Florida May Provide a Window Into How Pennsylvania’s New Right-Wing School Board Organization Might Operate

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania School Directors Coalition founder Christina Brussalis is tight-lipped about who’s funding the organization, who’s on the board, and whether they are working with the Independence Law Center.
Bedminster, NJ – Aug. 14, 2022: Demonstrators rally during a ‘Stand with Trump’ event following an FBI search at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home. Photo by Ben Von Klemperer/Shutterstock.

Pennsylvania school boards have a tradition of non-partisanship, with candidates allowed to cross file with both parties. It makes sense; the business of a local school board is largely the nuts and bolts of keeping the district running, and members are more likely to be identified by stances on local issues than on party philosophy. There’s no liberal or conservative stance on hiring bus drivers, and every candidate promises fiscal responsibility. 

But as the right wing has developed an interest in commandeering school boards, there has also been an interest in creating organizations to connect and support those board members with a conservative agenda. And it appears that such an organization has just arrived in Pennsylvania.

Florida in the lead, again

One of the first notable conservative school board organizations was founded in 2015 in Florida. It was created by a handful of school board members who wanted to push conservative policy goals, particularly charter schools and school vouchers. 

The Florida Coalition of School Board Members was welcomed by Jeb Bush’s ExcelInEd, a school choice advocacy group, and it included in its first years some names that have since become familiar. 

Erika Donalds is a Tea Partier and school privatization advocate in Florida who operates a school management company. Her husband is Byron Donalds, who gave Florida the law that allows any taxpayer to challenge course content; Donalds has gone fill MAGA and may have a shot at Trump’s VP spot.

READ: Newly Surfaced Video Of Moms For Liberty Advisor Reveals Religious Extremist Agenda 

Anne Corcoran is the wife of Richard Corcoran, legislator-turned-Education Commissioner, now turned unqualified chief of New College, the liberal school that Governor Ron DeSantis hopes to turn into a Christian conservative school, a “Hillsdale of the South.” 

There were several other conservative school privatizers involved, but the most striking may be Bridget Ziegler and Tina Descovich, two of the three future founders of Moms For Liberty. Yes, the origin story of M4L is not three moms sitting around the kitchen table, but three experienced political operatives  who hadn’t quite gotten the traction with their previous political advocacy group and were ready to look in a different direction when the pandemic and discontent with school district responses pointed the way. Only a few months separate the dissolving of FCSBM and the launch of M4L in 2020.

FCSBM operated for just a few years, giving out awards and working legislative connections as it “consistently fought above its weight” to win “key battles on school choice, charters and other hot-button education issues.” But its operation gives a clear picture of one major purpose of such groups. While the Florida School Board Association actively opposed school choice programs that would drain taxpayer dollars from their member districts,  pro-privatization could point to FSCBM and declare, “Well, this other school board member group absolutely loves our ideas.” Never mind that the FSCBA had more members in its board of directors than FCSBM had in its entire group.

While FCSBM dissolved in May of 2020, there was an attempt to revive it in 2021 and 2022, both as a Florida organization and a national one, and by 2023, things seemed off the ground, with some favorable press coverage. Spokespersons for the group insisted that it was not meant to oppose the FSBA, but simply to provide another voice.

Dropping the pretense of neutrality, the new group is called the Florida Conservative Coalition of School Board Members. Its board includes April Carney, the DeSantis-endorsed candidate in Duval County School Boards, elected in the 2022 campaign that saw the accusation that she had been at the capital on January 6. Jessie Thompson was endorsed by many GOP right wingers, including Byron Daniels and DeSantis and the 1776 PAC, the national PAC that worked to elect conservative school board members. She ran an anti-indoctrination campaign. 

Thompson currently serves as FCCSBM president; she recently asked the Volusia County School Board, where she’s a member, to pay her FCCSBM dues. Her fellow board members rejected her request, noting the obvious partisan nature of the group. On its website, FCCSBM says the group “is a non partisan affiliation, that is open to currently elected, conservative school board members.” FSBA, on the other hand,” is open to all. 

Thompson noted that the conservative coalition is founded on four values: God, family, education and country. The attempt to make the group the anchor of a national movement seems to have stalled.

A woman with an idea for Pennsylvania

Chris Brussalis envisions a similar group for Pennsylvania.

Brussalis is a school board member in Pine-Richland  schools, a mid-sized district located in the suburbs north of Pittsburgh. The median household income is $171,804. 85% of the students are White; 7.3% are eligible for free or reduced lunch. 

Brussalis was a consultant who “spent almost two decades helping organizations identify strategic opportunities and align resources to achieve goals” as well as doing PR work for two secretaries of defense and a congressional representative. In other words, like the founders of Moms for Liberty, she’s an experienced comms professional. Her most recent gig was with the Hill Group, where she worked with her husband, Chris Brussalis (current president of Point Park College). 

Brussalis was elected in 2021 as part of a conservative slate that, as reported by WESA, received $10,000 from Bucks County conservative Paul Martino. As detailed by Maddie Hanna at the Philadelphia Inquirer, this was part of Martino’s effort to “stop the liberal left” and fight those “indoctrinating our children.” 

While serving on the board, Brussalis was part of the group that killed a proposed diversity, equity and inclusion program. Brussalis said she “couldn’t move past that (equity) words,” according to Colin Williams for PINJ news. The district was the site of several book challenges (though a level-headed response by Superintendent Brian Miller seems to have settled that favorably). 

