Epic Battles No. 25: Dark day for GOP: Dems win SASB
Note: Today begins a series of 25 stories by veteran political writer Jake Betz. We'll count down to Nov. 5 by remembering these notable elections from the past.
Diehard Shamokin Republicans woke up Nov. 5, 1975, with the inescapable feeling that the sky had fallen: Democrats had actually taken control of the Shamokin Area School Board.
Maybe they weren't paying attention, but warning signs first appeared four years earlier. In what was viewed then as a surprising political development, two of the three seats up for election went to Democrats Richard Belski and Nick Amato, reducing the GOP's board majority from 9-0 to 7-2.
According to The News-Item's reporting of the 1971 election results, political observers couldn't remember the last time Democrats were elected to the board. The election was all the more significant because, in those days, school directors were elected to six-year terms.
In the 1973 general election, two Republicans and one Democrat (John J. Bartko, a former justice of the peace from Coal Township) were elected to the board, increasing the Democratic contingent from two to three members.
In 1975, the three Democratic nominees, Charles Dakshaw, William Dudeck and Patricia Spayde, ran large newspaper advertisements promoting their joint candidacies in a general "time for a change" theme. They also collaborated on extensive door-to-door campaigning.
Their election increased the board's Democratic complement from six to nine members, and at the board's reorganization, Bartko assumed the presidency.
The public's concerns about the long-term financial costs of the school's building program probably played a role. The new high school opened in the fall of 1975, and the district was in the midst of planning the elementary school.
The school board turnaround was, in part, a reflection of changing political times. The 1970s brought something close to parity between Republicans and Democrats countywide in voter registrations, with the GOP holding on to a slim of around 400 voters in 1975.
But what made the Democratic candidates' victory all the more impressive was that within the Shamokin Area School District, Republicans still held a lead of about 1,300. In addition, countywide it was a Republican year, with the GOP wresting control of the commissioners' office.
Republicans rebounded in 1977, winning two of three seats. Belskie, who was re-elected that year as a Democrat, ended up serving a total of 20 years as a Shamokin Area school director.