Update: After publishing this story late Sunday evening, Broad + Liberty was made aware on Monday morning of a social media post appearing to show an internal email indicating Central Bucks Education Association President Joe Kirsche resigned on Sunday. Broad + Liberty offers this as context with the understanding that it has not been able to authenticate the email.
Five candidates for board seats in the Central Bucks School District are crying foul over new campaign signs saying their opposition was endorsed by “teachers and staff” of two unions in the district, especially given that the leader of one of those unions said in an email he didn’t approve the signs and was disappointed in them.
The sign says “teachers and staff” of the Central Bucks Education Association and the Central Bucks Education Support Professionals Association “endorse” candidates Karen Smith, Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, and Susan Gibson.
Although school board elections in Pennsylvania are ostensibly bipartisan, that group of five Democrats is hoping to overturn the Republican majority of the current board, which was elected in 2021 in the wake of frustrations about how the district was managed during the pandemic.
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The five Republicans say that, while it’s true the CBEA union has voted to support the five Democratic candidates, the sign is a historic breach of norms, and they’ve published an email from CBEA President Joe Kirsche which they say proves it.
“In response to the recent signage posted amongst our voting community, I want to be perfectly clear with both of you. CBEA did not know the signs were being printed and posted. I did not endorse the signs beforehand,” Kirsche wrote to CBSD Board president Dana Hunter, who is up for re-election, and CBSD Superintendent Abraham “Abe” Lucabaugh.
“In fact, had I been approached to support the signs posted, I would not have approved them with the current verbiage as the signs are not inclusive of the opinions of all my CBEA members,” Kirsche continued. “I am disheartened and disappointed that it appears as though the teacher’s union has become an additional pawn.”
Hunter provided a forwarded copy of that email to Broad + Liberty for authenticity, and the political action committee supporting the five Republicans says in a Facebook post that it was authorized by Kirsche to release his email.
Kirsche did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Emailed requests for comment to all five Democrat candidates were not returned. Broad + Liberty also reached out to those campaigns through their Facebook pages. Broad + Liberty further attempted to reach out to the Haring and Gibson campaigns through the phone numbers listed on their Facebook pages, but those calls went to voicemail.
“I deeply value and appreciate all our teachers and support staff and all they do every day to support our students. I believe the unions play an important role in representing their members in the district and value the working partnership between the board, unions, and administration,” Hunter said in a statement.
“While I respect the endorsement process, Republican candidates did not seek union endorsements because we believe that our district functions best when our school board represents the entire community and not the interests of one specific group,” Hunter continued. “The unsanctioned verbiage on the signs paid for and created by the Democrat School Board candidates is yet another example of actions that divide our community and take focus away from educating our children. I have a wonderful working relationship with CBEA President Joe Kirsche. I think he is a great leader and admire the position he has taken on this matter.”
Current board member Leigh Vlasblom, a member of the conservative contingent who is not up for re-election this year, shared on social media an email from the CBEA from 2019 in which the CBEA official was asking candidates if they wanted to be considered for “recommendation.”
The email notes that the CBEA would not be considering making endorsements in two regions, and both of those regions had incumbent board members that year.
To Vlasblom and Hunter, the email shows that the CBEA in years past aimed to stay out of races with incumbent members — regardless of party or ideology — because the CBEA wanted to build a working relationship with all sitting board members.
Another problem is that the sign puts the union names in small, faint print, such that the distinction that the endorsement came from the unions is meaningless. Given that the CBEA does not represent all teachers in the district, the sign will nevertheless appear to some as though each and every teacher and staffer in the district is in support of those candidates, something Kirsche positively refuted in his email.
Candidate Aarti Martino echoed the same ideas as Hunter.
“From that email, you can see that the president of the CBEA (Central Bucks Education Association, the local public school union) was working well with Mrs. Hunter and Dr. Lucabaugh and making good progress. He did not want the signs,” Martino said.
“I wish more people understood that we are not the ones causing division in our district. It is a select few activists who are turning neighbor against neighbor. And they are taking advantage of this chaos to settle a $119M lawsuit that hasn’t even gone through discovery yet and that will bankrupt our schools and our taxpayers.”
Martino is referring to an ongoing suit in which hundreds of female teachers, current and former, allege the district has paid its female teachers less than its male counterparts. A settlement of $119 million was recently floated.
Martino is the wife of Paul Martino, a venture capitalist who previously supported the conservatives, who won the majority in the 2021 elections. Martino has made significant investments in the current election as well. Their children are students in the district.
The board elections in the Central Bucks School District will be closely watched not just in the county but across the commonwealth and even in the D.C. beltway.
The district has been the center of a political maelstrom ever since a conservative majority took the reins in early 2022.
Had I been approached to support the signs posted, I would not have approved them with the current verbiage.
In particular, the political left in the county has waged an unceasing attack on the board, alleging it is hostile to LGBT issues. Those arguments were fueled in large part by the controversy surrounding a single teacher in the district, Andrew Burgess.
In May of 2022, the district suspended Burgess. Critics of the board said his suspension was retaliation for his support for LGBT students.
In response, the board hired the law firm Duane Morris to investigate the allegations that it was biased against LGBT students. In the final report, investigators for Duane Morris alleged Burgess had withheld information about the bullying one transgender student faced to manufacture controversy against the board.
In a more recent twist on the Burgess controversy, the conservative majority on the board has alleged that the U.S. Department of Education failed to report the abuse of a student when it was contacted by those who wanted the department to investigate the district for discrimination based on sex. Essentially, the current conservative board majority is saying Burgess’s allies told the DOE about the student abuse, which then turned a blind eye, even as Burgess was allegedly keeping the district in the dark.
Bucks County is in many ways the center of political gravity in Pennsylvania this cycle. Political insiders from both sides of the aisle are looking to this year’s election results, both in Central Bucks School District and the hotly contested county commissioner races, as harbingers of what might come in the nation’s largest swing state in 2024.
The five Republican candidates for office are incumbent Board President Dana Hunter, Dr. Stephen Mass, Tony Arjona, Glenn Schloeffel, and Aartai Martino.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at firstname.lastname@example.org, or use his encrypted email at email@example.com. @shepherdreports