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Local school board elections latest battlegrounds for polarized national politics

Moms for Liberty School Board Races
Sarah Mueller
Across the Lehigh Valley, from Southern Lehigh to Nazareth and Parkland, contentious races for control of local school boards are taking center stage in the fall election.

  • Schools as centers for culture wars are not new, analyst says
  • "Parental rights" candidates want new rules on books, bathrooms; opponents say they'll restrict rights
  • New parents' groups are pushing back against Moms for Liberty candidates

NAZARETH, Pa. — Across the Lehigh Valley, from Southern Lehigh to Nazareth and Parkland, contentious races for control of local school boards are taking center stage in the fall election.

These aren’t the school board contests of yesterday, focused on millage rates and teacher salaries. In 2023, slates of candidates are fighting for who gets to set district policies on so-called “parental rights” issues, like book bans, gender identity policies, bathrooms and transgender athletes. And national groups, like Moms for Liberty, are pouring money and resources into the contests to promote their agendas.

“The sexualization that is going on in our society is absolutely disgusting,” Nazareth Area School Board Director Wayne Simpson said.

Simpson was commenting ahead of a recent school board vote on whether to keep the novel “Push” by Sapphire on the high school’s library shelves.

In Nazareth, the area’s Moms for Liberty former chapter president, Jennifer Simon, has officially challenged four school library books, calling for them to be removed.

“Push,” which was made into the 2009 Academy-Award-winning movie “Precious,” is about an abused, pregnant Black teenager who finds hope after meeting a teacher who helps her to learn how to read. It cost the school district $16,000 to review that novel, plus the three other books on Simon’s list: “Boy Toy” by Barry Lyga, “Sold” by Patricia McCormick and “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins.

At the school board meeting last week, Simon said “Push” should be removed, not “banned,” because it depicts incest and physical and sexual abuse.

Sarah Mueller
Moms for Liberty Northampton County chapter President Jennifer Simon argues she is not advocating for a book ban

A breakdown of local school board races

  • Bethlehem Area School Board
    Democrats Karen Beck Pooley, Emily Root Schenkel and M. Rayah Levy and Republican and Moms for Liberty Northampton County-endorsed candidate Cindy O’Brien are competing for three at-large seats that has a four-year term.

    O’Brien is also running against Democratic candidate Kim Shively in Region III for a two-year term seat.
  • Southern Lehigh School Board
    There are no specifically-endorsed Moms For Liberty in Southern Lehigh. The race has created strange bedfellows. The Democratic nominees are Melissa Torba, Eric Boyer, Tim Kearney, Candi Kruse and school board incumbent Emily Gehman. However, Torba is the only registered Democrat on the slate; the others are Republicans who cross-filed and won the Democratic nominations. All have all been endorsed by the teacher’s union. The “true Republicans” on the Republican ballot are Doug Durham, Deebel, Lance Tittle, Danelle Roy and James Pica. They signed a controversial pledge to enact conservative reforms.

  • East Penn School Board
    There are no publicly-endorsed Moms For Liberty in East Penn where five seats on the ballot will determine the focus of future board policy. However, a PAC called Defend East Penn accused the Republican candidate slate of having connections to Moms for Liberty, which they deny.

    That slate – called "Your Voice on the Board" – is comprised of registered Republicans Paul Barbehenn, Kristofer DePaolo, Lawrence Huyssen, Matt Mull and Angelic Schneider. It is endorsed by the Lehigh County Republican Committee.

    The slate of registered Democrats includes two incumbents, Jeffrey Jankowski and Joshua Levinson, and political newcomers Gabrielle Klotz, Timothy Kelly, and Shonta Ford. Jankowski and Kelly are Republicans, the rest are Democrats. This group has been endorsed by the Lehigh County Democratic Committee.

  • Nazareth Area School Board
    In Region I, Democrats Sariann Knerr and Jeff Greener are competing against Moms for Liberty Northampton County-endorsed Republican candidates Elmo Frey Jr. and Melinda Gladstone. Democrat Jason Swails faces off against Republican Christopher MIller in Region II.

