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This school board made news for banning books. Voters flipped it to majority Democrat

Five Democratic Central Bucks School District candidates pose with current school board member Mariam Mahmud at the Bucks County Democratic headquarters on election night. Pictured left to right: Heather Reynolds, Rick Haring, Mahmud, Susan Gibson, Dana Foley and Karen Smith.
Courtesy of Diana Leygerman
Five Democratic Central Bucks School District candidates pose with current school board member Mariam Mahmud at the Bucks County Democratic headquarters on election night. Pictured left to right: Heather Reynolds, Rick Haring, Mahmud, Susan Gibson, Dana Foley and Karen Smith.

Meghan Budden's family was considering moving if their Pennsylvania school district didn't change course. She normally isn't politically active, she said, but felt compelled to volunteer when a slate of Democrats launched bids to take back their school board in Central Bucks School District, just north of Philadelphia.

Central Bucks is well known both statewide and nationally for heated board meetings over masks and Pride flags, policies banning certain books and directives to not use students' preferred names and pronouns. Accusations of discrimination against LGBTQ students have also led to an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.

"I couldn't have my kids in a school district where these kinds of things were happening," Budden said.

Standing in the Bucks County Democratic headquarters on election night, Budden sobbed when the results rolled in — Democrats took all five seats up for election.

The room erupted in cheers; friends, neighbors and strangers hugged.

"It was very moving and a very joyous feeling from everyone," Budden recalled. "And a sense of relief."

If there was a question about whether the conservative-led school board's policies reflected the will of the local community, Tuesday's election may have provided an answer.

Three of the newly elected Democratic school board members will replace Republicans, including the board president, who helped set a right-wing agenda that aligned with national conservative movements around education. Voters effectively flipped the board from majority Republican to majority Democrat.

Republicans also lost majority control of school boards in Iowa, Virginia and a historically conservative district neighboring Central Bucks.

A surprising win for Democrats in a politically mixed district

Central Bucks School District is the third largest in Pennsylvania with more than 17,000 students. It's also in a politically mixed, swing county.

"I wasn't supposed to win," said Democratic candidate Heather Reynolds, who beat the board's current president and sole Republican incumbent in the race.

Reynolds' newly won seat represents a part of the district that's more red than others, she said.

"I think that the community has had enough. They've seen what this former board majority has done and they said, 'No more. We deserve better as a district, as a community. This isn't who we are.'"

Reynolds said residents and parents were exhausted by the chaos that had become a normal part of monthly school board meetings.

Fiscal responsibility was also high on their list of concerns, she said: In July, the board increased Superintendent Abe Lucabaugh's salary by almost 40%, making him the second-highest paid superintendent in the state after Philadelphia. Lucabaugh had stood by the board's controversial policies, even as the district spent at least$1 million on a law firm following claims of discrimination and more than $140,000 on a public relations firm that managed media requests, among other things.

NPR reached out to Central Buck's Republican board candidates for comment; some declined to be interviewed and others did not respond. Only one candidate was willing to go on the record, Glenn Schloeffel. He said the results were disappointing.

"We put a lot of work into trying to get a successful outcome, and it didn't go our way."

Schloeffel believes the board majority got "thrown under the bus" after the accusations of discrimination. And he doesn't think it's fair to characterize their decisions around books as a "book ban." He said the books the current board removed from libraries "were highly graphic and sexual in nature. Absolutely disgusting ... There's no place for that in our schools."

Republican candidate Steve Mass told the Delaware Valley Journal, "The only winners in Tuesday's elections are the private schools, who will have their enrollment skyrocket in the next few years when parents see what policies are coming into our district."

Republicans had one big donor, Democrats received more individual donations

Across the country, school board campaign funding seems to be on the rise. In 2018, a survey by the National School Boards Association reported 75% of elected officials spent less than $1,000 on their campaigns.

But this election cycle, Central Bucks candidates raised about $600,000 combined, as of Thursday, according to campaign finance records.

Local venture capitalist Paul Martino bankrolled the Republican campaigns and donated a majority of their funding — $239,000 of the $279,000-plus total. Martino – whose wife, Aarati Martino, ran for the board as a Republican this year – spent a total of $500,000on school board races across Pennsylvania in 2021.

He also contributed $40,000 to the Stop Bucks Extremism PAC. During the campaign, the PAC mailed literatureto district homes with excerpts from the often-targeted books Gender Queer and This Book Is Gay. The mailer included the message: "Extreme Central Bucks Democrats are fighting to keep these books in our middle school and high school libraries. Request an early vote ballot to protect our children!"

In total, the Democrats raised over $315,000. The Democrats' PAC, Neighbors United, raised over $174,000. Its largest donations came from Turn Bucks Blue, a local PAC that supports Democrats throughout the county, and the Pennsylvania State Education Association. Much of the Democrats' funding came from smaller individual donations, between $50 and $250. Each candidate also had their own PAC.

"We knew what [Martino] spent the last time, so we had to be prepared to respond to that," said Karen Smith, a Democrat who won her race as an incumbent.

Martino declined NPR's requests for comment.

Two Independent parents were tired of the chaos

District parent Elizabeth Derham identifies as an independent and has been disappointed with board leadership over the last two years. Derham's husband, Jeff, is also an independent and would sometimes split his ticket. But this year was the first time he voted blue down the line, along with Elizabeth.

"No one I talk to is for any of this stuff or cares much about some of the things that they're putting so much effort into," Elizabeth said of the board's conservative members.

The Derhams said their votes felt like a small-scale attempt to save their local democracy — and their public school district.

"We just want the government to function... we're just tired of it," Elizabeth said. "I just want people to listen to us."

Now that the election is over, she hopes Central Bucks school board meetings become boring again.

Edited by: Nicole Cohen
Research by: Zazil Davis-Vazquez and Greta Pittenger

Emily Rizzo is a freelance journalist who previously covered the Philadelphia suburbs for member station WHYY.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Rizzo