School board races are hotly contested this year
And as with many things these days, politics are playing a role in the controversy over who gets elected to public school boards this November.
If you think you are seeing more signs for candidates for local school boards this year, you might be right. There’s a lot of interest in school board races right now.
The Ohio School Boards Association reports 2,628 candidates are running for school boards this year. And that's more than a 50% increase from the number of candidates running for school boards four years ago. The OSBA’s Jeff Chambers says many are new to this.
“This year, we have 1,287 people running for the first time. In 2019, we had 807," Chambers says.
Chambers says his organization has been working to recruit new school board members by putting information on its website to make the process easier to understand. He thinks that's why there's more interest in these races.
But Paul Beck, a political science professor at Ohio State University, thinks there’s another reason why more people are running for school boards now.
“Things have very much heated up in the last year or two. And there are organized efforts nationwide, some of which are sponsored by the Koch brothers. They’ve poured a lot of money into this to try to encourage people who are more conservative on school issues to contest school board elections and hopefully win a place on a school board," Beck explains.
Charles and the late David Koch are the billionaires who invested heavily in politics to advance Libertarian and Republican policies, going back to funding the Tea Party movement in the early 2000s.
For months, school board meetings have been ground zero for fights over COVID protocols. Tricia Jackson and Chris Demko are parents in the Worthington City School districts and recently told that board the policy requiring masks be worn in school buildings must go.
“I urge you to give back our parental rights and make masks and student vaccines an optional choice. We don’t co-parent with the government and we don’t co-parent with the schools," Jackson said, drawing loud applause from the attendees.
“I’ve had two kids with COVID and they survived as in 99.937%. We need to move on. It’s time to make masks optional," Demko told board members.
While there have been fights over requirements to wear masks in schools and government buildings, it's important to note polls nationwide have shown about 60% of people surveyed support mask-wearing in schools.
Debates at school board meetings have become so common that some people are even traveling to districts where their kids aren’t attending school. Republican US Senate candidate Josh Mandel was removed after trying to speak at a meeting of the Lakota School Board in southwest Ohio, which has a policy of allowing only residents to offer comments.
It's not just COVID policies that are driving interest in what public school boards do. Many people statewide have also shown up at local school board meetings to protest how racial diversity is being addressed.
Recently, some showed up at the State Board of Education’s monthly meeting. The board is made up of elected members and those appointed by Republican Govs. John Kasich and Mike DeWine. It was considering taking back an anti-racism resolution it adopted last July after the demonstrations over the killing of George Floyd. The sweeping resolution acknowledged the longstanding achievement gap between different student demographics and emphasized equity and opportunity for students of color. And it required training for state education department employees and recommended districts look at everything from textbooks to hiring.
Allison Lindsay is running for the Beavercreek school board. She’s expressed support for expanding the EdChoice program that allows students to go to private schools with state vouchers. She spoke against the anti-racism resolution.
“I understand that many on the board believe that the reason inequalities exist in our schools is because of white supremacy culture, hate speech, and hate crimes in our school. Please show me the through-line from that to the resolution and how it will solve the problem," Lindsay says.
Breighton Smith, a Black candidate for the Lebanon School Board, was a local Trump campaign staffer. He also opposed the resolution, saying the goal should not be to achieve equity.
“The concept of equity is soul-crushing," Smith says.
Others testified against the resolution itself as being racist.
While there was testimony from several people supporting the resolution, the board repealed it and replaced it with a new one that backers say sends a better message to local schools about how they should approach difficult issues like racism or slavery. But opponents of the new resolution say it doesn’t do much to help address racism.
Critical Race Theory, an approach to exploring the impact of race in the context of laws and society, is often mentioned at these meetings, though it’s not being taught in any of Ohio’s K-12 schools. And while school board races are non-partisan, Republican officeholders and candidates have made “critical race theory” a catchphrase for their opposition to how diversity and equity is handled in K-12 schools. Some school board candidates are spending thousands of dollars to win a position on the public school board, fully knowing members sitting on it receive only a small fraction of what many candidates are spending in their campaigns,
Kristy Meyer is among the many school board candidates running for the first time. But she's not running on a platform to oppose diversity. She’s in Westerville City Schools, where nearly half the kids are students of color coming from 60 different ethnic backgrounds. Meyer says the school board needs to be mindful of how students view what is being taught.
“If our goal is to become a more just, equitable and heart-centered society where we can stop throwing bombs and burning down bridges by hiding behind a keyboard and drawing these hard lines and coming back to the center, for the betterment of all of us, we have to understand our lens, we have to understand our implicit bias, we have to understand how we show up in the world," Meyer says.
For some incumbent local school board members, things are getting unpleasant and even scary. Nikki Hudson is running for re-election to the Worthington City School board, though she says she’s received threats from people who disagree with the district’s planned diversity and inclusion program. Some even displayed Nazi salutes at a recent meeting. And she says other school board members in other districts have experienced similar threats.
“I would not be surprised that very good people who are doing good work step away from this work but I’m not going to step away from this work. My husband and I are raising two girls. Our children are watching. There’s a lot at stake here," Hudson says.
The Republican-dominated state legislature has waded into these issues too. There’s a bill that would ban schools from requiring masks. And there are two that would ban so-called “critical race theory” or the teaching of “divisive concepts” and seek to redefine how race is addressed in schools. They’ve had a couple of lengthy hearings. But Democratic resolutions to declare racism a public health crisis have been introduced for the second time in the House and Senate. Only one has had a hearing.