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When Lela Casey decided to speak up at a school board meeting of Pennsylvania’s Central Bucks School District in September, she was still troubled by an incident that had happened at a similar meeting in March. The mother of three who grew up in northeast Pennsylvania was sitting in the audience of about 50 or so when she saw a man lean forward in his chair, revealing a concealed firearm. He had apparently used an alias based on a Marvel vigilante character known as the Punisher to sign up to make a public comment.

For several minutes the man decried supposed “child pornography” content in school libraries and commended the school board Republican majority for championing a controversial measure known as policy 109.2 that was passed last year to purge books deemed inappropriate. “I would suggest you take your colleagues to a steak dinner,” he told the three outnumbered Democrats on the board, “because they kept you out of prison.” After he wrapped up, Tabitha Dell’Angelo, one of the Democrat board members, asked: “Can we clear up once and for all whether public commenters need to give their actual names?”

The day after that March meeting, Casey emailed the nine Central Bucks school board members and Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh about the “alarming” situation she had witnessed. She says she never received a response. Instead, Casey says her email was shared on social media, which then resulted in accusations of having lied about what she saw, and a cease-and-desist letter from the man’s lawyer threatening legal action. 

Following a review, the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office didn’t file charges, but recommended that the school district posted disclaimers on social media and in buildings that carrying a firearm on school grounds was unlawful. Doylestown Township Police Chief Dean Logan wrote a school district administrator that he would personally warn the man, who denied having a gun but was subsequently barred from future school board meetings, that “any further violations will result in criminal charges.”

Fast forward to September. Casey decided to address the board majority about the March incident. “I know we have major differences, but you are still public servants with the responsibility to protect this community as much as possible, including the people you disagree with,” Casey passionately said. “You didn’t protect me.” She has felt on edge ever since. “It doesn’t feel very safe right now,” Casey told me recently. Lucabaugh and the board President Dana Hunter have disputed Casey’s claims that they failed to act on safety concerns. 

Towards the end of that same September meeting, a speaker who introduced himself as a representative from CBSD Back on Track, a group supporting Republican school board candidates, dismissed Casey’s statement as an “Oscar-winning speech,” before firing vague accusations at Dell’Angelo for supposedly communicating with advocates about “policy interpretation.” As he returned to his seat, he allegedly threw papers in someone’s direction, prompting Dell’Angelo’s husband to stand up and lift a folding chair off the ground in a threatening way. Security intervened, and the board president adjourned the meeting. The next month, Hunter read from an “expectation of conduct” statement, written with the police department: “Verbal outbursts, physical confrontations, and any other disruptive behaviors which rise to the level of criminal conduct will not be tolerated.”

Tensions are running high in Central Bucks ahead of the school board elections on November 7. Ten candidates are running for five seats, with two incumbents—one Republican and one Democrat—vying for re-election. Central Bucks Forward, the Republican slate, trumpets a “parental rights” and “academics over activism” platform, while the Democrat’s group, CBSD Neighbors United, whose motto is #SaveCBSD, opposes “book banning,” “anti-LGBTQA policies,” and “‘culture war’ politics.” They vow to “take back our district from the firm grip of the far-right partisan politics.” 

It’s been two years since a victorious race for Republican candidates connected to the “parental rights” juggernaut Moms for Liberty, an election that resulted in a 6-3 Republican majority on the school board. Democrats now see an opening—and feel the urgency—to take back the prized district in a purple county in a key presidential battleground state. The Central Bucks race, which has generated more than $600,000 in fundraising, is one of a handful of school board elections to watch this year, according to the nonpartisan online “Encyclopedia of American Politics” Ballotpedia.

“Central Buck is really something different now,” Bill Pezza, who teaches history and government at Bucks County Community College, says. It “seems to be out of sync with the general voting trends of moderation in the county in other races.” The November school board election, he adds, “is going to be a bellwether on where we’re going and whether there’s a backlash or an affirmation” of the status quo.

In the past three years, contentious disputes about race and gender, personal attacks, calls for resignation, and even paper-throwing-chair-winging altercations seem to have become regular occurrences at Central Bucks’ school board meetings. Once a source of pride, the 18,000-student school district sends almost 90 percent of graduating high schoolers to colleges and universities and is home to some of the best high schools in Pennsylvania. But it is now a cautionary tale—in the state and beyond—for what can happen when outside money and national extremist politics seep into local school board elections with effects that drastically change the social dynamics of a community. 

