The Pennsylvania primary is just a few weeks away on May 16, and across the region and state, Pennsylvania school boards’ director candidates are on the ballot. Before the Covid-19 school closures, most people paid very little attention to these races. In some instances, candidates ran unopposed. Today, at the local, state, and national level, school board races have become contentious and polarizing.
In southeastern Pennsylvania, constituents hold a wide variety of political views from progressive to conservative, with many in the middle. There is a reason there are nine school directors on every board. If the legislature intended for only one view to be reflected, there would only be one director. A 9-0 school board in either direction does not adequately represent the varied perspectives and typically ignores any independent or third-party voter views.
Pennsylvania is unusual in how it conducts school board director elections. Many states conduct school board director races as separate elections, apart from the primary and general elections. For example, Illinois and Wisconsin just held school board director elections in early April.
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Pennsylvania is also unique in that school board director candidates can cross-file to appear on both the Democratic and Republican ballot in the May primary. Even more interestingly, independents and third-party candidates can also gain access to the major party ballots as a school director candidate in the primary. Even though they can run in the election, they still cannot vote in the primary.
It is theoretically possible for a school board director candidate to win the election in the primary if they win both the Republican and Democratic primary. The initial reasoning for allowing candidates to cross-file was based on the concept that school board directors should not be political. Judicial candidates are the only other positions that are allowed to cross-file.
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts, and all but Philadelphia hold school board director elections every other odd year for four or five seats. All boards have nine members. Some are at-large, meaning that anyone who resides in the district can run for a seat. Others are regional, meaning that geographic boundaries are drawn based on population, and a candidate can only run in their region of residence. The Pennsylvania school code allows for three regions of three directors or nine regions of one director. For example, Pennridge school district is an at-large district, Spring-Ford school district has three regions, and Downingtown school district has nine regions.
The type of board configuration may have political implications for the candidates running, and ultimately the type of candidates who are elected. For example, in an at-large district, candidates can run for a seat regardless of where they live in the district. This provides the most flexibility for candidates, and allows every resident of the district to vote for all seats that are open in the election cycle. The regional model limits both the candidates and the voters based on geography; however, it ensures that all directors do not come from a small area of the district.
Democrats and Republicans attempt to use the configuration to their advantage with the goal of winning a majority on the board. Many Democratic candidates are endorsed or financially supported by the teachers’ union, while Republican candidates are attempting to take back control over the many districts that have turned blue over the last ten years. The political punditry on both sides focuses on winning a board majority or all nine seats.
The path to resolving the contentious debates and polarizing positions is through a balanced board with moderate positions.
Across the local region, school board elections and meetings continue to be contentious with the factions on both sides moving to extremes. Last year, much of the heated debate centered around masks in schools. This year, the hot-button topic is about whether certain books belong in school libraries. On the Democratic extreme, board members believe that students should have access to any and all books regardless of the content whether or not it may be considered inappropriate for certain ages. On the Republican extreme, board members want to remove a multitude of books that contain any possible questionable content.
Neither of these extreme views are good for our students or our community.
We need balanced school boards to ensure that all viewpoints in our community are represented fairly. A 9-0 board in either direction is not in the best interest of our children or schools. Diversity of thought makes our schools stronger and representative of all students.
The Pennsylvania school code attempted to depoliticize the role of school directors by allowing cross-filing on the ballot; however, in recent years, school board director elections have become increasingly political and polarizing. It is imperative that voters start balancing out these boards to prevent a 9-0 or 8-1 lopsided perspective.
School board directors are elected to represent all viewpoints in the community. The best way to ensure that is through a balanced board, both in terms of political affiliation, experience, and background.
In advance of the May 16 primary, I encourage voters to research the candidates and the current board members to determine the existing board composition and which candidates will provide the best balance to those directors. The path to resolving the contentious debates and polarizing positions is through a balanced board with moderate positions. We owe it to our students to ensure balanced representation so that our schools can get back to the business of educating our children.
Beth Ann Rosica resides in West Chester, has a Ph.D. in Education, and has dedicated her career advocating on behalf of at-risk children and families. She covers education issues for Broad + Liberty.
Editor’s Note: Beth Ann Rosica is a volunteer campaign manager for five candidates running for School Director in the West Chester Area School District.