a learner and how they feel about school.”

The press release also provided contact information for parents with concerns or questions to reach out to the district.

Screenshots of the survey in WCASD reportedly first were circulated on Facebook, a claim which Broad + Liberty has yet to confirm.

But other screenshots were circulated on Twitter by the account “Libs of Tik Tok” which has more than 545,000 followers. That tweet was sent on Thursday, two days after the survey was distributed.



That tweet from LibsofTikTok had already racked up thousands of likes and retweets by the time Broad + Liberty published on Friday.

This article fire appeared in Broad and Liberty.