School board elections are latest battleground for polarized national politics

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WASHINGTON, D.C. (NPR) — On Halloween in downtown Coopersburg, a borough nestled in the Lehigh Valley, Doug Durham is handing out candy to trick-or-treaters young and old.

“We’re running for school board — appreciate it if you’re registered,” he said. “Whether you’re a Republican or not, the candy’s free, so have some candy regardless.”

Voters are casting ballots across the U.S. for local and state races – including school boards.

In northeastern Pennsylvania, what a few years ago was a fairly sleepy school board contest focused on millage rates and teacher salaries has turned into a competitive – and combative – race centered on so-called “parental rights.”

Durham is one of ten candidates vying for one of five spots on the Southern Lehigh school board. It’s a race in a swing district in a swing state, and at stake is the chance to dramatically reshape district policy.

Paul Deebel and Douglas Durham offer candy to trick-or-treaters young and old as they campaign for the local school board in Southern Lehigh.
Paul Deebel and Douglas Durham offer candy to trick-or-treaters young and old as they campaign for the local school board in Southern Lehigh. [Sarah Mueller | WLVR]
Durham’s slate of candidates have dubbed themselves the “True Republicans.” They received the endorsement of the county GOP committee and signed a pledge that, in part, is aimed at a curriculum review to keep “woke politics” out of the classroom — a move that led to criticism that they want to censor school libraries.

“We’re not book banners. I believe in free speech, but I don’t believe that pornography should be available to children in the schools,” Durham told local conservative talk show host Bobby Gunther Walsh. “It is fear mongering of the highest order, and it’s really unfortunate.”

The pledge Durham’s group signed includes language about restricting students from using bathrooms that align with their gender identity and informing parents when students ask to go by a different name or gender pronoun.

“[Our opponents] believe that students building trust with teachers and counselors is so important that keeping parents in the dark can be excusable,” Durham said. “If a child is going through difficult mental or emotional or physical issues, it’s most urgent to get the parents involved to support that child.”

Emily Gehman, who’s served on the school board for eight years, said it’s a question of privacy.

“Maybe the child is okay talking to a coach or a trusted teacher or a guidance counselor about how to talk to their parents about it,” she said. “Yes, parents should absolutely be involved. But if we have a policy that requires [teachers] to pick up a phone in the first five minutes, that does more harm than good.”

Gehman is running for reelection. She’s a registered Republican, but is running on an opposing slate, along with four moderate Republicans and one Democrat.

“Being endorsed by the Republican Party at the county and local level was contingent upon signing that pledge,” she said. “I chose not to sign that pledge.”

These type of debates may sound familiar.

“Schools sometimes become frontlines in national political battles,” said Dan Hopkins, a professor at University of Pennsylvania.

He said the often noncompetitive school board races of yesteryear are quickly becoming a thing of the past, fueled in part by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“COVID led to a genuinely important shift in the sense that school boards were making very, very meaningful decisions about whether to open or close and many parents had the experience of suddenly having their kids in their houses, and oftentimes they could hear the instruction,” he said.

Hopkins said what’s happening in the Lehigh Valley is just another example of how local politics have become nationalized. Local candidates take cues from national groups focused on the role of parents in schools – like the far-right Moms for Liberty and its left-leaning counterpart, Stop Moms for Liberty.

“These suddenly nationally kind of charged symbols infuse a local political debate,” he said.

Christine Slifer, who has two small children in the district, said she can’t escape the tension in the school board campaign.

“I’m in some local groups on Facebook — groups that have nothing to do with politics but have stuff to do with the school or the town, and I’m in there just to kind of find out what’s going on,” she said, sighing. “A lot of it gets brought into there and it’s very divisive.”

She said she’s frustrated by the local coverage of the race.

“It wasn’t even focusing on how great Southern Lehigh is for academics or any of our achievements,” she said. “It was all these hot button topics – and it doesn’t need to be like that. I just don’t think it’s positive for our kids.”

Sarah Mueller is an education reporter at Lehigh Valley News.

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