What are usually quite sleepy campaigns, this year's school board elections saw increased interest thanks to debates about teaching about racism.
In most years, school board races are uncontested or have a handful of people running but this year, races were packed with candidates, some running in groups seeking change after a tumultuous year and a half due to louder calls for equity and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kirk Schneidawind, the director of the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA) told the Minnesota Reformer that before the pandemic, school board candidates would have an agenda but the issues were not as divisive or controversial as what has been seen this year.
“It’s created more of an election on these issues than on issues (specific to) the district," Schneidawind said.
School board candidates in Minnesota and nationwide offered pointed messages about how schools should be run. Specifically, some candidates have been vocally opposed to schools teaching about historic racism and equity under the guise of being anti-critical race theory (CRT).
CRT is a complex idea, but essentially is the academic study of racism's pervasive impact and how systemic racism is baked into America's policies and laws. It's a college-level course that isn't being taught in K-12 schools in Minnesota, but the term CRT has been used as a catchall for all lessons about diversity and inclusion, including historic and systemic racism, LGBTQ+, and culturally relevant teaching, even though they are not all part of CRT.
Fears about CRT have been stoked by the far right and co-opted by Republicans for whom it has become a campaign issue, leading to well-organized efforts across the country to speak out during school board meetings and unseat school board members with candidates who may not even have school-aged kids or kids who attend public school.
This in turn, as this piece in MinnPost notes, has led to attempts in numerous states to ban or limit the teaching of materials that suggest "Americans do not live in a meritocracy, that foundational elements of U.S. laws are racist, and that racism is a perpetual struggle from which America has not escaped."
This year, candidates took a stance on race in education/CRT in at least 92 school districts in 22 states, Ballotpedia said.
In Minnesota, there were "anti-CRT" candidates running for the school board in several districts across the state. Here's a look at what happened:
In the largest school district in the state, Matt Audette, who is against schools teaching about racism and mask mandates in schools, won 67.1% of the vote for District 4. The only key issue on his website is "Critical Race Theory" and he had campaign signs that said "no critical race theory."
In addition to the elected Audette, voters rejected a ballot question that would have increased taxes by $10 on a home valued at $250,000 to continue mental health resources for students, as well as academic support for underachieving students. The measure failed with 55% of voters voting "No."
They did, however, approve two other ballot questions that would not raise taxes. The measures will allow the district to maintain current class sizes, staffing levels, transportation services, and elective programs, as well as approve funding for new technology, like computers and broadband infrastructure.
White Bear Lake
In a tight race for four member-at-large seats on the school board, it appears voters did not elect any of the four candidates — Bill Mahre, Luke Michaud, Lisa Lukachek and Greg Hilgers — who ran as a group and shared similar concerns about racism being taught in schools.
Of the 14 candidates, voters elected incumbent Jessica Ellison (11.74% of the vote), incumbent Deb Beloyed (11.58%), Kathleen S. Daniels (11.42%) and Chris Streiff Oji (10.55%). Though, Mahre was the next-highest vote-getter with 10.37%.
The newest member of the Alexandria School Board is Maureen Eigen, who says she is against critical race theory because she believes in empowering all students, believes it should be a parent's choice if their child wears a mask, and is also against information relating to being transgender should not be taught as part of the curriculum.
Eigen defeated Jeff Patience by 267 votes to fill a special one-year term on the board. Patience had been appointed to the board earlier this year to fill Bob Cunniff's seat after he resigned, the Voice of Alexandria said.
Bloomington Public Schools
In Bloomington, voters rejected a candidate who ran on the notion that parents are being deceived and critical race theory is being taught in schools (it's not). Natalie Marose secured just over 10% of the vote, according to unofficial election results, with 97% of votes counted.
Marose said, without providing evidence, that if "schools focus more on social justice, equity, and inclusion our students fall behind more in science, technology, engineering, and math."
Incumbent Beth Beebe (12.57% of the vote) and Jeffrey Salovich (10.13%) also appear to have failed to get elected to the school board. According to the UpTake, Salovich sent a mailer to voters stating he's against CRT and Beebe has falsely claimed zinc is effective in treating COVID-19.
Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools
Voters in the southern suburbs did not elect three candidates — Kayla Hauser, Curtis Henry and Kim Bauer — who ran on priorities that included "transparency" with the curriculum and keeping politics out of the classroom.
The trio did not overtly say it was against teaching about racism in schools, but priorities on their respective websites indicated they support academics instead of activism. Hauser, who secured 12.82% of the vote, said her priorities include "keeping our American history in our classrooms," while Herny, who won 13.54% of the vote, said his priorities include "Keeping personal politics out of the classroom and Superintendent’s office" and "transparency with the curriculum being taught to our children."
Sakawdin Mohamed earned the most votes (16.11% of the vote), saying he believes "in order for everyone to thrive and realize their potential, one needs an environment that is fair, equitable and inclusive," Sun This Week said. Bianca Virnig (15.85%) and Art Coulson (15.17%) were also elected to the school board.
Bauer won 14.3% of the vote.
Lakeville Public Schools
Voters appear to have narrowly picked Cinta Schmitz, a candidate whose website says equity terms and divisive politics should stay out of schools, to be on the Lakeville School Board.
Schmitz has secured 49.69% of the vote compared to Carly Anderson, who secured 48.18% of the vote, unofficial results show.
Schmitz helped co-found Informed, Fully-Awake Parents, which has criticized equity efforts, COVID-19 vaccinations and masks, and posted about being at war "against CRT, SJW, transgenderism, and every other sick ideology created in hell”, The UpTake said.
Edina Public Schools
Voters did not re-elect incumbent Owen Michaelson, whose website blames the school district losing its No. 1 ranking in U.S. News and World Report on Edina's push for diversity, inclusion and equity, to the school board.
Michaelson won 12.58%, several percentage points behind the four top vote earners. (Voters in Edina elected four school board members this year.)
South Washington County
In South Washington County, only one of the four candidates who ran as a pack under the banner "Vote 4 Common Sense" in protest of the district mask mandates and its approach to teaching about race was elected on Tuesday.
Eric Tessmer, who campaigned with Vicki Holst, Jaime Kokaisel and Marge Lindberg, won 11.58% of the vote, the Secretary of State's Office says.
The three other candidates elected to the school board were incumbents: Katie Schwartz, Patricia Driscoll and Sharon Van Leer.
Wayzata Public Schools
In the Wayzata School Board race, a group of three, called "Wayzata Vote for 3," ran against teaching racism in schools, alleging critical race theory is making its way into schools, as well as political indoctrination and "controversial medical mandates."
All three candidates —Erin Shelton, Nick DeVries, and Bryan Kubes — were not elected to the school board. Instead, voters picked incumbent Sarah Johansen, as well as Heidi Kader and Milind Sohoni to be on the board.