Central Bucks Is Not Okay

Recently, New York Times’ The Daily featured a two-part series called The School Board Wars about my school district, Central Bucks, in Bucks County, PA. Having lived through and — one could argue, having survived this 2021 election as a Democratic School Board Candidate in CBSD, this podcast series was an admittedly difficult listen; it brought to the surface every emotion I’ve buried, with the intention to no longer focus on some of that experience. Unlike Michael Barbaro and Campbell Robertson, I was actually here, experiencing it firsthand. I was here, listening, watching, and living it. I was here, with 4 other candidates, and all of our voices were missing from this story. Our voices, our experiences, and our stories were left untold.

How it Started

In the summer of 2020, as I listened to the increasingly contentious school board meetings, I noticed a trend. School Board public comment became more heated with each meeting. At the same time, I read commentary from parents in the district. Several kept advocating for schools to be open without any COVID mitigation, without masks, and without social distancing. The pandemic most of us were living in, didn’t exist for some groups. This was telling of our political climate and the massive amount of misinformation about COVID. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and reading. We were all hurting, many of us felt lost and unsure of what’s to come, but several parents in the district had a plan: Reopen schools no matter what.

It was sometime during that summer, I became aware of a man named Paul Martino. He and one of the current CBSD school board members organized performative town halls, during which they called out other administrators and school board members for not opening schools. Those town halls seemed like recruitment tools for their base.

Around the same time, Martino wrote in a Facebook group:

“I have contacted a political consultant friend of mine who is going to work with us to make sure what happened in Central Bucks is a well known story. Given that we are the purplest of districts in a 2020 election year, we should be able to get a lot of attention. I am going to need some people willing to speak out and on camera for this.”

And, so his recruitment began. The same names who responded to his call-to-action are the same names who have been actively showing up to school board meetings and pushing for an end of COVID mitigations and masks. Those same names have appeared on the news, in blogs, and in articles. They all echoed the same message: This isn’t political, we just want our kids back in school. Yet, if this wasn’t political, why the need for a political consultant and the talk about the “purplest district”?

Photo by Brian Wertheim on Unsplash

Who is Paul Martino?

Paul Martino is a venture capitalist and a self-described “hardcore republican.” He also sees himself as a “mentor figure to James O’Keefe,” the founder of Project Veritas. Project Veritas is a group of “journalists,” or political spies, who intentionally edit their videos to deceive, manipulate, and misrepresent. They have attacked ACORN, targeted Planned Parenthood and teachers unions, infiltrated Democratic campaigns, and created smear campaigns against Democratic candidates. They obtained Ashley Biden’s diary and handed over dozens of handwritten pages to a right-wing website, and created a campaign to delegitimize mail-in balloting during the 2020 election. They aren’t what one would call the most ethical of groups.

If you need to know more about Paul Martino, look no further than his mentee, James O’Keefe, who has been on trial for political espionage and for violating anti-wiretapping law.

Why is Martino involved with Central Bucks?

The Central Bucks School District is the 3rd largest district in Pennsylvania, after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It is located in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and is one of the more affluent districts in the area. Paul Martino happens to live in Central Bucks, and last summer, he saw an opportunity: Use the current political climate and anti-science disinformation to mobilize apolitical Republican parents, just like he and his base were instructed.

Under the guise of “reopening schools,” Paul Martino created a “single issue PAC” called “Back to School PA,” and by October 2021, he had given $700,000 to support mostly Republican candidates in Pennsylvania. (He keeps asserting that almost 30% of his candidates are Democrats, but fails to mention that many cross-file, making them look like both a Democrat and a Republican.) While Democratic candidates relied on small donations from local parents, teachers, and community members, the Republican candidates were bankrolled by a venture capitalist whose alleged only goal was to “keep schools open.” For many Republican candidates, Martino was the sole donor.

While he calls himself “just a pissed-off parent,” he also says he quickly realized that, “by applying political pressure to the school administrators and to school boards,” he can essentially get what he wants.

