School board races serve as culture war battlegrounds

May 14—Darlene Ciocca had served nearly a dozen years as a member of the Norwin School Board and, in February, faced a decision that on the surface seemed completely out of place — one that involved a political calculation to determine whether to seek another term in office.

The divisive political nature of Norwin's school board set in motion a race this spring between two factions of candidates imbued with grievances over traditional education issues alongside growing cultural and ideological disputes. With five candidates backing one platform and another five candidates already in the race supporting adversarial views, Ciocca made her decision to sit out this election for five open seats on the school board.

"It's a very important election, and I felt it was best with five people on each ticket so I didn't want to dilute the ticket," Ciocca said. "I always ran alone, and I didn't want to split the vote.

"I made a political calculation, yet it's not a political position."

In many communities throughout the region, voters will see school board races involving more than just a handful of candidates. Hempfield, Westmoreland County's largest district, has 15 candidates running for five open seats. Norwin has 10 candidates seeking five openings, and, in Ligonier Valley, 11 candidates are seeking five positions.

Large slates of candidates also are running for seats on school boards in Allegheny County, where 14 candidates are seeking five openings in Plum. Districts in McKeesport and Mt. Lebanon each will have 10 candidates seeking five seats.

In most races, candidates cross-file, meaning they run in both the Republican and Democratic primaries. It's a concession from an earlier era in which school board positions were considered nonpartisan.

"It's always been political, but I think what I've observed is that, over the years, individual special interests have become the motivation for some on school boards rather than for the advocating for education," said Peggy Frank, retired school administrator who served as superintendent of the Westmont Hilltop School District near Johnstown. She formerly worked in the Hempfield and Greensburg Salem school districts.

"The political parties have decided they have to get in the ground floor, and more and more that's school boards. It's where the parties are influencing the agenda to get people to run, and it's making education partisan," Frank said.

In recent years, school boards have taken on issues related to political activism, race relations, transgender rights and the banning of books in addition to educational functions such as budgeting and staffing .

'You can't get the work done'

William Kerr served as superintendent of schools in several districts, including Apollo-Ridge, Armstrong and, most recently, Norwin. He now works for the state Department of Education and oversees schools in Duquesne.

Kerr said he's seen the politicalization of school boards impact public education and watched as the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated a growing schism among decision-makers.

"We're seeing adult battles versus adult conversation about what is in the best interest for children," Kerr said. "We're seeing in many cases a vocal minority that has become extremely vocal and direct public education into a culture war. It's become very nasty, and it's disheartening."

That perceived nastiness was felt by former Franklin Regional School Board member Gregg Neavin.

Neavin, a Republican, was swept into office in the early 2010s along with Tea Party conservatives throughout the country. He said his politics focused on fiscal restraint and he wanted to focus his efforts on improving education.

As national politics became more entwined in local school board decisions, Neavin, a self-described fiscal conservative, saw the cultural shifts becoming a focus over educational decisions. He ultimately changed his party affiliation to independent and was not reelected in 2021.

"I would be dissuaded from doing it (running) again, not in today's climate," Neavin said. "I wouldn't want to be caught up in so much noise because you can't get the work done."

'Voices of reason'

As some districts have large fields of candidates seeking school board seats, there are others that feature fewer candidates on the ballot than positions available to be filled.

In Jeannette, there are two candidates seeking five at-large seats on the school board and just one candidate seeking two two-year positions.

In the New Kensington-Arnold School District, there are three candidates seeking nominations for six school board seats. Only one name appears on the Republican primary ballot.

Tarentum Council member Carrie Fox previously served eight years on the Highlands School Board. She said the job appears to be much different from when she sat as a school director a decade ago.

"When I was on the board, we closed a building and had a packed audience at that meeting. When you are making those decisions, it is difficult and it weighs on you like a ton of bricks," Fox said. "But there are a lot of issues today that make it harder to serve."

Susan Spicka, executive director of the Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for adequate and quality public education, said the job of school board members has grown more difficult as heightened political divisions can overshadow education priorities.

A former school board member for a district in Shippensburg, Spicka suggested that districts where the ballot is overflowing with candidates may be where more divisive cultural issues are flourishing.

"The job of a school board member in the best of times is pretty hard. In some of these districts where extremists have taken over, all the energy is put into banning books and targeting LGBT rights. Voters need to decide what is in the best interests of their kids," Spicka said. "There's a lot more interest in school board races this cycle than I've ever seen before."

Kerr said the pendulum needs to swing back in the other direction to ensure education is the primary concern for students.

"We need to find voices of reason. Good decisions, debate and compromise are all in the best interest of students. It can be done if you elect good people," Kerr said.

For Ciocca, politics have bubbled to the top of her school board's agenda.

"Twelve years ago when I came on the school board, I could not tell what party a person was from. It's not supposed to be political," Ciocca said. "Only about four years ago, I think it started to surface that politics was coming to this point.

"It has grown to the point where politics are overshadowing everything."

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich by email at or via Twitter .