A political action committee aimed at backing candidates opposed to pandemic school closures has pumped nearly $600,000 into normally sedate school board races across Pennsylvania, including donations to several groups in and near the Lehigh Valley, campaign finance records show.
Funded primarily by Doylestown venture capitalist Paul Martino, Back to School PA has made around 60 contributions averaging about $10,000 each to local political action committees backing slates of school board candidates who support in-person education in an effort to force out school board incumbents who Martino said failed students and parents by keeping schools closed too long during the pandemic.
The influx of cash in school districts such as Southern Lehigh, where an organization backing Republican candidates received $10,000 from Martino’s PAC, has forced candidates to scramble to raise thousands of dollars in races where they previously might have spent a few hundred, at most.
“It changed the race,” said Southern Lehigh school board member Kathleen Parsons, a two-term incumbent facing a Republican challenger. “Instead of just talking about the issues, we had to raise money.”
But those who are benefitting from Martino’s donations say they level the playing field for outsiders in an area of the government where incumbents backed by teachers unions and other interest groups have long held a firm grip on their seats.
“To use our PAC as an illustration, if you take $10,000 and divide it between four candidates that comes out to $2,500 which is pretty normal for a school board race,” said William Mulgrew, treasurer of KASD Children First, which supports a slate of conservative candidates for school director in Kutztown Area School District. The organization received a $10,000 donation in August and a $5,000 donation this month.
Although Martino says Back to School PA is a single-issue PAC that supports candidates of all stripes as long as they support in-person education, critics say it overwhelmingly provides campaign funding to candidates who espouse polarizing positions on diversity, equality and inclusion.
“It doesn’t really pass the smell test,” said Steven Schnell, who is running for an open seat on the Kutztown Area School Board. “It seems odd that you would dump $10,000 into a district that actually kept the schools open.”
Schnell said those supported by the Martino-backed PAC also oppose mask-wearing policies, LGBTQ support and label curricula recognizing the effects of slavery and white supremacy in American history as critical race theory.
“There’s a whole slate of these issues that are working in lockstep together,” he said.
In addition to PACs in the Southern Lehigh and Kutztown Area school districts, Back to School PA has contributed $10,000 each to organizations called Voters for School Board Candidates based in Coopersburg, Quakertown Strong in Green Lane, Restore Lehigh Schools in Whitehall and Build a Board in Lehighton.
Friends of Southern Lehigh Advocates of Full Education raised more than $35,000 since June, including Martino’s contribution. It has not supported school board candidates directly, but its spending has been on printing, a golf outing, yard signs and donations to Southern Lehigh sports booster clubs. Efforts to contact people associated with the PAC were unsuccessful.
It changed the race. Instead of just talking about the issues, we had to raise money.
Martino, 47, is a graduate of Lehigh University and co-founded Bullpen Capital, which has invested in dozens of internet startups including the online sports betting company FanDuel.
He founded Back to School PA after contributing to a PAC that sought to oust incumbent school board members in the Hatboro-Horsham School District in Montgomery County.
Martino said he applied his experience scaling startups to the model Hatboro Horsham parent Clarice Schillinger created with her PAC, Keeping Kids in School, which supported more than 80 successful candidates in the 2021 primary election. He said he wondered whether he could find 50 people like Schillinger.
“It turns out there are a lot more than 50 Clarisses in Pennsylvania and we found a lot of them,” Martino said. He put up $500,000 of his own money initially and accepted $130,000 in donations from the Commonwealth Children’s Choice Fund and $15,000 from the Students First, both Republican-led PACs.
Schillinger, who is now executive director of Back to School PA, said the organization started by sending an email blast to every Republican and Democratic committee chairperson in Pennsylvania in search of school board candidates who believe schools should be open through the pandemic and sought to hold school administrators accountable for the impact she said closures have had on children.
“I watched my children struggle with 14 months of isolation, really. There were no sports, there was no in-person education,” Schillinger said. “A year and a half without teachers or friends is tough for a 14-year-old.”
Masking and vaccinations are sufficient to keep students safe through a resurgence of the virus, Schillinger said, and children are least vulnerable, so schools should stay open, she said.
Martino said he was similarly angered by the continuation of school closures in Central Bucks School District, where his children go, especially after the district surveyed parents and a strong majority said they supported a return to in-person education.
“I really started this to get accountability over the administration who dropped the ball in my opinion,” he said.
By exerting pressure on district leaders, parents were able to persuade administrators to reopen Central Bucks schools at the start of the last school year. Martino said he believes they would have remained closed through the end of 2020 if he had not led the effort.
Schillinger said Back to School PA received about 200 inquiries from candidates and organizations that said they were aligned with Schillinger and Martino’s goals. Through an interview process, they identified 50 PACs to receive Martino’s initial contribution. When additional funding was offered, they made about 10 more contributions.
Martino said he rejects the idea that the funding is fueling divisiveness in school board elections, saying the PAC has funded both Democrats and Republicans who support school reopening.
Parsons, the Southern Lehigh school board member, said the notion that anyone involved in education wants schools to remain closed is a distraction from administrators’ efforts to educate students and keep them safe under extraordinary circumstances.
“Instead of taking care of education they have had to defend themselves and rehash the arguments about why we’re following the guidelines and the mandates. It’s not just we think it’s a good idea. It’s what the state says we have to do,” she said.
Although Back to School PA has focused on the issue of in-person education, Martino said he’s encouraged by the surge of interest in school board races to take on other issues in the future.
“Now that we have found this grassroots group of parents who want to be more involved in their kids’ education we have to figure out what to do next,” he said.
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