School board races, once sleepy and localized, have become the new front in a culture war raging across the nation as resentments over COVID-19 restrictions and anti-racism curriculum reach a boiling point.
On Tuesday, voters weigh in on dozens of races that have been dominated by debates over masks, vaccines, race and history. The outcomes will decide not just districts’ policies but also whether the education fight has staying power as part of the national discourse and becomes a rallying issue for Republicans in the 2022 midterms.
Aurora’s Cherry Creek school district has been the focus of intense controversy during this election cycle, bringing partisan politics, pandemic policy and national skirmishes into the mix.
Conservatives have eagerly taken up the cause as they look to move past the coronavirus pandemic and to reframe the discussion on racial injustice in America as a rewriting of history.
The political tracking website Ballotpedia has identified 76 school districts in 22 states where candidates took a stance on race in education or critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic in America’s institutions and which the National School Boards Association says is not taught in K-12 public schools.
1776 Action, a group inspired by former President Donald Trump’s now-disbanded 1776 Commission that played down America’s role in slavery, has been urging candidates to sign a pledge calling for the restoration of “honest, patriotic education.” At least 300 candidates and elected officials have done so, said Adam Waldeck, the group’s president.
“2021 is really going to sort of be seen as kind of a canary in the coal mine of what’s coming down the pike next year and into the future,” Waldeck said. “This will be the year that I think primarily parents stand up and say, ‘You know, we have a voice, too.’ And I think it’s going to be overwhelming.”
Board meetings have grown so contentious that they are being mocked in “Saturday Night Live” skits. Some board members have been called Nazis and child abusers. The National School Boards Association even likened some of what is happening to “domestic terrorism” before apologizing.
In Cherry Creek schools in Aurora, militia members turned out for a school board meeting where more than a hundred people asked to speak publicly about a then-proposed mask mandate and how racism is covered in school classrooms.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused the right wing of orchestrating protests to “turn schools into battlegrounds with the goal of winning elections by politicizing both public health and history.” She noted the Virginia governor’s race, in which Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin has seized on conservatives’ frustrations with schools over pandemic policies and diversity education.
Even former Vice President Mike Pence has gotten into the game, taking a moment during a campaign rally in Ohio on Saturday to urge voters to support conservative school board candidates in Tuesday’s election.
Waldeck said his group also sent out mailers and targeted text messages in races in Johnston, Iowa, where three candidates have signed the pledge, and in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where law enforcement was called to investigate threats against school board president Chris McCune.
The backlash stems from his ordering the removal from a July meeting of a parent who kept demanding information about critical race theory after her two-minute time limit had ended. McCune, who is on the ballot, wrote in a letter to the Daily Local News newspaper in Pennsylvania that it is his duty to “maintain order” and insisted that the district doesn’t even teach critical race theory.
“National and local political forces continue to urge residents to rally against local school boards and CRT, even when board members and administrators have offered to meet to share the district’s curriculum to demonstrate that it is simply not what we teach,” he said.
The 1776 Project PAC, which is separate from 1776 Action and headed by New York political operative and author Ryan Girdusky, has invested in races across the country. It raised $289,544 in the third quarter, according to the latest report filed with the Federal Election Commission.
“I think anybody that’s running was probably to a degree tipped over by COVID,” said Jim McMullen, who is among three candidates the group is backing in the Blue Valley district in suburban Kansas City. The former English teacher and father of five had considered running before the pandemic but finally decided to mount a bid after the district went virtual and hybrid for parts of last year.
Cherry Creek schools becomes partisan ground zero
In Colorado, Schumé Navarro, who is running for the Cherry Creek School District, went to court last month to win the right to go without a face covering at a district candidate event. The mother of five said she’s unable to wear a mask because of abuse she suffered as a child. Navarro was tabbed as a Colorado GOP rising star recently.
“The environment and the culture that it’s creating is just stealing from our kids,” she said of masks.
Navarro’s social media accounts revealed parody like productions targeting LGBTQ people and also pressed debunked voter-fraud theories. Navarro posted frequently to a YouTube channel she called “Don’t Tread on Mae.”
Cherry Creek school board candidate Jennifer Gibbons, also touted by local and state Republicans, said at a candidate forum earlier this month that she had never heard of conservative political group FEC United, despite having filled out a voter survey for the organization beforehand.
Gibbons, who is running for the District D seat, said that she did not remember having filled out the survey at the forum, and that she rejects its endorsement of her.
FEC United (the FEC stands for faith, education, commerce) is a right-wing Colorado political organization founded by Joe Oltmann that notably views COVID-19 public health measures as government overreach.
