How a Woodland Hills school board campaign inspired Summer Lee to run for state house

Lee takes on Rep. Paul Costa in the May Democratic primary.

Summer Lee takes the stage at her January campaign kickoff event.

Summer Lee takes the stage at her January campaign kickoff event.

Nathan J Shaulis / Porter Loves Photography
MJ Slaby

Summer Lee — now a Democratic candidate for Pa. representative in the 34th District — attended Woodland Hills schools when the district was under court-ordered desegregation.

“I noticed it. I noticed that teachers had different standards for different students,” she said, adding she saw how that impacted students. The court order was lifted while she was in high school, before graduating in 2005.

Later, as an intern with the Legal Defense Fund while attending Howard University School of Law, Lee researched cases on desegregation and disproportional school punishment. Then she’d look up Woodland Hills to compare, and almost every time, her alma mater was worse off.

With the firsthand experience and data, she knew if she wanted to work in civil rights and social justice, “My community is the one that needs me the most.”

So after graduation, the North Braddock native came home and started helping with community-run write-in campaigns for Woodland Hills School Board. That work inspired her to run for office.

Now, she’s taking on incumbent Rep. Paul Costa in the May Democratic primary to represent the communities southwest of Pittsburgh like Braddock and Homestead. No Republican has entered the race.

A community campaign

Lee’s involvement with her alma mater began by attending a Woodland Hills School District Board of Education meeting in April, where the board was going to determine if then-Principal Kevin Murray, who was involved in alleged incidents of violence against students, was going to be football coach. Despite the number of people who showed up in opposition, Murray was approved for the coaching job. (He later resigned as coach and as principal.)

The next day, community members including Lee met and decided to run a write-in campaign for the school board primary election, which was three weeks away. Akeya Kester, an alumna of the district and a parent of three, decided to run, bringing residents a new voice to the board.

Lee, who was an organizer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, jumped into action with other community members who went to work knocking on doors, educating people about write-in campaigns and what the school board does. People already cared, but this gave them a place to direct their energy, she said.

While campaigning, Kester said residents told her they didn’t feel like they had a voice on the school board and told her their concerns about the district, the education that students received and property taxes.

Over the last year, Costa said he and other state lawmakers have had community meetings with residents to talk about their concerns with the school district. While there might be more of a spotlight on the community involvement now, Costa said families in the Woodland Hills School District have always been involved. He added that Woodland Hills football games are basically office hours for him, as community members stop to talk with him about various topics.

The biggest way the Pa. representative in the 34th District impacts Woodland Hills schools is working to provide more funds. Costa added that he also tries to stress the positives about the district — like the success of the mock trial team — that aren’t always in the spotlight.

Kester won the primary and later the general election in November. Fellow community-backed write-in candidate Chardae Seligsohn also won in November. Both are serving four-year terms.

These candidates were relatable community members, and that made the difference, Lee said. After the election, Lee was invigorated: “Great, now we see the importance of this, now we see how this works.”

Mike Belmonte, school board vice president, said feedback from the constituents he represents in Braddock Hills, East Pittsburgh, Forest Hills and North Braddock, has remained steady over the nearly five years he’s been on the board. But there was an uptick in meeting attendance from the spring into this fall, he said. The new board, which took office in December, is young, but “folks are eager to get in and get involved.”

The race confirmed Lee’s belief that apathy, although sometimes to blame, isn’t the only reason why people don’t attend school board or borough council meetings. It’s more likely, she said, that people feel they don’t know enough to participate and will be met by condescending officials.

She started to wonder — How could she encourage young people and black people to run for office? What could she do to get them on ballots and into positions?

She decided to run.

“I just came to the realization that I can’t lead someone some place where I’m not willing to go myself, so that’s how I got into this campaign,” she told The Incline earlier this month.

Looking ahead

For Lee, the theme of her campaign comes back to one word — representation.

It’s about experience and perspective, she said, adding that she’s able to see how the issues in District 34 are connected, because she’s lived it.

Lee said that as a state representative, she can effect the most change on issues such as education funding, environmental justice, healthcare, a living wage and the structures of inequality and racism. “That’s all state-level stuff. It’s on the federal level, too, but it’s not stuff I can focus on on the municipal level.”

By running, Lee is showing young students of color that there is a path for them to run, too, Kester said.

Having served in office for nearly two decades, Costa said it’s the connections he’s built, including as chairman of the House Liquor Control Committee, that help him get things done for the district.

Costa is focused on economic development for the 34th District, bringing in businesses and creating jobs, as well as “the issue of the day.” Constituents call with an issue, and the whole day can change, he said.

“It’s in my blood to make my community better,” he said, adding that there’s an expectation from constituents that elected officials with the name Costa can and will help.

Both candidates will be at a 7 p.m. Feb. 19 voter forum at Westinghouse Lodge.

For Lee, the school board election victories — and the new Woodland Hills Commission on Youth Development and Learning — show that actions can lead to something, and shifts in power are possible. Lee is one of 20 community members, law enforcement and elected officials on the commission, created by the district this summer to make recommendations to the school board.

Outside of Woodland Hills in the 34th District, there are recurrent themes, Lee said. If the negative light on Woodland Hills can be transformed, “Why can’t we do that anywhere? We can.”