Book bans and bathrooms have made school board elections political lightning rods, again

Correction: A previous digital version of this story incorrectly reported that PA Family/PA Family Council has endorsed candidates in school board elections in York County and throughout the state. The organization reports that it does not make endorsements and merely produces an online voters' guide as "an informational guide."

For what’s been described as a hotly contested and politically divisive campaign for five seats on the Central York School Board, the Meet the Candidates night was a fairly staid affair.

The nine candidates sat at a long table in the middle of the cavernous cafeteria facing a sparse group of maybe 30 interested taxpayers and parents.

They spoke about their credentials for the office, their experience in education, business, government and as parents of kids who attend the school. They spoke about the need to appreciate and respect teachers and students. They spoke about the teacher and staff shortage. They spoke about the fiscal difficulties facing the district. They spoke about elementary school class sizes.

Students, parents and educators gathered outside the Central York School District Educational Service Center to protest the district's  book ban in September 2021. Book bans, bathroom policies and other culture war issues have dominated school board races this year.
Students, parents and educators gathered outside the Central York School District Educational Service Center to protest the district's book ban in September 2021. Book bans, bathroom policies and other culture war issues have dominated school board races this year.

There was scant mention of Central’s claim to fame – or infamy, depending on your perspective – the issue that in recent years placed the suburban district in the national media spotlight, the issue that is viewed as a symptom of our politically divisive times that has seeped into traditionally dull school board elections across the country.

The book ban. 

They really didn’t want to bring it up.

Clair Weigle III, a staffer for Cumberland County Republican State Rep. Thomas Kutz, told those gathered, “Unfortunately, in recent years, there’s been a lot of negativity in the news. But we can change that.”

Ben Walker, who is running with a slate of candidates opposed to politicizing the school board, said, “If reasonable people don’t show up, then only the most extreme voices will be heard.”

Later, during his concluding remarks, Walker said being an elected official is always going to involve politics; it’s the process in a democracy. “There are always going to be politics,” he said, “but they don’t have to be partisan politics. It shouldn’t be.”

Election 2023: Who is on the ballot in York County for the Nov. 7 election?

'Broader national issues migrate into local politics'

Central York is not alone.

School board races all over Pennsylvania – and the country – have become enmeshed in politics in the past few years, since the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing school shutdowns.

Central York was at the epicenter of the issue of school boards becoming politicized. The district made headlines when, in 2021, the school board banned a list of books, most of them used in its diversity curriculum, sparking protests that drew the attention of the media. The New York Times, CNN and other national news outlets covered the story, framing it as yet another skirmish in the culture war raging in the country.

It was seen as a symptom of a larger issue.

“We have seen broader national issues migrate into local politics, more significantly in recent years into school districts,” said Dr. Christopher Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College and director of the school’s Institute of Public Policy. “Anyone who has gone to school board meetings knows they were fairly dry. It doesn’t mean they weren’t sometimes contentious. But it’s become more so recently.”

More on Central York: Is it another book ban, or not? Central York removed two books from its library

There is evidence of that. Between 2021 and 2023, the website Ballotpedia identified 2,080 school board elections in which race in education, responses to the pandemic and vaccine mandates and sex and gender have surfaced as prime issues.

The movement – which falls under the rubric of “parental rights” − “was exacerbated by the pandemic,” Borick said, setting off battles over books and bathrooms, specifically which bathrooms and locker rooms transgender students should be permitted to use and which sports teams they can join.

“There’s been a bigger effort by national groups to strategically move some of these debates or issues to school district settings,” Borick said.

Those trying to insert politics into school boards and how they govern their districts assert that they wish to remove ideology from education. For instance, some groups want to forbid schools from using The 1619 Project – a work that takes a critical look at the traditional history of African-Americans from enslavement forward – in classrooms. Former President Donald Trump called for it to be banned in schools, accusing educators of teaching their students to “hate their own country.” Trump inspired the founding of The 1776 Project to counter The 1619 Project. The 1776 Project, which promotes “patriotism and pride in American history,” has formed a political action committee that has endorsed candidates in school board races in a dozen states, including Pennsylvania.