Oltmann was the main promoter of a conspiracy theory alleging that Dominion Voting Systems rigged the 2020 presidential election in Joe Biden’s favor, and has repeatedly voiced false claims that the election was stolen. He is currently being sued for defamation by a Dominion employee.
FEC has a militia branch called the United American Defense Force, which bills itself as a volunteer-run first responder unit. The group is run by John ‘Tig’ Tiegen, who organized the “Patriot Muster” at Civic Center Park in Oct. 2020 where a private security guard for a local television station fatally shot a protester.
Several UADF members were outside during a June 24 Cherry Creek school board meeting where over 100 people showed up to debate critical race theory.
The ‘education’ tab of FEC’s website states that the organization believes that all students should have access to an education that is “free from bias” and “based on the founding principles and tenets of the U.S. Constitution.” Its education position statements include support for parental rights, charter schools and homeschooling and transparency in school curricula, “especially when it comes to history and reproductive health.”
According to campaign finance records, neither Oltmann or FEC United have contributed financially to any political races this election season.
FEC’s website has a list of surveys from 14 school board candidates running in districts across the state this election season, including Gibbons and fellow Cherry Creek candidate Schumé Navarro.
Gibbons’ survey answer for why she is running for school board is duplicated word-for-word in a post on FEC United’s Facebook page from Sept. 30.
“It’s school board election season, and the stakes couldn’t be higher! When asked, why are you running for school board, we got the following responses:” the post said, going on to quote responses from Aaron Salt, Christy Williams and Gibbons and linking to their campaign websites.
At a candidate forum hosted by the school district on Oct. 7, Gibbons was asked how she felt about the group’s endorsement of her candidacy. Gibbons asked the moderator to repeat the question and then asked if the moderator could tell her what FEC was.
“This is going to take me about two seconds because I have no idea what that is and I didn’t know that they endorsed me,” Gibbons said.
“I’m a person who speaks accurately and I can tell you I don’t know what that is and I didn’t know that they endorsed me,” she continued. “’I’m glad my message is reaching other people and I’m happy for their support, I hope they vote for me.”
In response to an email from the Sentinel inquiring about the discrepancy, Gibbons said that she did not remember the organization at the forum because she had completed many surveys during the campaign. She said that she initially filled out the survey because Oltmann used to coach her son’s soccer team and she remembered him being friendly, but was not aware of his current political work.
“I do not align myself with Oltmann in any way shape or form,” Gibbons told the Sentinel over the phone.
“I have received dozens of surveys and questionnaires from many organizations, groups, news outlets, and from people in the community and I have been diligent about pushing out information,” she said in an email. “When I got the FEC survey in September, I looked them up and saw that my son’s soccer coach (from about 10 years ago) was affiliated with the group. I reached out to him to find out more and he never responded. I took the survey and did not revisit it.
“When I went home after the forum, I looked up the FEC and immediately remembered. I gradually learned that they were the group at the June meeting (I was not in attendance) to offer protection. I do not endorse a group that uses physical intimidation, and therefore reject their endorsement,” she continued. “I have not taken money or support from them. 100% of the money my campaign has taken has been from friends, family and members of the community. While I do not disagree with the FEC coming together and doing good in their community (which is what I thought when I visited their website), I cannot approve of physical intimidation, especially at a board meeting.”
In the FEC survey, Gibbons says that she is opposed to mask mandates and does not support schools requiring the COVID-19 vaccine for teachers or students, a stronger line than she took on the same question for a Sentinel candidate survey.
“When our community is split, we need to find a suitable compromise,” she told the Sentinel when asked if she supported the district implementing mask or vaccine mandates. “To me, wearing the mask so we can be together in person is a compromise that seems to be working for most. No one likes the mask and I hope we will not be wearing it forever.”
In a phone call with the Sentinel, Gibbons said that she supports voluntary mask wearing in schools because she thinks it’s a good compromise, but that she believes the vaccine is too new for it to be mandated, and would prefer to wait for more data.
A mask mandate is currently in place for all Cherry Creek students and staff, but the district has not indicated that it has any plans to mandate the vaccine for students or staff this school year.
In the FEC survey Gibbons said that she supports allowing parents to opt their children out of being taught curriculum they found objectionable, and that she believes the district needs to change how it teaches controversial subjects.
“According to CCSD’s own policies, if both sides are not presented, it is considered indoctrination,” she said. “For example, no one would disagree that Black Lives Matter, but many people think the BLM movement has not been good for our community, thus making it a controversial subject. Unfortunately, both sides of this are not being taught in classrooms, and parents are not happy.”
In response to the same survey, Navarro said that she did not support mask or vaccine mandates, which has been a major plank of her campaign. She also said that she opposes tax increases and local bond measures. Cherry Creek received $185 million from a bond increase and mill levy that voters approved in the last election, which is being used to fund a mental health day treatment center, security upgrades and other construction projects.
