When five Democrats take their seats on — and control of — the Pennridge School Board Monday night, it will be the culmination of a remarkable turn of events that even their campaign strategist, Kevin Foster, didn’t predict.
With Republicans holding a 16-percentage point (51-35) advantage in voter registration in the district, Foster said he was hopeful but realistic about the Pennridge Community Alliance’s slate of candidates’ chances of winning.
“Looking at historical results, we knew it would be an uphill battle,” says Foster, a Hilltown Township resident with three kids in the district. “In the world of partisan politics, the number of people who split their tickets is decreasing dramatically. We knew we were up against those headwinds.”
And yet PCA won handily, with the lowest Democrat candidate recording nearly 1,000 more votes than the top Republican on the Protect Pennridge 2023 slate, a significant margin in a school district race.
Given the odds, how did the Democrats pull off an upset that will shape the district’s direction for at least the next few years?
In interviews a week after the election, local observers say it was a combination of factors, including public internal squabbling among incumbent Republicans, an April decision to bring in an outsider to help develop curriculum, and passage of policies aimed at LGBTQ+ students that energized the Democrat base and caught the attention of moderate Republicans and Independents.
Foster said those helped, but the PCA’s candidates and their steadfast commitment to sticking to the issues “affecting everyone across the district” made the difference. He pointed to strong support for Republicans at the top of the ballot in Pennridge precincts as evidence that “people went out of their way to vote for PCA.”
In two baseline campaigns — for Pennsylvania Supreme Court and Bucks County Coroner — for example, Republicans won by 7 and 2 percentage points in Pennridge. PCA candidates, on the other hand, won by an average of 7 percentage points.
Foster said he helped Pennridge’s Democratic candidates develop a strategy that focused on “listening to the community and focusing on what they are telling us. We weren’t telling anyone what to care about.”
The campaign used a combination of nearly 50,000 mailers, letters and postcards, social media posts that reached 400,000 people, and an aggressive door-knocking effort that generated about 3,500 conversations to send a message that the candidates “care deeply about Pennridge and showcasing that to the community,” he said.
Early on, Foster said, the goal was to give the community a choice to vote for change. He said there were no expectations about winning a certain number of seats.
The turning point, Foster says, may have come in late April when the board voted 5-4 to hire Vermilion Education to review the curriculum. In addition to it being an open-ended contract for $125 an hour added to the agenda with no public notice, critics complained loudly about what they characterized as Jordan Adams’ lack of experience and his ties to Hillsdale College and its controversial 1776 curriculum that some claim pushes a sanitized version of history related to slavery, civil rights, the women’s movement, and LGBTQ+ issues.
That’s when Foster sensed something special could happen. The number of volunteers offering to help with the campaign soared after the Vermilion vote, he said, to the point “we could barely manage them all.”
During the fall, PCA candidates laid out plans to improve academic performance, reduce legal fees, and return local control to the curriculum. In a lot of ways, they were campaigning against the current board rather than those on the GOP ballot.
Although not affiliated with PCA, two groups lent their support: the Ridge Network, a local advocacy group; and the Policy of Truth, a local Political Action Committee that ran a series of billboards criticizing the current board. Guest opinions and letters to the editor in local newspapers from parents, retired teachers, and former students also played a role, Foster says.
In an interview with MSNBC one day after the election, Jane Cramer, a social worker and Pennridge parent who helped with the campaign said, “It was really a full-court press for…six months...”
One veteran political observer, who asked to remain anonymous, said he spoke to voters on both sides leading up to the election and noted that “a lot of the moderate Republicans were very upset with the current school board majority for several reasons, mostly on the curriculum, library, teacher turnover, and transparency issues. They know someone through friends and family at the school district. The school district is very interconnected with the community, and the word-of-mouth talk about the school upset people greatly.”
Adam Bencsik, chair of the Pennridge Democrats, who was not part of the campaign team, said PCA “did a good job focusing on issues that actually affect Pennridge while their opponents just talked about national culture wars.”
The Democrats convinced voters the issues transcended politics, he said.
“While Democratic turnout surged, PCA also received a good amount of Republican and Independent votes,” he said.
Members of the Protect Pennridge 2023 slate declined to comment for this story.