  • Northampton Area School Board
    In Region I, Democrats John Becker and Robert Mentzell are running against Republicans Kristin Lorah-Soldridge and Marc Kercsmar. In Region II, Democrat Michael Baird is facing off against Republican Bill Jones Jr., who is endorsed by the Moms for Liberty Northampton County chapter.

    Democrat David Gogel, Republican Joshua Harris and Brian McCulloch, who is crossfiled on both ballots, are competing for two seats in Region III.

  • Parkland School Board
    The group, “Proud of Parkland,” is the Democratic slate, which is made up of mostly incumbents on the board. Marisa Ziegler, Jay Rohatgi, Christopher Pirrotta, Lisa A. Roth and Carol Facchiano are Democrats and Roth and Facchiano are Republicans running on the Democratic ballot.

    The slate of Republicans making up the group “Elevate Education” include Beth Finch, Bobby Lanyon, Michael Deering, George Rivera and Natalie Janotka. Finch’s ties to Moms for Liberty are unclear. She previously said she was offered a role in the Lehigh County Moms for Liberty group, but declined it.  

“I am not here to argue the perceived literary value or merits of any of the books in question,” she said. “I'm saying they contain explicit content. I'm not sure why some people keep trying to paint this conversation as some insidious move to erase books from existence.”

The board delayed a final decision on the book, in part because of the high cost of reviewing each of Simon’s contested books.

Simon, who is now listed as secretary on the Moms for Liberty chapter’s website, did not respond to a request for comment for this story, nor did Lehigh County Moms for Liberty President Janine Vicalvi.

Moms for Liberty groups across the country are following the same playbook — petitioning school boards to remove books, challenging policies and backing candidates in school board races who align with their ideals.

The Northampton County chapter of Moms for Liberty has openly endorsed four school board candidates in the November election: Cindy O’Brien in the Bethlehem Area School School District; Melinda Gladstone and Elmo Frey Jr. on the Nazareth Area School Board; and Bill Jones in the Northampton Area School District. The candidates have also been endorsed by the national chapter.

The picture is less clear in Lehigh County; the local Moms for Liberty chapter doesn’t list endorsed candidates on its website, nor are there endorsements on the national website.

‘Parental rights’ agenda

Moms-for-Liberty-endorsed candidates are trying to suppress the teaching of history they don’t like, according to Nazareth Democratic school board candidate Jeff Greener. He is facing Gladstone and Frey Jr. in the Nov. 7 general election.

“I'm more concerned about the schools that are rewriting history, and trying to really whitewash history or just change it to a narrative that doesn't make them feel uncomfortable,” he said.

Frey said he is opposed to teaching Critical Race Theory in schools, and that he accepted the Moms for Liberty endorsement because they support parental rights. CRT is an academic framework that examines how institutions perpetuate racism; it’s become a catch-all for some who believe any discussion of race and racism is divisive.

“If it's a girl identifying herself as a boy, or a boy identifying himself as a girl, the parents should be aware of that."
Nazareth Moms for Liberty-endorsed candidate Elmo Frey Jr.

Frey said he believes parents have a right to know more about their children’s time in school, including if they are using pronouns that align with their gender identity.

“If it's a girl identifying herself as a boy, or a boy identifying himself as a girl, the parents should be aware of that,” he said. “You assumed you would certainly think that the parent should be aware of it.”

“Parental rights” has become a prominent rallying call in school board races across the Valley and the nation.

Opponents of Moms for Liberty say it’s a catchall phrase used to justify restricting classroom materials and library books, rolling back protections for transgender students and eliminating teaching about race, implicit bias, and social-emotional learning.

Moms for Liberty and local elections

Moms for Liberty is a Florida-based group initially founded in 2021 by former school board members Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovitch as a move to counter masking in schools during pandemic shutdowns.

Cavalry Strategies
Tiffany Justice of Moms for Liberty

The Southern Poverty Law Center has since labeled the group an “anti-government extremist” organization, citing its use of social media platforms to “target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education, advance a conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community.”

