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.