But how did the state’s fourth largest school district in the affluent and diversifying suburbs of Philadelphia, with a median family income of $124,000, emerge as a prominent battlefield in the culture wars? It started in early 2020 when in once-sleepy school board meetings all over the country the Covid-19 pandemic triggered heated disagreements over how and when to return to in-person schooling and whether or not kids should wear masks. 

“We shouldn’t be surprised that [this is taking place] in purple districts, in particular traditionally well-educated conservative suburban areas that saw a reaction to Donald Trump and have trended more Democratic and less Republican since 2016,” says Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh who has been monitoring school board races. “These are places where people have genuinely very heartfelt and divided views.” 

High school student Leo Burchell speaks at the Central Bucks school board meeting.

Ryan Collerd/AP

In Central Bucks, groups like ReOpen Bucks (now called Protect Bucks) and Parents Have the Right to Know aggressively pushed for the reopening of schools. Some activist parents equated masking to child abuse and evoked George Floyd’s final words of “I Can’t Breathe” when opposing the mandates. Active members of a Facebook group for the local Bucks County branch of Moms for Liberty, which has found receptive communities in a state that now trails behind only Florida in the number of chapters, grew increasingly vocal at board meetings.

“The treatment of our children during this pandemic has been eye-opening to the deception and lies perpetrated by the people in this room,” Debra Cannon, a Warrington parent who was a member of the Moms for Liberty Bucks County Facebook group, told the board in a trembling voice in May 2021. “Along with your collusion with unions, communist activists, private physicians, organizations that push an agenda for political and financial gain to steer their ideologies about sexuality, and to instill fear and compliance into our children’s minds.” She continued, “Right now, as we speak, there are demonic adults recruiting, brainwashing, and participating in unconscionable behaviors with children, and every one of you knows it.”

That summer, community members advocating for stricter Covid mitigation measures held a press conference ahead of a board meeting that quickly became combative. Parent and local pediatric infectious disease specialist Anusha Viswanathan wrote in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that parents were called “murderer, Hitler, and illegal aliens” and “told to die.” One protester carrying a “Masks Save Lives” sign was caught on camera hitting a woman on the head with it. 

About a month later, John Gamble, the vice president and a recurring holdout vote in the evenly divided board, announced his resignation after 12 years claiming he and his family had received death threats over his votes on a mask mandate. “I’m done with the hostility,” he said, “I’m done with your bullying, the shameful behavior, the politics, and the threats.” By late fall of 2021, the Central Bucks school board meetings “had become the site of a twice-a-month scene that even the most outrageous writer on Parks and Recreation couldn’t dream up,” Philadelphia Magazine declared

With five school board seats up for grabs at the time, Central Bucks also attracted national attention. The New York Times dedicated two episodes of the Daily podcast to the “School Board Wars” in the district. Meanwhile, big money was pouring into school board races across Pennsylvania, $500,000 of which came from Paul Martino, a Doylestown venture capitalist co-founder of the Bay Area-based Bullpen Capital and self-described “hardcore Republican.” 

Martino funneled thousands of dollars to as many as 50 different smaller PACs across the state supporting candidates who opposed school closures through the Back to School PA PAC, which he branded as single-issue and nonpartisan. Most school board contenders who benefited from his investments turned out to be Republicans and, in some cases, espoused conservative culture war agendas far beyond reopening schools. 

He also gave at least $100,000 to his other PAC, Bucks Families for Leadership, which funded a slate of Republican school board candidates in Central Bucks. Among them were two local parents from the Moms for Liberty Bucks County Facebook group—Cannon and Lisa Sciscio. Along with another Republican contender, Jim Pepper, they were endorsed by the Proud American Patriots Network, a local group with ties to the national Three Percenters anti-government militia movement. 

That November, Cannon, Sciscio, and Pepper won their races and secured a 6-3 Republican majority on the school board. After the election, the national Moms for Liberty organization congratulated its 1,200-member Bucks County chapter for the 33 school board seats won in the county by “parental rights” champions. “Folks, we ARE turning the ship around,” the group wrote.

Karen Smith, a Central Bucks school board member since 2016, was a registered Republican for most of her life. While she didn’t agree with some of the most socially conservative positions—opposition to same-sex marriage, for instance, or the support for school vouchers—she did believe in small government. Now an incumbent Democrat on the board, Smith says her turning point happened in the spring of 2021. An elementary school counselor had submitted a request to attend a $1,000 professional development training about inclusivity for transgender and gender non-conforming students. Smith voted in favor but was in the minority of a 5-4 school board vote denying it.