The irony, as some experts have pointed out, is that these groups that oppose political ideology in the classrooms of public schools are actively trying to insert their own ideology into classrooms.

“What we’re seeing,” Borick said, “is much more ideologically based on what people want to see in schools.”

The influence of national interest groups poses a danger to public education, said Julie Marsh, a professor of education at the University of Southern California and co-director of the university's Rossier School of Education's Center on Education Policy, Equity and Governance. "The ultimate goal (of those national groups) is to erode trust and undermine public education, leading to privatized schools," she said. The issues they raise, she said, provide "a distraction from more important matters."

The trend is not lost on the Pennsylvania School Board Association. The 125-year-old nonpartisan association is “not involved in and (does) not monitor election activities,” spokeswoman Mackenzie Christiana said. But, she said, “Over the past several years, some school board elections have become more politicized and contentious."

The lessons of the Dover intelligent design case

Before Central York, there was Dover.

Nearly two decades ago, the Dover Area School Board approved biology curriculum that allowed for the teaching of alternatives to the theory of evolution, a move that was spearheaded by religiously motivated and conservative members of the board. The alternate was termed “intelligent design,” which opponents said was a euphemism for creationism.

Eleven parents objected and sued the district and the board members for violating their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, that, in so many words, the board’s decision violated the precept of the separation of church and state, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The right permits people to practice their spiritual rights without fear, but it has been interpreted by courts to mean that the government cannot endorse religious beliefs.

After a 40-day trial in 2005, U.S. District Judge John Jones – now the president of Dickinson College – ruled in favor of the parents, issuing a 139-page opinion that decimated the arguments put forth by the board. In his ruling, Jones accused a number of witnesses for the board of committing perjury, writing, “The citizens of the Dover area were poorly served by the members of the board who voted for the ID Policy,” noting the irony of several board members who “staunchly and proudly touted their religious convictions in public, would time and again lie to cover their tracks.”

The Dover school board wound up paying more than $1 million to cover the plaintiffs’ legal fees.

Many thought that would be a strong deterrent to prevent future school boards from making decisions based on religious or ideological beliefs.

Fast forward to 2023.

Eight candidates are running to fill five seats on the Dover school board. Five of the candidates - David Conley, Allen Hogan, Craig Kindig, Rob McKinney and Karen Miller - are running as a team that, according to the candidates’ website, oppose what they believe to be “political indoctrination” in public schools.

On the candidates’ website,, Kindig wrote that he was inspired to run for school board by mask mandates imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Several of the candidates focus on opposing “political indoctrination.”

'True history and factual biology'

Banning books is just one aspect of the agenda of conservative candidates for school board. Another is the quest to protect children from being exposed to transgender classmates, particularly in bathrooms and locker rooms.

In June, the Red Lion Area School District’s board approved a policy that requires students to use the bathrooms that correspond with their gender at birth. Another policy also requires student-athletes to compete in sports that correspond with their birth gender and further exempts students and staff from using students’ preferred pronouns. The board approved the policies despite warnings from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that they are discriminatory and could result in litigation.

The issue of bathrooms and locker rooms also touched off a debate at South Western Area School District, which eventually adopted a policy that was believed to be a compromise, establishing a bathroom for transgender students and providing private showers and changing rooms for them in the locker rooms.

More: South Western school board meeting ends in chaos after attendees refuse to wear masks

This year, five of the 10 candidates for school board – Katy Bauer, Christianne Brennan, Keith Gelsinger, Matthew Smith and Justin Lighty – are running as a slate that has adopted conservative political views endorsed by national organizations.

On the candidates’ website, Justin Lighty, a stay-at-home father of seven, wrote that the five candidates “will focus on true history and factual biology.” He also wrote, “I will treat every person with love and respect, but I will not go against my morals as taught from a biblical foundation, and I will stand up and protect my children and yours from a woke virus that is infecting our great country.”

