North Allegheny School District has a Democrat-controlled school board for the first time in 75 years. Democratic candidates won three of the five school board seats in November’s election, flipping the North Allegheny School Board from red to blue with the reelection of incumbent Elizabeth Warner and the election of newcomers Anisha Shah and Bob Gibbs. The new board is officially sworn in on Wednesday.
Local Democratic organizers and campaigners say this historic flip is years in the making, with Democratic candidates steadily gaining momentum since 2017 when the first registered Democrat, Allyson Minton, was elected to the North Allegheny School Board. Organizer Melinda Wedde told the Bucks County Beacon that the outgoing school board’s lack of transparency seems to have pushed voters over the edge.
According to Wedde, Republican board members’ “extremism hit its peak” over the summer when they “pushed through” the appointment of superintendent Brendan Hyland. This appointment raised concerns from parents due to his handling of a Title IX lawsuit in 2014 when he was principal of North Allegheny Intermediate High School. “He wasn’t voted on unanimously and a lot of people feel that the hiring process wasn’t fair or transparent,” Wedde said.
In addition, she notes that the school board unceremoniously approved a resolution in 2022 to cut library staff in half for the 2023-2024 school year – a decision that caused bipartisan outrage among parents and community members. While Republican board members claimed that the decision would save the district money, many saw it as an effort to limit students’ educational resources.
In October, the board also voted to create a district-wide police force, which is estimated to cost around $1 million a year. Wedde says the vote was “forced” through just before the election and took place without holding any town hall or informational meetings beforehand. “There are people on all landings of the political spectrum who were very angry about that,” she said.
Through door knocking and talking to neighbors, Wedde found that these were all “major issues” for many people in the community, noting that these decisions showed voters that the board lacked transparency and had a habit of spending tax dollars ineffectively. Overall, the number one concern for voters was the cutting of library funding and staff.
“People were just really turned off by the extremism and the politicizing of the school board, and the schools in general, and a lot of underhanded plays,” she said.
Democratic campaign manager Jon Parker also found this to be the case. According to Parker, the overwhelming number of voters his team spoke to were mainly concerned about library funding and potential book bans, regardless of their political affiliation. “We just had the right positions on those things,” he told the Bucks County Beacon. “We had candidates who are willing to stand up and say, ‘Our library should be fully staffed and we won’t ban books.’ To me, it was never that complicated.”
Parker says his team held a few meet and greets and house parties to help engage voters and raise money, but notes that their campaigning efforts “mostly” consisted of plenty of door knocking, phone banking, expanding the reach of their campaign mailers, and trying to “make sure people knew what was happening and the stakes of their vote.”
While Parker attributes higher voter turnout as one aspect that helped contribute to the historic school board flip, he also emphasizes the importance of talking to people and meeting them where they are. By knocking on doors and getting the word out, he was able to engage people who were skeptical or unlikely to vote because they thought they were the “only Demcrats” in the community.
“And if you do that over time, again and again and again, they stay engaged,” he said.
This level of community engagement also helped fundraising efforts. While all three school board candidates contributed a significant sum of their own money to help fund their campaigns, they also received quite a few small and medium donations from voters in the community. “I think Democrats are recognizing that Republicans have been ahead of the curve on supporting school board races and building a bench,” he said. “And people recognize the stakes of it.”