During the group’s national summit in Philadelphia over the summer, Justice told LehighValleyNews.com the group targets school board races because having local control is vital.

“The most important decisions that are made for you and your family often happen in the school board or in local politics, right in local elected office,” she said. “So we're just excited to have a lot of new people running for school board. We endorsed in over 500 races in 2022. We won over half of those and 76% of the candidates are first time candidates.”

“Schools have long been venues in which people have fought over issues that are not centrally related to schools."
Author Dan Hopkins, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Making schools the center stage for culture wars is nothing new, said Dan Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s the author of the book “The Increasingly United States,” about how local politics has gone national.

“Schools have long been venues in which people have fought over issues that are not centrally related to schools, whether it was California in the 1970s, voting on whether people who identified as gay to teach or Orange County, California in the 1960s, debating whether teachers should be fired for affiliations with the Communist Party, or even sometimes alleged affiliations,” he said.

“And so I do think that schools are one of the more local kinds of institutions, and sometimes they become frontlines in national political battles.”

Stop Moms for Liberty

This isn’t the first election where Moms for Liberty has endorsed candidates, but what's new this year is the rise of organized opposition to the group — in Pennsylvania and across the country — as other parents are also seizing on motherhood as a powerful weapon to move public opinion, and are pushing back.

Retired Central Florida educator and parent Liz Mikitarian said she created a group called Stop Moms for Liberty last year to counter the right-wing agenda. The main goal of Moms for Liberty and other far-right groups, Mikitarian argued, is to privatize education and inject Christianity. And that starts with the school boards.

Liz Mikitarian
Stop Moms for Liberty group logo

“We think that the reason why these attacks are happening at the school district school board level is because it's almost the low-hanging fruit,” she said. “Those are the easiest elections to win, right? You have lower voter turnout, it's most easy to flip those seats.”

Moms for Liberty boasts 285 chapters in 47 states nationwide with more than 100,000 members. Mikitarian said she watched in horror as the group continued to grow, starting from right where she called home. She said she believed there were moms out there as outraged as she was – so she decided to take action.

"And the member there in Brevard County, in conversation with me, decided to call me a ‘groomer,’ to tell me that I must have been supportive of pedophiles in my career. And it's like this light switch went on, ‘Oh my God, are people being attacked like this?”’
Stop Moms for Liberty founder Liz Mikitarian

“I taught kindergarten for many, many years in reading,” she said. “And I was online one day trying just in my own county to speak to people in the Moms for Liberty group. And I tried very hard to just instill a little bit more truth into what was actually happening in schools instead of what they were complaining, or that they were alluding to, was happening,” she said.

“And the member there in Brevard County, in conversation with me, decided to call me a ‘groomer,’ to tell me that I must have been supportive of pedophiles in my career. And it's like this light switch went on, ‘Oh my God, are people being attacked like this?”’

Mikitarian said there’s been no shortage of parents and community members clamoring to take up the fight against Moms for Liberty. She said about 40 states have at least one Stop Moms Facebook group. Pennsylvania’s group has more than 2,000 members, including chapters in Lehigh and Northampton counties.

“Pennsylvania is the model of things to come in the Stop Moms for Liberty world,” Mikitarian said. “We know that our membership has passion and they have skills and we trust them to do the fight in the way that you need to do the fight, that's best for you.”

Pennsylvania as a battleground

Calls to ban books in Pennsylvania motivated Ariel Franchak, a reading specialist in the Harrisburg area, to step up as the administrator for the statewide Stop Moms For Liberty Facebook group.

“I've always felt very passionate about having kids read books that they want to read and their parents or guardians have every right to tell that child, ‘No, this book is not appropriate. I don't want you reading this,’” she said. “But adults can't make that decision for everyone, they can make it for their child.”

Franchak recently created 22 county anti-Moms for Liberty Facebook groups as local administrators volunteered to lead them. She said the groups generally exchange information, organize against Moms for Liberty policies and advocate for their preferred school board candidates.

