Central Pennsylvania school board struggles with extremism, residents say - TAI News
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The conservative organization Moms for Liberty holds their second annual summit in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 30th, 2023. (Photo by Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via AP)

The tension in the room was palpable.

On May 1, the York Dispatch had reported that West Shore School Board President Heidi Thomas had communicated to a far-right political action committee that three board members would secretly meet with the group.

The board’s first meeting since the report was now in progress. When it was time for board reports, member Abigail Tierney sought information on what happened

 “I would like a board report on the March 15 Pennsylvania Economic Growth PAC first quarterly meeting that, apparently, from my understanding, three of our board members attended,” Tierney said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” School Board Vice President Kelly Brent interjected.

Tierney continued pushing, but Thomas insisted Tierney was out of order and moved on to the next agenda item.

The incident is a window into unsettling developments in West Shore.

In November 2023, conservative school boards  were voted out in suburban Philadelphia districts like Pennridge and East Penn, where voters were fed up with headlines about sports bans for transgender youth and book bans. But, as in a game of whack-a-mole, reactionaries popped up elsewhere, residents of the West Shore School District say.

West Shore hasn’t passed anti-LGBTQ policies like the South Side Area School District board in Beaver County. It hasn’t made headlines for canceling a gay actor’s anti-bullying visit, then reversing its decision amid criticism, like the nearby Cumberland Valley School District.

But parents and residents in West Shore are worried precisely because their district has flown under the radar. In November 2023, school board elections resulted in a 5-4 majority of conservatives who had received support and donations from Moms for Liberty, which has been called an anti-government extremist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Since then, West Shore’s new majority has replaced its solicitor, over objections from the public. The board has also met with the far-right Christian law firm Independence Law Center, whose policies restricting what pronouns students can go by were adopted by the South Western School District board in April.

Ben Hodge, whose children attend West Shore schools, says he’s familiar with the new board’s playbook — it was previously used, he says, in the Central York School District where he is a teacher. There, the board was unsuccessful in its attempt to push out the district’s solicitor but did succeed in getting rid of the superintendent, who resigned, Hodge said.

Hodge says the West Shore board knows its priorities are unpopular — and that’s why he’s watching what it does next. Getting rid of the solicitor may have been the first step to pushing out the superintendent in favor of one more willing to do the new board’s “bidding,” he said:

“I think they got their hand smacked, their hand caught in the cookie jar. So I think they’ve just tightened up and played nice and smiled and waved in a lot of these meetings. But I make no mistake, they’re plotting.”

Divisiveness on the board has resulted in routine tasks, such as passing a budget, being difficult to accomplish. On June 13, it took multiple failed votes before five board members got on board with a budget that will raise funds by implementing a 5%-6% tax increase for West Shore residents.

Ever since the far-right majority took over, community members say, public comments during board meetings have grown much more volatile.

Jessy Aumioxx said her 9-year-old child was accosted after speaking at a board meeting, when she shared her pronouns as “she/they.”

Aumioxx said: “One of these humans, this human who personally attacks me on a regular basis, followed my child into the bathroom and then stood between my child and the door, until my kid was like, Hey, I need to go to my mom. And then she finally let it go. But afterwards, she made a video claiming that my child who was born a female was actually a boy, and I’d sent her into the women’s bathroom to incite violence from the conservatives.

“And if you immediately look at a 9-year-old and your first thought is anything other than, Oh, this is a 9-year-old, then you are the actual problem,” Aumioxx said. “For people who are so concerned about creeps in bathrooms, they’re being awfully creepy in bathrooms.”

Jeff Harmon, the parent of a high school junior in the district, said the new board’s direction has been “a complete 180” from the previous board.

“There’s no discussion of the students at the school board,” Harmon said. “There’s no discussion of the new solicitor that costs more. There’s really no discussion — everything is about tearing the school down, now, it seems. That is their goal, it seems, it appears to be that way. I don’t know why.”

For now, parents say, there’s not much that can be done. The majority of the conservative board members won’t be up for reelection until 2027. However, some people are starting to organize. 

“I have developed ulcers and sleepless nights worried about this,” said Adam Trone, the only current West Shore board member to respond to a request for comment for this story. “I’m thankful that we are mobilizing a group of bipartisan Republican, Democrat, independent, conservative, liberal parents that are now stepping up after they have seen what the first eight months of the board’s actions.”

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