In case you have missed it, there is a new proposal for how school board directors are elected in the Pennridge School District. It is important for voters to understand the plan because it has far-reaching consequences. But just as important is the need for extensive public input. For those of you who do not know me, I serve on Perkasie Borough Council in Upper Bucks County (in the Pennridge School District) and was reelected last November as an independent candidate. As an adult, I have been an Independent, a Democrat, a Republican, and then back to Independent. So, I do not have a stake in any local school board debates. But I do represent Perkasie residents as an elected official.
A group called Pennridge Citizens for Direct Representation (PCDR) is leading the Pennridge redistricting effort. In full disclosure, I was asked to join the group but declined because it is a conflict of interest for me to advocate in matters related to another local government agency.
The PCDR wants the Court of Common Pleas to switch the Pennridge School District to a regional voting system with three districts from its current at-large system with one district.
The group says under the Public School Code, it needs a total number of petition signatures greater than 25% of the last school district race’s top-winner’s result to get its day in court. It is seeking 3,000 petition signatures. The Pennridge School District has the option to present its own plan if needed. The PCDR’s theory is that with three local voting districts, instead of one large voting district, people will have better political representation because they will have closer connections with their local school board directors as neighbors.
One obvious challenge with the PCDR’s plan is legal precedent. Just because the state code puts the PCDR’s plan in front of a judge, the court still must follow basic rules to consider it. Under the principal of one-person, one vote, judges rarely jump into a redistricting situation unless there is a claim of discrimination or an unfair election boundary. There must be evidence of tangible harm caused to voters by the current system for a judge to even consider a different solution, else the court would consider the plan a political question outside of its jurisdiction.
Another challenge is the PCDR’s proposed restricting map. In the 2021 Pennridge school board election, the GOP candidates won by an average margin of 10.4% according to the county’s Municipal Election Summary. Under the PCDR’s plan, in a newly combined Perkasie, Sellersville, and West Rockhill (Rock) district, the Democrats would have trailed in the 2021 election by only 3.1% in that region. But in the other two PCDR proposed regions, the GOP victory margins would go up to 14.6 percent and 13.1 percent. I’m not sure how a judge or the general public would view such a shift.
However, the biggest problem has nothing to do with the PCDR. The Pennsylvania state code and court precedents prevent the eight Pennridge municipalities from holding a voter referendum on the issue: the purest form of direct representation. Instead, 25% of the electorate and a judge must make a generational voting decision, and not a majority of voters. A better solution is for the Public School Code to be amended to allow voters in any school district, using a referendum, to change their voting method. But that won’t happen quickly.
The PCDR’s campaign may be able to overcome these challenges and it does raise a good public question about the possibility of regional voting for Pennridge. In the community’s interest, Pennridge voters and elected officials should be allowed more time to publicly review the PCDR’s plan, ask direct questions of its creators in public and in person, and publicly debate the plan before petitions are given to the public to sign. That also would allow for a better election district map.
Better yet, the PCDR team should publicly present its plan to the Pennridge School Board. If the school board endorses regional voting, files with the court and makes a reasonable argument, the court will probably agree. The school board as elected officials would have the best chance to enact a regional voting system, especially if it can identify tangible problems related to fairness that regional voting can solve.
Although the PCDR team has issued a press release and set up a Facebook page, I would respectfully ask it to pause the petition process until there is at least an extended public review period in place and the Pennridge School Board can consider the matter. Either could increase the petition’s chances of success and would be in the best interest of all Pennridge residents.
Scott Bomboy has served on Perkasie Borough Council since 2016.