The candidates did not respond to a message asking them to elaborate about what Lighty meant by “true history and factual biology” or “the woke virus that is infecting our great country.”

Attendees shout and point as several South Western School District school board members walk out of an emergency meeting at the high school in Penn Township on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. The meeting was canceled after more than one hundred attendees refused to put on a face covering.
Attendees shout and point as several South Western School District school board members walk out of an emergency meeting at the high school in Penn Township on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. The meeting was canceled after more than one hundred attendees refused to put on a face covering.

A parent's perspective

Samantha Cole first noticed something was amiss during the COVID pandemic. Everything, particularly with schools, was becoming volatile, with people who wanted to open up the schools becoming more and more angry, an emotion that played out locally and on a national level.

“School board meetings went from something somewhat extremely boring .. .to something where the comment periods before school board meetings became something to be different,” she said.

She recalled that the Freedom Bikers Church – she had never heard of the group – disrupted school board meetings. “It just seemed anger and vitriol seemed to come up at that time,” she said.

Cole, who works in marketing technology, lives in Glen Rock, in the Southern York County School District, and has two daughters, 5 and 9. When her youngest daughter was in school, she began paying attention to school board meetings and soon found that they were not about governing the schools, but about politics and ideology.

“It didn’t seem to me that anybody was putting the students’ interests first,” she said. “The people who were saying they were putting the students’ interests first were not representing what the students need. It’s going on all sides.”

At times, Cole has tried to talk to others about issues facing the school board and it hasn’t turned out well. “You can have something that you agree with them instead of an argument and they don’t see it as common ground; they see it as a ‘gotcha moment’ for them,” she said.

The Southern school board race includes a slate of candidates running under the rubric of the Southern Parent and Taxpayer Coalition, which asserts that “school board races were never non-partisan.”

Its candidates – Bill Hall, Jeremy Hash, Jen Henkel, Nathan Henkel and Joe Wilson – have adopted a platform that advocates for “teaching true history rather than activist ideologies masquerading as history such as CRT and the 1619 project,” according to the candidates’ website. They also pledge to protect students from objectionable books and defend parents’ objections to COVID vaccine mandates. They also support allocating time during the school day “for students to engage in private contemplation, prayer, or mindfulness activities.”

The candidates did not respond to a request to provide details about their agenda.

Putting students above politics

During the Meet the Candidates night at Central, there was a lot of agreement among the candidates. They agreed that the district needed to do something to attract and retain teachers and staff, perhaps by paying them more in a competitive job market. They agreed on keeping a close watch over the district’s budget to stave off future fiscal difficulties. They agreed the state must fix its formula for funding school districts to pressure local taxpayers.

“You’re going to find we’re pretty much on the same page here,” candidate Faith Casale said while answering a question about the budget.

And there is a need “to build a consensus to put the negativity behind us,” said candidate Doug Bolinger, who supports “restoring traditional education” and “removing political agendas” from classrooms.

Previously: 'Parents are rising up': York County school board races now a battlefield in culture war

Later, Faith Casale explained, "When COVID lockdowns occurred and students went to remote learning, parents started to take a closer look at what was happening within the classroom.  We simply want to ensure we keep those lines of communication open." She wrote in an email that "we believe that the school day should be focused on core academics and building relationships between students and teachers for educational success and career readiness and not politically driven. We need to let parents handle any and all issues outside of the topic of academics."

During the candidate's forum, Michael Stewart, one of four candidates running as a team to oppose future book bans and adoption of politically motivated policies, seemed to be in agreement.

“We have to make sure we’re putting the students first,” he said, “not political agendas.”

Columnist/reporter Mike Argento has been a York Daily Record staffer since 1982. Reach him at

This article originally appeared on York Daily Record: York County school board elections once again political lightning rods