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Meet Three of the Neighbors Who United to Defend Public Education in Central Bucks School District

Learn how people power defeated a Bucks County plutocrat – MAGA millionaire Paul Martino – and his Moms for Liberty-backed school board candidates.
(L-R) Steve Sullivan, Tracy Suits, and Diana Leygerman.

Teachers, staff, parents, students and community members are raising their hands and voices in praise for the hard work of Central Bucks Neighbors United, as they helped orchestrate sweeping changes to the Central Bucks School Board in November. The team that some would say wrought a miracle election sweep includes Diana Leygerman, Steve Sullivan, and Tracy Suits. Their leadership and enthusiasm rallied a dedicated group of local volunteers who helped educate and mobilize the public, and get out the vote, which ushered in a new school board majority dedicated to students’ rights (including LGBTQ+), teaching accurate history, the freedom to read, and empowering teachers and librarians – all things under attack by the previous Republican majority.

What is the purpose of this community group?

CBSD Neighbors United was born in 2021 out of the need to support school board candidates. When the slate of candidates ran in ‘21, we quickly realized no one was really paying attention to school board races, and there wasn’t much interest in helping/supporting those running for school board. We were building the plane as we were flying it, as they say. So, we formed the NU (Neighbors United) PAC as a way to combat some of the apathy toward school board candidates.

Why is it important at this time in history to be vocal about what our children are learning, beyond academics?

There’s a calculated attack on public education by people who seek to defund it and then line their own pockets with taxpayer money when they privatize it. This attack on public schools isn’t one you’d see if you weren’t really paying attention. Also, none of the people who want to destroy public education are very forthcoming about their goals. They use coded language like “school  choice,” “school vouchers,” “parental rights,” and so on. They seek to sow distrust in public schools by using groups like Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education, who manufacture issues that simply don’t exist to divide communities and public perception of public schools.

Finally, these “parental rights” advocates seem to forget about the rights of students, our children. They ignore the rights of children and the rights of all other parents who make different choices than they do. If we don’t pay attention and aren’t vocal about this, these folks will succeed, and public education will crumble.

Why is inclusivity important?

The Central Bucks community is more diverse than people think. There are myriad students who historically have not been represented in the materials they’re assigned, books made available to them, and holidays celebrated by the district.

READ: Turning the Page on Restrictive Book and Resource Policies in Central Bucks School District Will Take a Little Time

While adding Diwali to the calendar in 2021 was an amazing step in the right direction, policies that sought to remove books from libraries, limit overt shows of support for student groups, and restrict access to athletics perpetuated the marginalization of students who were already being excluded.

What happens when children are bullied, or excluded for who they are?

Social exclusion and peer rejection are widespread occurrences in the social interactions of children and adolescents. They can manifest for various reasons, and while exclusion may not always be intended to inflict psychological harm, the resulting experiences can have adverse effects on emotional and behavioral well-being, academic performance, social behavior, and self-esteem. According to the CDC, children who are bullied have higher absenteeism. The risk of self-harm among bullied students is five to six times higher than the average student.

Who are the board members who were inducted recently?

Karen Smith was reelected, Heather Reynolds, Dana Foley, Rick Haring, and Susan Gibson were newly elected.

What work did it take to get them elected?

Ha! Blood, sweat, and tears. But seriously, this was a substantial commitment. Our team spent countless hours every single day working on the campaign. We fundraised, organized events and volunteers, and directed much of the strategy and messaging. We rallied and educated the community and worked closely with every candidate’s team to supplement anything they needed. This is an oversimplification of what it took to run these campaigns; it was an unprecedented amount of work.

There is a meme that I imagine is now viral of Karen Smith being sworn in on a stack of banned books. Why is that such a powerful image?

image 18 - Bucks County Beacon - Meet Three of the Neighbors Who United to Defend Public Education in Central Bucks School District

The community made themselves abundantly clear in November that they reject the restrictive library policies of the previous board majority. The books that President Smith selected are among the most challenged or banned books in the United States, not just Central Bucks. They are meaningful to our most marginalized community members, offering them representation, depictions of shared experiences, cultural and historical relevance, and a freedom to expand their minds into worlds they may not have known. What President Smith did assures the community that the new board majority will not let them down. They know why they were chosen in such large numbers, and they will keep their promises.

I know you can’t predict, but does this seem like a sign that the tide is turning on a national level as well?

Obviously, it’s hard to say what is happening everywhere, but we saw a lot of school districts here in Bucks County with similar results as Central Bucks. We also saw that around the country, the majority of candidates supported by Moms For Liberty lost their elections. Jim Crow era policies that hide people who are different from those in charge and restrict access to learning about their experiences and culture. The tide had already turned, we learned that in January 2023 from the eloquent words of Yale Professor and Central Bucks alum Dr. Talya Zemach-Bersin as read by Rick Haring at a school board meeting.

READ: It Takes A Village: Expelling Right-Wing Extremism From Bucks County School Districts

The difference is not that the tide turned this year, it’s that the tide finally led to the ballot box. Let’s hope that continues.

Is there anything else you want to share?

If you’d like to get involved, reach out to us at CBSDNeighborsUnited.com. We are also on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.

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Edie Weinstein

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a licensed social worker, psychotherapist, journalist, interfaith minister, speaker and author. She is the co-founder of Bucks County Kind.