A Political Game

“We, almost by accident, built a completely bottom up grassroots parents-based organization in 6 months...this is a very interesting asset we’ve built,” Martino says during his interview with Robertson. These parents, whom he calls his “assets,” helped Martino “play the game” by showing up at school board meetings, filing RTK requests, and attempting to expose “corruption” that doesn’t actually exist. The issue here, and Martino is honest with this when he says “almost,” is that this wasn’t at all “by accident” but actually by design. Furthermore our children and our schools aren’t some game to play. We are human beings, not pawns in Martino’s political game. He used the pain of parents in our district to further his political aspirations. While evading several questions, Martino admits, “having a network of activated previously apolitical parents, that’s a pretty interesting group of people.” He doesn’t seem to care about the legitimate pain these parents felt; his goal is to use school boards as a “blunt instrument” to push his political agenda, and he plans to achieve this goal by utilizing his assets, aka parents.

A Smear Hurts Everyone

Paul Martino is no stranger to political smears. Back in 2019, he gave $25,000 into a PAC that ran an ad setting fire to a picture of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which he later defended by calling it a “metaphor.” During the 2021 Central Bucks School Board race, Martino used his first PAC, Bucks Families for Leadership, to create smears against Democratic candidates in Bucks County. He poured money into a smear against me and attempted to create a narrative he believed would help my opponent win the election. When I asked him why not just support his candidate, if he truly believed in his platform, Martino fell silent.

He didn’t seem to feel an ounce of remorse when his assets came after me. He didn’t care about consequences to me or to my children. He paid someone to scrape my social media and created a website and a mailer against me. And while I used some salty language on my social media, I never attacked any particular person or group. Yet Martino’s money resulted in incessant harassment of me and of my supporters. I read hateful words against me written by everyone from my kids’ school’s PTO president and vice president, to people I once considered friends and my neighbors. His operatives went after my job and my teaching license, attempting to get me fired. They attempted to doxx me. I was attacked daily. If this wasn’t political, why the political hit job? If he truly believed in his candidates and in their ability to lead our district, he wouldn’t need propaganda or smears. But, this is a game to him, afterall. A game where he is the only one who wins.

A Single Issue PAC

Robertson finally asks, “Who is that money supporting when you focus on that one issue?” Well, one of the Central Bucks candidates who received Martino’s support has said, “demonic adults brainwashing and recruiting children,” at one of the school board meetings, has quoted Hitler, and is publicly anti-LGBTQ+, anti-teacher, and anti-masks. Yet, since she had the right stance on the reopening, she received Martino’s funding, backing, and political consultant advice. She won, and will now sit on our School Board. Martino doesn’t care whom he funds as long as his assets are installed, the game is working, and his mission is paying off.

“It turned out that activating a grassroots set of parents would be a potentially new powerful political force. I had no idea that was gonna be the case. So, now I gotta go play the game the way I do a startup. I now have this interesting asset. What would be a great way to deploy that?” What would be a great way to “deploy” his “assets”?

Oh, he’s got a plan for that:

“Greater parental power in schools.”

Shortly after this podcast came out, Back to School PA posted the following statement on Facebook:

“Every local school district has the ability to develop a program to provide financial support to students who want to attend a non-public school.

Tuition Grants by school districts were approved in 2014 under 8712.F

Every school board in the Commonwealth has the ability to develop this program now and it could begin the award of tuition grants as early as August 2022 for the 2022–2023 school year.

This program would allow any family the ability to attend a nonpublic school with tuition support from their local district.”

This is the “Greater parental power in schools,” Martino is referring to: Diverting public school money to private schools, or “School Choice.” Ultimately, the goal is to defund public education and privatize schools, the same goal Republicans had for decades. This year, they found a new strategy: Mobilize their assets, AKA previously apolitical parents.

Paul Martino and his assets are responsible for the division in our district. He is the reason our district has been constantly in the news, an embarrassment for the community and for our schools.

Our children will suffer not because of masks, but because we have invited politics into our schools through wealthy donors seeking to purchase school boards for their own benefit.

We all wanted schools to be open for our children, but only some of us bashed teachers, administrators, and our schools. We all wanted our kids to be back in the care of their teachers, but only some of us accepted money from people who see parents as “assets,” benefit from destabilizing our district, and see legitimate parental concerns as a useful tool for their political game.

Is Paul Martino just “a pissed-off parent”? It doesn’t quite seem like it, does it?

I write because it’s the only way for me to say what I really want to say. Also, because I can.