Within days, a GoFundMe page raised more than $5,000 to cover the cost, and the board faced a wave of criticism about the “chilling and harmful message” its vote had sent. In response, the board reversed its decision and approved the training, but by then, Smith was pushed over the edge. The vote was “a bigoted decision.” Smith says, “They don’t want our staff to learn how to work with transgender students?…I was blown away.”

Smith has had a front-row seat to the tectonic shifts shaking Central Bucks. Not long after the new board took over, several parents showed up at a March 2022 school board meeting to read excerpts from books they considered objectionable, including some of Moms for Liberty and other culture warriors’ favorite targets: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the graphic memoir Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, and George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue. One speaker suggested people should consult a list of “sexually explicit” books on the website of WokePA, a self-described “parents against grooming” group. Yet another compared books to “indoctrination” before saying, “If you are gay, straight, that’s fine. You’re allowed to be. But not in the Central Bucks School District.”

The condemnation of school materials was soon followed by signs that changes were coming. In the spring of 2022, a middle school principal in the district told teachers to remove pride flags from classrooms. Another principal directed middle school teachers to use students’ pronouns as they appeared on the school’s database for year-end awards and certificates unless a parent formally requested a change.

Then, Andrew Burgess, a Lenape Middle School eighth-grade social studies teacher and advocate for LGBTQ students was very publicly suspended from his job. A lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania claims the district retaliated against Burgess, including by transferring him to a different school, for filing a complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of a transgender student who had experienced repeated bullying incidents that had gone unaddressed. District administrators denied having singled out Burgess because of his advocacy, but the hostile environment for LGBQT students in Central Bucks prompted the ACLU to file a federal complaint with the Department of Justice and the OCR alleging widespread discrimination.

Ben Busick, then a high school senior at Central Bucks South in Warrington, said the episode had a chilling effect on other teachers who feared a similar fate as Burgess. “Nobody wants to end up in the middle of the political warfare that has made its home in Central Bucks,” said Busick, who was assigned male at birth, is nonbinary, and uses they/she pronouns. The current environment at Central Bucks, they added, is “unsafe for me and my peers.”

A protester holds a placard during a protest against Moms For Liberty in Philadelphia.

Matthew Hatcher/Sipa USA via AP

​​The growing controversy didn’t stop the Republican-majority school board from doubling down on their conservative agenda. In July 2022, they approved policy 109.2, which was drafted with assistance from Christian groups, and made it possible for any district resident to challenge school library books over “sexualized content” that contains “implied written description of sexual acts or implied nudity.” Since 109.2 went into effect, at least 60 books have been challenged and two titles have been officially removed from school libraries: Gender Queer and This Book Is Gay.

Facing a barrage of negative press coverage and a potential reputational crisis, the district, which has stood by its policies, hired Devine+Partners, a Philadelphia public relations firm, at a monthly rate of $15,000. “Hiring this PR firm is not about trying to tell the story of education in CB,” Smith said during a board meeting (she voted “absolutely not” on policy 109.2), “It’s trying to deflect away from all the bad, intolerant policies this majority board has passed in the past few months.” (The contract with Devine+Partners ended after the firm received “targeted harassment,” according to the district.)

In January 2023, Smith and her two fellow Democrat board members, Dell’Angelo and Dr. Mariam Mahmud, penned an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying they were “sick of ‘bad policy.’” That same month, the Republican majority adopted a so-called neutrality measure barring “advocacy activities,” which led to a school librarian being ordered to take down a quote from Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize-winning author of the classic memoir Night. “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation,” it read. “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Dell’Angelo, who decided not to run for re-election this year, hopes a new candidate occupying her seat in a heavily Democrat region will have a chance at a fresh start. “I feel more discouraged about the political machine and the way they are manipulating people,” she says, “than in my neighbors who I truly believe want the best for their kids.”

Smith, who has faced calls to resign, did not leave the board and is running for another four-year term as a Democrat. She remembers when a board member’s political affiliation was irrelevant. “People [on the board] didn’t vote in blocks because of their party, people voted on the issue,” she says. “But now, it’s very political.” In the past, down-ballot school board elections didn’t attract much interest. “It’s like the ballot is upside down this year,” she says, adding that this campaign is unlike anything she has seen before. During her first race, she raised “like 50 bucks and had two volunteers.” Now she estimates about 50 people are volunteering for her, hundreds are donating money, and her budget will be around $13,000. “There’s so much at stake that I’m not going to feel relaxed until we’re sitting at that dais and one of us has the gavel on our hands.” 

