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Controversial PAC donates to Republican Parkland School Board slate

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Olivia Marble
Former Lehigh County Commissioner Dean Browning, State Representative Ryan Mackenzie, State Representative Zach Mako and Co-Founder of Back to School PA Clarice Schillinger.

  • The political action committee Back to School PA gave $5,000 to the candidate group Elevate Education at an event on Monday
  • The PAC is run by Doylestown venture capitalist Paul Martino and former candidate for state Lieutenant Governor Clarice Schillinger
  • Elevate Education will face off against another candidate group made of mostly incumbents in the Nov. 7 election

SOUTH WHITEHALL TWP., Pa. — The Parkland School Board race is starting to heat up again, with funds now coming from a controversial statewide group.
Political action committee Back to School PA, run by Doylestown venture capitalist Paul Martino and former candidate for state Lieutenant Governor Clarice Schillinger, gave $5,000 to the Republican candidate group Elevate Education at an event Monday.

Martino is known nationally for donating $500,000 of his own money to the PAC in the 2021 school board races. Some of that money went to State Senator Jarrett Coleman’s campaign for the Parkland School Board, where he got his political start.

Martino said his PAC is nonpartisan and focused on keeping schools open and combatting learning loss. But critics have questioned his motives since he mostly backs Republican candidates as school boards have become the center of political debates across the country.

Elevate Education is made up of Republicans Mike Deering, Beth Finch, Natalie Janotka, Bobby Lanyon, Mike Millo and George Rivera.

According to the group's website, its main priorities are reducing spending in the district, increasing transparency on the board and increasing parental involvement in education. However, several members of the group have previously spoken publicly against how the district teaches about race, gender and sexuality.

Monday's event was held at Millo's house and was attended by Republican politicians such as state Representatives Ryan Mackenzie and Zach Mako. Lanyon was the only other candidate from the slate who attended; Millo said the other candidates had to work.

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Olivia Marble
The attendees at Parkland School Board candidate Mike Millo's campaign event. Candidate Bobby Lanyon attended but did not join the photo.

Elevate Education will face off against another candidate group made of mostly incumbents in the Nov. 7 election. Key issues in the race include transparency, spending and how the district should deal with projected overcrowding in its middle and high schools.

Back to School PA is donating money to school board candidates across the state again this year. Martino and Schillinger are currently traveling throughout the commonwealth to meet up with the candidates they backed.

“We're not deploying near the amount of money we did last time,” Martino said. “But importantly, we're here for what we think are some of the key races.”

Schillinger said she and Martino decided to donate to the Parkland School Board race because they identified it as “one of those places that is so critically important, that the fight is real.”

The group decided to back Elevate Education because it has a “stronger mission towards being student-empowered, student minded, first and foremost for the student” than its opposition, she said.

The money will first go to former Lehigh County Commissioner Dean Browning’s PAC Common Sense Solutions, and will then be donated to the candidate group. Browning said he manages the finances for Elevate Education.

Common Sense Solutions made $16,800 worth of in-kind contributions to Elevate Education during the primary election, according to an article by Armchair Lehigh Valley. Martino donated $3,000 to the PAC during the primary.

What is Back to School PA?

Back to School PA started in 2021, when Martino and Schillinger teamed up to fund school board candidates who advocated for in-person learning at a time when many schools had virtual or hybrid classes.

Martino and Schillinger emphasized that their PAC is nonpartisan, supporting candidates who are focused on learning loss from virtual learning, transparency and financial responsibility, regardless of political party.

Both Martino and Schillinger are Republicans, and most of the candidates Back to School PA has backed are conservative. But the PAC has also donated to progressive groups like Black Wall PA, when they were supporting mandating in-person instruction at public schools during the pandemic lockdown.

“We didn't back them because of those policies. We backed them because they wanted the schools open."
Doylestown venture capitalist Paul Martino, speaking about backing Moms for Liberty candidates

The PAC has been criticized for backing school board candidates who are part of far-right groups like Moms for Liberty. Martino said he did not know what Moms for Liberty was before the criticism.

“We didn't back them because of those policies. We backed them because they wanted the schools open,” Martino said.

