Political groups eye a key 2023 battleground: Local school boards

Meredith Willse
York Dispatch

Some York County residents have a warning for their elected school board members: You can be replaced.

Political skirmishes once confined to social media increasingly spill into the formerly sleepy world of K-12 education as parents — and sometimes community members without children — raise issues about everything from so-called critical race theory to COVID policies and, most recently, how schools protect the rights of transgender children.

“There’s been a lot of people putting their personal ideologies in what the board does,” said Amelia McMillan, one Central York School District parent. "I do not agree with that."

Central York, of course, was the district that handed down a ban on various teaching materials, the vast majority of them by creators of color. McMillan ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2021 — an election in which several of the ban's strongest proponents lost their seats — and plans to run again this year, cross-filing as both a Democrat and a Republican.

Amelia McMillan in York on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023

The trend has hardly gone unnoticed by York County's political parties.

“Our children are not political pawns,” said Sam Schlundt, an at large member of the Democratic Party organization.

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Schlundt said the organization is mobilizing efforts around local school boards, specifically referencing the Red Lion Area School Board's recent emergency directive that forced transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that align with the gender listed on their birth certificates.

In response to that directive, and the board's subsequent postponement of a public forum on the matter, both Democratic and Republican-aligned groups have taken to social media to recruit board members who will represent their respective sides of the issue.

“This is why School Board elections are so important,” the York County Democrats posted to the group's Facebook account on Dec. 5, shortly after the emergency directive was handed down.

John O’Neill, chair of the York County Republican Committee, said the party is also putting the word out in an effort to bolster its field of school board candidates.

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The party's focus, O'Neill said, is “pushing for the autonomy of the school board and how they are to do what’s best for their school districts.” That includes paying special attention to taxes, the primary means by which most districts fund operations and traditionally the main priority of school board candidates.

O'Neill, Schlundt and other York County political observers say only time will tell which districts become competitive. But all of them expect there to be more "battlegrounds" this November, much the way Central York was following revelations about its book ban in 2021.

People gather outside the Central York School District offices prior to a school board meeting there Monday, Aug. 16, 2021. A group of about 70 people rallied regarding pandemic safety procedures in the district. Bill Kalina photo

In addition to the larger culture of partisanship, the phenomenon is also being fueled by the nationwide trend of rising outside spending on local school board races. A 2018 survey by the National School Boards Association found that the vast majority of candidates who responded — 75% — spent less than $1,000 on their school board race.

Campaign finance records are spotty at best due to Pennsylvania's decentralized system of reporting on school board spending. WHYY reported that, in 2021, a super PAC that predominantly funded GOP school board candidates poured at least $721,000 into 55 school races statewide.

More super PACs have emerged since then with an aim of funneling campaign cash into local school board races. One of them, the 1776 Project PAC, has already raised millions of dollars to spend nationwide, according to USA Today reporting.

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In a social media post last fall, the PAC wrote “we will stop at nothing” to prevent "radical left-wing ideologues [from] lock[ing] parents out of the classroom."

A number of school officials and prospective school board candidates declined or did not respond to requests for comment on the issue of increasingly heated school board elections.

For McMillan's part, the results of the 2021 election in Central York left her feeling empowered despite the outcome of her own campaign.

Amelia McMillan in York on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023

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“There has been a drastic change since then,” she said, noting the progress the newly seated school board made on long-delayed curriculum updates in the district.

McMillan wants to keep that momentum going.

“I don’t think they’re there,” she said. “There’s more to do.”

— Reach Meredith Willse at mwillse@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.