It would be tempting to look at Pete Regan’s defeat in the Camp Hill School Board race through an Ohio prism and interpret it as a signal that the Tea Party movement is in retreat.
It would also be wrong.
Regan, an incumbent who eschewed the Tea Party label, but ran on its principles, was ousted from his seat by Democrat Barbara LaBine in the November 8 general election.
LaBine’s victory came as a shock to a lot of people, including LaBine.
“I really expected to lose. Everybody told me I would be around 30 votes short,” says LaBine, who instead won by 20. “It is hard to win in Camp Hill if you are not on the ballot as a Republican.”
LaBine, a registered Democrat, cross-filed in the primary, as did Regan, a registered Republican. Four other candidates for the five seats up for grabs also cross-filed.
Regan was the top vote getter in the Republican primary, but finished last on the Democratic side. LaBine, who was second in the Democratic primary, was last on the Republican ballot.
Since it is extremely rare for school board candidates who prevail on both sides of the ballot in the primary to lose in the fall, that set the stage for November’s battle royale. In one corner was Regan, a vehement opponent of tax increases and teachers unions in general, and last year’s 9.4-percent property tax hike in Camp Hill in particular. In the other, LaBine, who voted for that increase.
Reagan’s message was simple. It was articulated by the red yard signs that popped up like wildflowers all over the borough: CampHillTaxRelief.org.
LaBine’s message was more complex, more nuanced. Along with the four other candidates who she ran with as a team, LaBine tried to impress voters with the difficulty of keeping taxes low in a district which receives less state funding than many neighboring districts. They also worked hard to explain the tax raise was, in part, intended to help avoid future, much steeper increases due to a looming rise in state-mandated pension costs.
“Our message was complicated,”LaBine says. “It was hard to explain how schools are funded.”
When Camp Hill’s teachers rejected calls to voluntarily take a pay freeze (they did make a counter offer that involved a freeze in exchange for a contract extension with modest raises in future years), Regan latched on to that issue, too, railing against the teachers union.
In addition to staking out positions that, if the 2010 midterm elections were any indicator, were popular with voters, Regan had a few structural advantages heading into the election.
As the leading Republican vote-getter in May’s primary, Regan had the coveted top position on the ballot for the general election. Experts say that spot gives a candidate a 5 percent, give or take, advantage. That edge is amplified for races down on the ballot, such as school board.
Regan also had the advantage of being a Republican in a town where the GOP has almost 20 percent more registered voters than the Democrats. Straight party ballots alone gave Regan a 131 vote lead over LaBine before they even started counting the split ballots.
Pollster and pundit, G. Terry Madonna, who heads Franklin and Marshall’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs, says trying to link the Camp Hill School Board vote to the Ohio collective bargaining referendum might be an interesting proposition. But it’s probably not a valid one.
“School board elections are always idiosyncratic. They are about local issues. They tend to be less partisan,” Madonna says.”If you saw this in multiple places, you might have a trend.”
Local political leaders, both Democratic and Republican, agree.
“It was very much a local situation,” Camp Hill Republican chair Ward Adams insists. “It was a local race, pertinent to Camp Hill alone.”
Adams’ Democratic counterpart say the same..
“I think it is very local,” says Charlie Wilson, the borough’s ranking Democratic committee person. “Camp Hill is a very small town. The school district is a really, really important part of the community. Much more so than in other communities.”
The district is one of the smallest in the region; stubbornly so. Back in the 1960s, when mergers to form larger, supposedly more cost-effective school districts were the trend, Camp Hill bucked the trend by remaining fiercely independent. Students come only from the borough of Camp Hill. Average graduating classes are less than 100 students.
Achievement is high. The school district’s high test scores – in the top five percent statewide on both the PSSAs and the SAT. U.S. News and World Report ranks Camp Hill High School among the top 2 percent in the nation.
Adams said that was what helped LaBine overcome Regan’s anti-tax message.
Every election Adams takes up a position outside the polls in the borough’s third precinct, the largest voting district in town. The consummate political operative, Adams knows most of the voters there, many on a first name basis. As he greeted voters on election day, he heard a recurring theme.
“I heard ‘we want to continue the quality of education in Camp Hill’ a lot,” he says. “That was the message the five were running on. People were willing to continue paying for quality education.”
Wilson, who works as a Realtor, said the school district is the biggest draw for families with kids looking to buy homes in Camp Hill.
“I have talked to a lot of people who believe you cannot pay enough for good education,” Wilson says.
In fact many credit the school district with creating property values in Camp Hill that are significantly above what the same home would be worth in neighboring townships.
Although Regan did not propose any specific cuts to the budget, or advocate controversial policies such as pay-to-play for extracurricular activities, many voters worried he would head down that path.
“Because he is trying to keep taxes down, they thought he wanted to take more away,” says Floyd “Skip” Focht, a Regan campaign volunteer.
While Madonna has not studied the Camp Hill race, the results don’t necessarily surprise him. Despite all the hue and cry from politicians about America’s public schools, most people actually view them favorably.
“Every time we poll, the polls show fairly high satisfaction with local schools,” Madonna says. “People who have kids in schools tend to be more satisfied than those who don’t.”
That, ultimately, may explain the Camp Hill results. Regan drew heavy support from Camp Hill’s senior citizens, many of whom are understandably upset with rising property taxes, which hit those with fixed incomes hardest.
“There are seniors who feel they are being pushed out of the borough,” Regan says.
Observers at the polls said there was an unusually strong surge of families with children at the polls after 5 p.m., suggesting LaBine’s team put together a strong get-out-the-vote effort which pushed her past Regan.
The Regan supporters’ ire with the school board members who voted to raise taxes is probably misplaced. Increasing the tax burden on seniors is an unfortunate evil of a system that relies on regressive local taxes to make up shortfalls caused by cuts in state funding.
In a perfect world, the problem would be addressed by fundamental reforms in how we pay for schools in Pennsylvania. Good luck with that.
“I may not be on the board anymore, but the issues that confront the board continue,” Reagan says.
Meanwhile, expect more showdowns between those willing to pay the price for what they feel is a quality education for their kids and those who feel they just cannot afford to pay more.
Don’t be surprised if the same battle is fought again in Camp Hill two years from now, when four other members of the current board face re-election.
“We’re going to be re-energized by this,” says Regan. “The movement is going to grow.”
In a touch of irony, a defiant non-concession statement on Regan’s Web site echoes liberal icon Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous pledge that he’d only just begun to fight.
Says Regan, “Our fight for Tax Relief will not be stopped. In fact, we are just getting started.”
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