If that seems like a board that could use the services of the Independence Law Center, the legal arm of the Pennsylvania Family Council that serves as a go-to group for boards that want to implement repressive policies—well, Brussalis apparently has that number available to her. 

READ: The Independence Law Center Seeks to Impose its Biblical Worldview on Pennsylvania School Districts

At the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, a gathering for conservative activists, she was on a panel about empowering parents and students. The panel’s moderator was Michael Geer, the founder, president, and CEO of PFI. Geer started out as a journalist, including almost a decade as senior news producer at WPXI in Pittsburgh. Geer is a regular voice in conservative meetings, church gatherings, and media coverage. He’s opposed to legalization of marijuana, women’s health care options, non-traditional marriage, and freedom to read for students. 

Also on the panel was Kenneth Stracuzzi, leader of Hope for PA, a Bucks County conservative activist group. Among their notable moments was an invitation for “talented clappers” to attend a Pennridge district meeting to support Jordan Adams’ proposed conservative curriculum. Stracuzzi is also a “strategic advisor” to PFI. At one point, Geer references “recent conversations” that he’s had with Brussalis. 

“We need more conservative voices serving on our school boards,” she told the audience. “When you get elected, I want to know who you are because we have been working statewide to try to connect the conservative school directors so that we can have a collective voice in Harrisburg, but also to serve as a resource to each other.”

Brussalis later commented, “There’s nothing that’s going to help me talk about conservative issues, in a conservative way, that’s coming out of PSBA.” Also, “probably 90% of the time I don’t agree with what the Pennsylvania School Boards Association tells me.”

The newly launched group

So now we turn to the newly minted Pennsylvania School Directors Coalition. The website’s language is much more neutral than Brussalis’, promising that it will be a useful resource for “all school directors, regardless of political viewpoint.” It says nothing about, for instance, creating a conservative policy voice in Harrisburg. 

What the site does not have is any information about who is behind it. In an interview with the Inquirer’s Hanna, Brussalis declined to say who else is on the board or who is providing the funding. Asked by Hanna if PSDC was working with the Independence Law Center, Brussalis answered that they are “an independent organization,” which is the kind of carefully crafted non-answer one would expect from a comms professional. 

The group is offering an assortment of trainings that underline some of their conservative concerns. Contract negotiation techniques and strikes. Effective communication for policy wins and social media use 101. 

READ: How the Pennridge Community Came Together to Reject Moms for Liberty, Vermilion Education, and Political Extremism

Perhaps the most telling topic is this one: School board authority and role in curriculum, the description of which leads with, “The legislature intended for school boards to have significant say in the area of curriculum for their school districts.”

One of the hallmarks of the new conservative school board movement is a desire to micromanage school districts in a wide variety of details, including a careful control of what will be taught and how it will be taught. Yet if there is one universal disappointment for newly elected school board members of all persuasions, it’s the discovery that being a school board member is not, in fact, like being the CEO of your own company or the king of your own country. 

When school boards attempt such micromanagement, it often ends poorly (e.g. Dover School District board’s attempt to inject creationism into the curriculum). 

If the legislature “intended” for school boards to have such power, they neglected to put it in the school code, which instead offers language, such as “It shall be the duty of the superintendent having supervision over any high school to prepare, and recommend to the board of school directors” suitable courses of study. 

The PSBA comments about school board responsibility are broad

“Although the law does not give individual powers to school directors beyond their voices and votes at school board meetings, they do have a number of important individual responsibilities..” along the broad lines of “lead responsibly, act ethically, plan thoughtfully, evaluate continuously, communicate clearly, advocate earnestly, govern effectively.”

So what’s the beef with PSBA?

MAGA world has tried to beef with school board associations ever since the national association became alarmed at the level of threats and violence members were seeing at once-sleepy board meetings. The National School Boards Association tried to backwalk its way out of that mess, but that was never going to work because astroturf groups and rightwing activists smelled a target of opportunity. 

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

School board membership is largely a thankless (and unpaid) task, and school board associations are largely conservative in the traditional sense of wanting to preserve the longstanding institutions of their local schools. 

One would be hard pressed to find a left-wing agenda being pushed by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. Most of their offerings are aimed at helping ordinary citizens who suddenly find themselves overseeing a multi-million dollar operation come to grips with the many not-very-glamorous-or-ideological nuts and bolts of the job. Asking board members to leave their political and religious agenda at home is not the same as asking them to endorse explicitly left-wing policies.

On the other hand, almost every district board in the commonwealth passed a resolution calling for cyber charter funding reform. And boards regularly speak up to oppose the expansion of school choice policies in the state.

So at a time when some advocates are working so hard to defend charter funding and push school vouchers, having a “voice in Harrisburg” that says, “Hey, we’re school board members and we love these policies” would be very helpful for certain folks. 

Florida’s conservative coalition never acquired many members. That didn’t matter. They are an organization through which advocacy dollars can be passed and which legislators can use as a sort of shield. 

Christina Brussalis, the comms professional experienced in “helping organizations identify strategic opportunities and align resources to achieve goals,” and her unknown partners and financial backers may well want to create an alternative to PSBA for altruistic reasons, to make sure other conservative voices don’t feel isolated and unheard. Or it may be that this is one more comms advocacy project. We’ll have to wait and see if the groundswell of conservative members appears.

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene is a recently retired classroom secondary English teacher of 39 years. He lives and works in a small town in Northwest Pennsylvania, and blogs at Curmudgucation.

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