The actions of the school board have galvanized protests throughout the community. In March, more than 800 alumni wrote a letter to board members condemning the “discriminatory and dangerous” policies. “I am horrified to see what was once a shining example of a school district turned into a fear-mongering, dare I say almost fascist, right-wing harbor for those that despise free expression and open learning,” one note read. In another, an alumna and current resident said she had decided to move before her infant reached school age. “It is clear to us as an interracial family that our son would not be safe in CB if it stays on the current path,” she wrote. “Shame on you for using our school district and the lives of our children to push your own biases and ideologies.”

​​At a special board meeting the following month, a Duane Morris law firm partner stood in front of the board members. The district had hired the firm—at an estimated cost of more than $1 million in legal fees—to conduct an internal investigation into the ACLU complaint’s allegations and that day, the findings were going to be shared with the board. One of the partners in the firm is Bill McSwain, a former US attorney and aspiring 2022 Republican nominee for governor who in 2012 won a case for the Boy Scouts after the city of Philadelphia attempted to evict them over anti-gay policies.

The 147-page report presented to the board concluded that the ACLU’s claims were unsupported and found no evidence of a pattern of anti-LGBTQ discrimination in the district’s schools. Instead, the report states, Central Bucks has been “ahead of the curve” in welcoming LGBTQ students. The findings also included harsh criticism of Smith and the board minority for trying to “weaponize federal investigatory resources to achieve what it could not achieve at the ballot box.” Smith says she was never interviewed for the investigation, which the ACLU has called a “sham.”

A few days later, venture capitalist Paul Martino appeared on Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk show, where he accused the “left” of making up “a fake bullying epidemic in the district.” Martino, who describes himself as a “hands-off” manager and claims to have helped propel more than 150 school board candidates to victory in 2021, also vowed to “get the right people elected” in the upcoming November 2023 elections. 

He’s stepping up his game. The Back to School PAC is now an openly conservative super PAC with a mission to “stop the liberal left.” This year, Martino has already contributed more than $230,000 to the Bucks Families for Leadership PAC, which bankrolls Republican candidates, including his wife, Aarati Martino. Bucks Families for Leadership has also paid for a website decrying Smith and the other Democrats as “political arsonists posing as firefighters.” (In response to a request for an interview, Paul Martino wrote, “In complete transparency, I have trouble getting fair treatment in the press on these issues.” He didn’t respond to a follow-up email with questions.)

In an October Facebook post, however, he offered some insights on his strategy, saying he brought on “experts” to challenge “nonsense narratives” from the left. Among other things, he wanted to find people to expose what he called the “rank hypocrisy” of the book policy and “if successful, potentially take the playbook national.” His team, Martino wrote, gave the “assignment” to Bob Salera, a former political strategist for the National Republican Congressional Committee and president of the Virginia-based Landslide Strategies political communications firm. 

A Pennsylvania native, Salera started the Stop Bucks Extremism PAC in July to “educate voters about the extremists running for school board on the Democrat’s side.” Its website refers to Democrats as “The Corrupt Five.” In total, the PAC has sent out 80,000 mailers this election cycle. A campaign finance report shows that $40,000 of the group’s available funds of $40,485 came from Paul Martino. 

Among the mailers were 17,000 sent to Central Bucks residents with a warning in red letters on the envelope: “Caution. Contains Sexually Explicit Images Taken From Inside Central Bucks School Libraries.” The content featured illustrations from the two books removed from the district’s schools and a mail-in ballot application. “School Board Extremists Have Hijacked the Democratic Party!” the flier also warned. “They are fighting to keep these images in our high school and middle school libraries.” Another mailer targeting Democrat residents encourages voters to choose “a bipartisan Republican who will keep this porn away from our kids” and write in Tracy Suits, a former school board member president and member of the executive committee of CBSD Neighbors United who isn’t running. 

“Democrats and liberals have been framing it as book bans and comparing Republicans to Nazis,” Salera told me.  “So we decided to show parents and voters what is actually in these books.” Criticism of the mailers, he contends, only proves conservatives’ point that the books are too explicit. “We really flipped the issue on its head and changed the perception of what’s going on.” 