April Gabriel-Ferretti moderates the Northampton County Stop Moms for Liberty Facebook page. She is also the founder of a group called Nazareth Forever, which holds events that welcome all community members, including those in the LGBTQ+ a community.

Gabriel-Ferretti uses her Stop Moms Facebook page to protest Moms for Liberty events, and to inform members and enlist supporters to oppose actions taken under what she called the “parental rights agenda.”

Olivia Marble
April Gabriel-Ferretti, administrator of the Facebook page Northampton County Pa Stop Moms for Liberty and the founder of the LGBTQ advocacy group Nazareth Together. She organized the protest against a children's storytime hour at the Memorial Library of Nazareth and Vicinity sponsored by the county's Moms for Liberty chapter. In front of the door with the umbrella is library board member James Cunningham.

“It's going to be a platform for us to share information, to mobilize our efforts, and to keep people informed, but we will be starting to have some more regular meetings in terms of the different chapters throughout the state,” she said.

Republican Bethlehem Area School board candidate Cindy O’Brien has not advertised her endorsement from Moms for Liberty, including in recent campaign mailers. She’s running on a platform that includes academic excellence, parental rights, and the safety and security of the Bethlehem school community. She did not return a request for an interview.

Some school board candidates are trying to distance themselves from the Moms for Liberty connection, Mikitarian said. But there are key words she said identify them as having the same ideology.

“If they're talking about parents have a right, and they want appropriate books in school, all the different issues that have been actually in the platform, they're saying it without saying it.”

The Lehigh County Stop Moms for Liberty Facebook page declined media access to its page. A request for an interview was initially agreed to, but ultimately there was no response.

Follow the money

Pennsylvania is an important focus for Moms for Liberty to elect school board members because of the number of chapters, according to Justice. She said the state has the second-largest Moms for Liberty presence in the country.

“We had a lot of growth here and it was like wildfire,” she said. “You see a little spark of fire start, right, a chapter opens up. And then you see another chapter or two in the next county, and then another chapter in the next county.”

Justice calls members “joyful warriors” and talks publicly about wanting to improve poor scores revealed on reading, writing and math on national tests.

But in Philadelphia in July, the tone of the group’s summit focused on the "survival" of America, alleged “sexualizing” of children in schools, restricting access to books and anti-trans rhetoric.

Sarah Mueller
Stop Moms for Liberty founder Liz Mikitarian in a Zoom interview.

“There's this ultra conservative, I’ll call it extremist, approach to taking over the country,” Stop Moms’ Mikitarian said. “And some of the folks on their side of that argument are very transparent about it – they believe that they should have a Christian nationalist position within the country and that's how our schools should look.”

Moms for Liberty and far-right groups have deeper pockets than the Stop Moms group, which is completely grassroots, according to Mikitarian. Moms for Liberty also has close ties to the Republican Party, groups and political candidates.

Wealthy Pennsylvania donors have also waded into Lehigh Valley school board races, trying to turn the tide in favor of their preferred candidates.

For instance, in the East Penn School District where two slates of candidates are fighting a hotly-contested race, a roster of conservative Republican newcomers supported by the “Your Voice PAC” has received $5,000 from venture capitalist Paul Martino of Doylestown. Martino has pledged to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars in school board races across the state centered on conservative cultural wedge issues.

Martino's group also recently gave $5,000 to the Parkland school board Republican slate “Elevate Education” at an event last month.

"I want to make sure that our local people are being heard and that it's not just a couple of loud voices that are pushing a national narrative and don't even necessarily have kids in school.”
Nazareth Democratic School Board candidate Jeff Greener

Nazareth Democratic school board candidate Jeff Greener said he’s concerned about the outside money he said is coming from national Moms for Liberty to fund his Republican opponents.

“It's being funded from outside of our area,” he said. “And again, the key thing is I care about is what's going on locally, I care about our community. And I want to make sure that our local people are being heard and that it's not just a couple of loud voices that are pushing a national narrative and don't even necessarily have kids in school.”