Some local school board candidates are not what they seem

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Editor’s Note: Rich Heiland is a veteran, award-winning news reporter, editor and columnist. We were alerted to Rich’s column on local education and felt it deserved wider distribution beyond his personal Website. With his permission, we present this column — with hopes that Rich’s work will appear here semi-regularly.

By Rich Heiland, Special to the Times

I was told this was too inflammatory for the local paper. No, it is not. It was good newspapers always have done – report. But today we don’t have many good newspapers left so we are at the mercy of the far-righters, particularly at the local level. What a shame.

I know I said I was going to stop writing about politics. This is an exception and it is a local issue, though almost every school board in the nation is under attack. I submitted this to our local newspaper several days ago, which is why it has references to other things it has published. I have not gotten any sort of acknowledgement so assume that for some reason it was not acceptable or did not measure up to their standards for columns. But, it is a critical issue so if you are in West Chester, or anywhere in Chester County, feel free to share it with friends etc prior to the May 16 primaries. If you are not local and feel it might have value, feel free to share. That said…..

THIS PAST MONDAY morning the Daily Local published an in-depth story about efforts by far-right groups to take over local school boards and basically strip public education down to the “three Rs.”

The story did not include any mention of the West Chester Area School District, but it could have.

There is a slate of candidates running for open seats on the WCASC board and its running under false flags. If you look at the website for a group called “Back to Basics West Chester” you might come away thinking it’s a group of concerned parents who have nothing more than the best interests of all students in mind.

That would be wrong. This is a group tied through a spider web of connections to far right efforts to take over local school boards to basically stop the teaching of real history, real science and to keep any kinds of books they do not like out of the hands of students.

These people have dogged the board for years, making all sorts of unfounded accusations on everything from COVID to how history and health are taught. The groups, if you follow their spider webs, include a lot of the same people who also are still claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen and who claim that election corruption and wrongdoings run deep in Chester County.

None of that is true, of course, but truth is not something these folks tend to carry in their tool kits.

Let’s look at Back to Basics and its slate. First, Back to Basics is just the name of the day. There are countless groups in every state that use different names but draw their funding from the same sources. Back to Basics is Moms for Liberty is Take Back Our Schools to Back to School to Students First.

If you look at the people involved in Back to Basics you will not find much. Be they candidate or supporter, most of the social media for these people has been cleaned up. It’s almost like they did not exist until recently. Why would that be?

Because if they came out for what they really believe they would lose. West Goshen and West Chester are on record as to how they might vote. If you look at the 2022 mid-terms – pick any race – you will see that Democrats outpolled Republicans anywhere from the low 60-percentiles to the mid- and upper-70s. Clearly, Trumpism and the other manifestations of the far right have been rejected in West Goshen and West Chester.

So, if you hold those far-right views and you want to take control of a school board, what do you do? You run a stealth campaign. You nest yourself inside a Trojan Horse that looks oh, so respectable. If you go to the Back to Basics website everything looks so reasonable. But, do a little digging and you find something entirely different from that cleaned up image.

Back to Basics, a political action committee, was registered in June 2022 by Rachel Langan and Donald Urbanic. Don’t bother to look them up. You won’t find much in terms of social media. But, you will find them in other places – like court filings and minutes of school board, county commission and election board minutes. They are part of a group that has been hounding those bodies over COVID, transgender issues, Critical Race Theory, alleged election fraud and so on.

Toss into that mix Beth Ann Rosica, executive director of Back to School, PA, which provided Back to Basics with its seed money – enough to run a campaign and pay for an expensive digital billboard presence on Route 202. Rosica, long a thorn in the side of the school board, county and Borough, has been paid $45,000 for her work with Back to School. Back to School receives much of its funding from Paul Martino, a far-right venture capitalist from Bucks County.

Langan is hard to find on social media these days, but she’s not hard to find in meeting minute searches. She is heading up Back to Basics and like Rosica, has received payments from Back to School, PA.

BACK TO BASICS exists to recruit candidates who will put an end to any sort of controversial books, regardless of how they are sorted by age; any teachings of tolerance and science when it comes to trans-gender youth; any mention of the lingering impacts of slavery on race relations; opposition to teacher unions; and, well, you get the picture. Members of the group long has shown an unhealthy fixation on all things gay. Rosica was one of those speaking against a proposed LGBTQ+ street fair in the Borough last Fall.

Once established, Back to Basics set out to recruit candidates. According to a group formed in part to counter BTBWC, Together for Public Schools, BTBWC promised potential candidates “we will provide everything necessary – photographer, head shots, literature, yard signs. We will manage social media and all PR for candidates. We will schedule appearances and coordinate campaigning….the only thing the candidates will need to do is show up. We will foot the bill.”

Primary elections in Pennsylvania are confusing, as Daily Local columnist Will Wood pointed out a short time ago. In some races – judicial and school board – candidates can cross-file into parties. This makes it hard for the average voter to figure out who is who.

In this instance it’s simple. Back to Basics, through the actions of its members that can’t be cleaned up and erased, has shown up representing far, far right positions across the board. The candidates running under that banner are Amanda Greenberg, Peggy Schmidt, Alain Oliver, Nick Spangler and Robert Rafetto.

Countering them is a slate running under the banner of United for West Chester Area School Board. Those candidates are Alex Christy, Katy Frey, Gary Bevilacqua, Dr. Karen Hermann and Daryl Durnell.

What distinguishes the two groups? The United WC candidates basically favor a type of public education that realizes what a complex world students will be entering into in coming decades. Whether you like it or not, it will be a global world and everyone will be impacted, be they a doctor, lawyer, teacher, carpenter, plumber or bricklayer. Having an understanding of those complexities will require a broad understanding of how the world and our nation has evolved. The United group’s view of public schools seems to be that they should prepare all students to participate in a complex world and that means curriculum and activities created by well-qualified education professionals with, of course, responsible parental involvement.

Education is complex and not all students are the same and there should be controls over what is taught at what age and parents should be aware of what is being taught. But our schools today are operating under age-appropriate guidelines established by education professionals and overseen by elected school boards. It’s just that groups like Back to Basics would like you to think they are not.

So, do you want public schools that help students understand diversity, real history, real science? Do you want public schools that teach students to be a part of solutions, rather than sweeping problems under the rug and pretending they don’t exist? Do you want public schools that leave religion to churches and families? Do you want public schools that produce well-rounded citizens who can help our nation compete in a complex and often dangerous world?

If so, then you may want to vote for the United candidates. If you prefer to see limited education, based in biases and historical myth, then maybe Back to Basic candidates are for you.

Rich Heiland, has been a reporter, editor, publisher/general manager at daily papers in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and New Hampshire. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Xenia Daily (OH) Daily Gazette, a National Newspaper Association Columnist of the Year, and a recipient of the Molly Ivins First Amendment Award from the Walker County (TX) Democrat Club. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University and leadership and community development at Woodbury College in Vermont.  Since 1995 he has operated an international consulting, public speaking and training business specializing in customer service, general management, leadership and staff development with major corporations, organizations, and government. Semi-retired, he lives with his wife in West Chester, PA. He can be reached at

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