Extremism persists in Pennsylvania schools - TAI News
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An anti-Moms for Liberty van drives by as demonstrators gather outside the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023. (AP Photo/Joe Lamberti)

School board candidates who support extremist policies such as book bans and curriculum censorship have proven to be unpopular in many recent local elections.

But just as quickly as old ones are voted out, new ones have been voted in in other school districts.

That’s the story in Pennsylvania, where in November 2023 voters swept out right-wing school board members in Bucks County’s Central Bucks and Pennridge school districts and Montgomery County’s Perkiomen Valley School District. However, right-wing candidates managed to win in Cumberland County’s West Shore and East Pennsboro school districts.

Conservative activists are continuing to organize, working to hold on to power where it’s been won and to seize it elsewhere.

Veronica Gemma, a former Central York school board member who lost an election in 2021, now works as the education director for the PA Economic Growth PAC.

In late April, she gave an interview to the Epoch Times, a right-wing, conspiracy-focused news outlet, describing her efforts to pack Pennsylvania school boards with conservatives.

“I recruited about 60 candidates, conservative Republican candidates, to overturn school boards across the county,” Gemma said of her efforts in York County.

“We are doing really great things in Pennsylvania, trying to impact education in a way that it should go back to where we were before critical race theory, DEI and the transgender movement,” Gemma continued. “We then train these board members once they’re elected — we don’t just get them elected and sink or swim. We train them on how to govern. We give them support on how to enforce their authority over the superintendent and the solicitor and the staff there, because the school board is the governing body of every district.”

The policies pushed by these board members are rarely popular, says Danielle Gross, a parent in the West Shore School District, but school board elections rarely draw a lot of attention, making it possible for extremist candidates to get elected under the radar.

“Americans generally don’t like targeting LGBTQIA kids, they generally don’t like book-banning policies, they generally don’t like Christian nationalists trying to muddle in the separation of church and state,” Gross told the Pennsylvania Independent.

Candidates promoting such policies did lose in many places in 2023, but a new crop of extremists is alive and well, she said.

“We saw all of this, Oh, Moms for Liberty is dead, far right school boards is dead,” she said. “It really isn’t dead. It just kind of moved westward. And right now we’re really seeing York County, Lancaster County and the Pittsburgh suburbs as really the epicenter of the latest phase of this siege, this trying to conquer school boards.”

The York Dispatch reported on May 1 that Gemma had organized behind-the-scenes meetings with school board members that back anti-LGBTQ+ measures and book bans. She even went so far as to warn school boards not to send too many of their members to the meetings, lest they reach the threshold for becoming public record under Pennsylvania’s open records law. “Remember, no more than 4 — sunshine laws,” Gemma wrote, according to an email obtained by the Dispatch.

PA Economic Growth PAC did not respond to a request for comment from the Pennsylvania Independent.

Gross said she knows many people who have watched actions taken by her school board — such as firing its solicitor and replacing its former counsel with a right-wing law firm — and are beginning to worry that it is going too far.

“There are a lot of people in our communities who are organizing to stand together against these actions by their school boards,” Gross said. “And in a lot of cases it is a really broad bipartisan effort, where we’re seeing folks across the political spectrum in my school district really uniting against these kind of actions by our school board.”

But Gross said she understands why many are only now seeing the issues.

“The first thing that I would tell people is to not feel bad about being duped,” Gross said. “You know, no one wants to think that the woman they went to high school with would do these kinds of things to the students and to our school board. No one wants to think that the person they serve on the nonprofit board with would do these kinds of things.”

For concerned parents looking to respond, districts such as Central Bucks and Pennridge that voted out their extremists can be an example.

“I would say try to watch your school board meeting, or to start emailing the board, start showing up and talking to the board,” Gross said. “Because there’s people like me who have been speaking out for three years on these issues, I think that our board majority doesn’t care so much what I have to say. But when it’s new people, I think it’s really impactful.”

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The Pennsylvania Independent is a project of American Independent Media, a 501(c)(4) organization whose mission is to use journalism to educate the public, giving them the information they need about local and federal issues.