Martino has advocated on his Facebook page for removing the controversial, LGBTQ-themed books ‘Genderqueer’ and ‘This Book Is Gay’ from school libraries, saying “This is again not about gay rights, this is about PORN.”

“If you want to read books about coming of age when gay, yes those books are there too and will continue to be there,” the Facebook post read. “But the books that should be removed are about explicit sex acts and in some cases include pictures too.”

Martino said learning loss from virtual learning should be the primary focus of school boards. He said he has had to remind the candidates they fund to focus on it.

“It's amazing how that is not a primary topic almost anywhere we go… We have gender policies, book policies, and we're sitting here like, ‘How is this the most important stuff that's happening in the district?’” Martino said.

A national campaign?

Back to School PA may be expanded to support school board candidates nationwide, but information about it is difficult to find.

Last July, Schillinger was a guest on the Philadelphia talk radio show The Dom Giordano Program. She said she was starting a new PAC called Back to School USA as an expansion of Back to School PA.

Schillinger said on the program that the PAC would “counteract the teachers’ union” and the funds it gives to school board candidates.

“We are more focused on these woke and gender ideas — it’s incredible what’s happening — if we can even keep the schools open,” Schillinger said on the radio show.

The national PAC was cited in a Philadelphia Inquirer article that was published this March. The article implied that Martino is part of Back to School USA, and quoted its website as saying the PAC “is taking the fight directly to the liberal teachers’ unions and special interest groups that are responsible for indoctrinating our children.”

Back to School USA’s website is no longer accessible to the public.

In an email, Martino said Back to School USA “isn’t off the ground yet” and is “more of an idea right now." He said he hopes Schillinger can get it going.

The upcoming election

Five four-year seats and one two-year seat are up for election on Nov. 7. The two-year term was created by state Sen. Jarrett Coleman’s resignation from the board in December.

The race features two opposing groups of candidates who are campaigning together and sharing resources. Voters can choose candidates individually and do not have to vote for the whole group.

The candidate group that won the Democratic nomination is made up of incumbents Carol Facchiano, Jay Rohatgi, Lisa Roth and Marisa Ziegler, as well as newcomer Chris Pirrotta.

All the candidates in the race will be on the ballot for the four-year seat except Millo, who is only running for the two-year seat. Millo said Monday that he plans to run again for a four-year term if he wins this election.

Rohatgi won the Democratic nomination for the two-year seat as well as the Democratic nomination for one of the four-year seats.

If Rohatgi were to win both seats, he would choose which seat to fill and the board would appoint someone else to fill the vacancy.

Candidate groups

The incumbent group has a new website and has named its campaign “Proud of Parkland.”

“The Proud of Parkland campaign champions our district's rich legacy, reinforced by a diverse slate of seasoned educational leaders united across party lines,” the website states.

“Committed to both preserving Parkland's core values and pioneering forward-thinking initiatives, we envision an even brighter future for our district.”

Elevate Education's main priorities are reducing spending in the district, increasing transparency on the board and increasing parental involvement in education, according to its website.

But on an episode of the podcast Gunther Rewind that has since been removed from the website, Finch said she thinks “tenets of CRT” are being taught in Parkland schools through social/emotional learning and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

CRT stands for Critical Race Theory, which has become the term used in debates across the country about how race and racism should be discussed in schools.

The opposing candidate group says Critical Race Theory is not taught in Parkland and the curriculum is appropriate for the students.

Finch said she is concerned there are books with “sexually explicit materials” in school libraries and thinks all the books in the libraries should be reviewed. She also said the group believes gender and sexuality should not be discussed in the classroom.

“We are fully against it and need to get it out of the schools immediately,” Finch said.

In an emailed response to questions about whether those statements reflect the group’s position, the group said that the district’s cultural diversity should be celebrated, but “it is not in the purview of the school district to highlight one cultural background over another but rather, first and foremost, to be a community.”

The group’s website says parental involvement “includes controversial societal trends that are embedding themselves into school systems across the country,” but does not say anything specific about the issues.

The group has criticized the school board’s vote to increase the millage rate by 1.2% for this school year and has pledged to “elevate education not taxes.” It said on the website that it would “create a more fiscally responsible educational organization” to avoid tax increases.

Facchiano said in a previous interview that the 1.2% millage rate increase for this school year was necessary to balance the budget.