For the first time since Richard Nixon was president, Pennridge school district voters will take part in fully open elections for school board directors on November 5. The path to that date involves the strange practice of “cross-filing” and a time when Pennridge had 42 school directors.
If you have voted in any Bucks County election for judges or school board members, you’ve run into cross-filing, where candidates can run as Democrats and Republicans in the same election. Usually, most school board candidates cross-file in the primaries, and if someone wins as a Democrat and Republican in a primary, they are guaranteed to win in the fall election because their name is listed twice on the ballot.
Since 1973, when a state law allowed cross-filing in school district races, there has never been a Pennridge school district election without at least one successful cross-filed candidate on the fall ballot until this year. In recent years, there were two Pennridge races where only one candidate appeared twice on the fall ballot. But in 2015, four of five Pennridge school board candidates appeared twice due to cross-filing. In 2007, all five candidates did. That practice was much more common in the 1970s and 1980s.
So how did cross-filing start? In 1950, the new Pennridge school district began to consolidate three schools in eight municipalities. There was a Pennridge Joint School Board with elected officials from five municipalities and the Deep Run Valley School District (Hilltown, Bedminster and East Rockhill). The Joint School Board school board, with its 42 members, ran one elementary school, Pennridge Junior High School, and Pennridge Senior High School. Local boards ran the other schools.
That changed in 1963 when state act 299 forced the eight municipalities to form a unified Pennridge school district that was politically independent, run by a nine-person school board. The district began operations in 1966. Under the new law, at-large primaries were held for the nine school board seats. Because about 66 percent of the Pennridge district was Republican, it was impossible for a Democrat to win in fall elections for the school board. In 1969, the highly respected school board president, Dr. Charles Apple of Perkasie, lost his seat because he was a Democrat, causing a controversy.
However, in July 1972, Governor Milton Schapp, a Democrat, signed a bill to allow cross-filing in school district races; a Republican introduced it in the state House and it was backed by the PTA. The theory was that primary school board races would be less political if the candidates did not list a single party name next to their name, but two instead. Perkasie News-Herald editor Buzz Cressman noted that “people went into the voting booth with little or no knowledge if a candidate that appeared satisfactory was Republican or Democrat.”
That probably wasn’t true, at least in the Pennridge School District. The May 1973 primaries saw the first cross-filings for Pennridge. Stephen Yurchak and Mary Ann Hager, two Republicans, successfully cross-filed and won two of three seats in the fall election. Cross-filing actually benefited the Republicans, who for the next generation routinely locked up school board races in primary elections.
In recent years, the cross-filing trend in the Pennridge school board races has reversed; only half of the school board seats in the past seven elections were settled in the primaries, a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s.
The 2019 fall election features two groups of candidates, Pennridge First and One Pennridge, that were clearly identified as Republican and Democratic groups by voters, even though they are officially non-partisan. Voters obviously knew that entering the polls. I was at my polling place in Perkasie for six hours; few people asked for sample ballots.
At least in the Pennridge School District, the crazy age of cross-filings, where Democrats pretended to be Republicans and vice versa, appears to be dead. We will have an open Pennridge school board election this November like the one in 1971 with two clearly identified parties, except 66 percent of the voters won’t be Republicans this time. This 2019 race appears to close to call.
The entire cross-filings system is unfair, deceptive and a waste of taxpayer money. And it is most unfair to the candidates who work extra hard to get two nominations in the same primary. They could be saving their funds for the fall election or spending time with their families, instead of running two full election campaigns in the same year.
Now, if we could just do something about that closed primary system.
Scott Bomboy is a member of Perkasie’s borough council and planning commission.