For Connor O’Hanlon, the chair of Doylestown Democrats, “this is beyond partisanship, it’s political hackery.” In the last two weeks, he has seen unmarked signs accusing Democrats of “grooming” children. “They’re trying to burn everything down.” 

Democrats are not holding back in their attempts to roll back the conservative takeover of the school district. The Bucks County Democratic Committee recently appealed to the courts in an effort to remove signs “maliciously defaming” Democrats, claiming they violate state law by not revealing who paid for them. A judge agreed and ruled that the signs could be taken down from public places. State Sen. Steve Santarsiero, chair of the committee, called the campaign against Democrats “bitter, nasty and increasingly desperate.” In an endorsement of CBSD Neighbors United, which has received a $25,000 contribution from the Pennsylvania State Education Association PAC and $50,000 from the Turn Bucks Blue PAC, the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board wrote that it “would be difficult to imagine that the infighting has been meaner, more embarrassing, or more costly in any community than it has been on the Central Bucks’ school board.” 

Amanda Litman, co-founder and executive director of Run for Something, a group that recruits and supports progressive candidates under the age of 40, says the left needs to catch up with the right when it comes to building infrastructure and donor momentum for local elections. “They intimately understand that the people who run for and win school board, state, legislative, and city council races are a prime mobilization target for higher engagement,” she says. “It’s a really good vehicle for bringing your base in…and to get people in the door.” 

In the last six years, Run for Something has helped elect more than 130 school board candidates and the plan is to scale up the work, including by partnering with other organizations to host intensive school board trainings much in the way the Leadership Institute does on the conservative side. “If you can shape what kids are learning, if you can shape how people feel about their communities, if you can shape the kind of citizens kids grew up to be,” Litman says “you can cultivate a generation of voters.” 

Democrats may have reason to be optimistic. In the May primary elections, when school board candidates are allowed to cross-file and run on both parties’ ballots, the CBSD Neighbors United contenders received a larger percentage of votes from Republican ballots than the GOP candidates did from Democrat voters. (In Central Bucks, school board candidates run in different regions but serve at large.) In a region that leans heavily Republican, first-timer Heather Reynolds, the Democrat challenging board President Hunter, managed to take more than 21 percent of votes from Republicans, against her opponent’s six percent among Democrats. Democrats also appear to have outraised by $100,000 the Republican candidates, who were listed on Moms for Liberty’s voter guide. 

CBSD Neighbors United candidates Karen Smith, Rick Haring, Susan Gibson, Dana Foley, and Heather Reynolds.

Courtesy of Heather Reynolds

“It has been so disheartening to see the fall from grace that our district has experienced,” Reynolds says. “We were once a district that was emulated, that others strived to be, and now we are literally the example of what they don’t want to become.” Her political debut has come at a cost. The local Plumstead GOP Facebook page has called her a “repulsive human being,” and she has installed security cameras on the garage in the back of her house “just in case.”

Hunter, meanwhile, disagrees that Central Bucks is in need of an overhaul. “We should be thrilled by what is happening in our district,” she wrote in a local publication, “committed to ensuring the very best for our students, and partnered with our community, and that includes respecting the rights of our parents to be involved and informed.”

In a purple community where independent voters make up a significant chunk of the electorate, both sides are trying to send a message of common sense and civility against chaos and extremism. But Democrats hope some of the more recent decisions by the current board Republican majority will be enough to ultimately tip the scale in their favor. For example, a July vote to give the superintendent a 40 percent pay increase to $315,000 a year—making him the second-highest paid superintendent in Pennsylvania, behind only that of Philadelphia, the state’s largest school district. Or the board’s decision to move forward with a policy to “separate athletic teams on the basis of sex.” 

Doug Keith, a Buckingham Township resident and lifelong Republican, who changed party affiliations after Trump’s election in 2016, says he opposes the “attack dog politics” that has dominated the district. “The way I look at it,” he says, “you’re running for school board, you say awful things about your opponent, and then you’re going to see your opponent in the grocery store, you’re gonna see them on the sidelines as a soccer field, you’re going to see him at the school dance…It’s turned into much more of just a standard campaign where the only objective is to win and to beat the other side.” He worries that Central Bucks isn’t living up to its “leading the way” motto and that the very fabric of the community is being destroyed. 

Casey shares that sentiment. “If [Republicans] are elected we will be in a very vulnerable position because then we become this beacon for extreme right folks to move to our area,” she says. “It feels like this election is really about the essential character of our community and of our school district.”

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