In response to a question about curricula, Navarro said she did not like schools’ approach to sexual education and that she believed that schools should focus more on non-college options for some students, a similar sentiment to one she expressed at a candidate forum.
“I am a trades person and believe we should look into those options when we address the ‘education gap,’” she said. “Many people of color are often trades people and grading based off of only academic testing shows a huge loss where if we focus on individuals only we can really meet each kid where they are.”
Bi-partisan cash: Teacher unions, charter school activists spenders in Aurora area school board races
Groups backed by teachers unions and charter schools have made the biggest contributions to the Aurora and Cherry Creek school board races, according to campaign finance records.
In Aurora Public Schools, the organization Students Deserve Better has spent over $16,000 on mailings supporting candidates Debbie Gerkin, Tramaine Duncan and Michael Carter, the three candidates endorsed by the Aurora Education Association. It spent an equal amount on mailings opposing Christy Cummings and Danielle Tomwing.
Students Deserve Better is funded by teachers groups, and has received $20,000 from the Aurora Education Association, $7,000 from the Aurora Council for Teachers and Students and $257,000 from the Colorado Fund for Children and Public Education.
Raising Colorado has spent over $25,000 each on mailings supporting Anne Keke and Tomwing. The conservative education reform group Ready Colorado has spent $900 supporting Cummings, Tomwing and Keke.
Raising Colorado is funded by a group of state and national charter school advocates and other education reform groups: the Colorado League of Charter Schools, Education Reform Now, Parents for Great Schools and Ten Collective Impact. Tomwing also received $5,000 directly from the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
In Cherry Creek, Students Deserve Better has spent $9,900 on mailings supporting Kristin Allan and Kelly Bates and an equal amount on mailings opposing Jennifer Gibbons and Bill Leach. Allan and Bates are the two candidates endorsed by the Cherry Creek Education Association. Gibbons and Leach are running as a slate, and have been critical of the amount of involvement the teacher’s union has in the district.
Individual campaign contributions have also soared in an election cycle that has brought unprecedented attention to school board races. In Cherry Creek, Bates has received $63,000 in campaign contributions to date and Allan $50,000. Leach has received $16,000 and Gibbons $11,000, while candidate Jason Lester has $7,000 and Schumé Navarro just $2,000.
Keke has the largest war chest in Aurora, with just under $25,000 in contributions as of Friday. Tomwing has $15,000, Duncan $6,000, Gerkin $5,000, Carter $4,700 and Cummings $680.
Other states see partisan contests heat up
In Ohio, former state Republican chair Jane Timken has taken time from her campaign for the U.S. Senate to offer guidance and funding totaling more than $40,000 to more than 40 conservative candidates in hyperlocal school board races.
“We are helping them not just financially, but my team is knocking doors and making calls with them,” said Timken, who said she completed a critical race theory “listening tour” that exposed cases of children being “indoctrinated with leftist policies.”
In Wisconsin, voters in Mequon will decide whether to replace the majority of the Mequon-Thiensville school board. Amber Schroeder, an organizer of the Recall MTSD movement, said that along with slipping academic performance, parents are most concerned with critical race theory, which she sees as evident in the district’s emphasis on equity.
“It’s huge here,” Schroeder said, noting the district’s hiring of diversity consultants. “It’s already infiltrated our curriculum.”
In Minnesota, Erin Shelton has joined two other conservative candidates on a “Vote for Three!” platform that denounces “harmful ideologies like CRT,” political indoctrination and “controversial medical mandates.” If all three are elected, they would hold an ideological majority on the board in Wayzata.
“I don’t believe that the way to academic excellence involves making any group of students feel like victims or any other feel responsible for that victimization,” Shelton said via email.
In Iowa, masking opponent Sarah Barthole received a high-profile endorsement from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds as she runs for the school board of the Ankeny school district in suburban Des Moines. Barthole worked with Reynolds last year to reopen schools and is credited with inspiring the state’s now-blocked law prohibiting mask mandates in schools.
“The level of involvement in her campaign, I’ve never seen anything like it in a school board race before,” said Barthole’s treasurer, Steve Boal, whose own wife served on the board more than two decades ago. “Usually it’s kind of a pretty low-key thing.”
The governor’s backing in that race is just the beginning, predicted Tina Descovich, a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a Melbourne, Florida-based group, whose 142 chapters in 35 states have fought vaccine and mask mandates.
“Our governor here in Florida has all but said he’s going to be involved in school board races,” said Descovich, who is a former member of the Brevard County School Board in Florida. “I’m curious to see what that looks like for 2022.”
Sentinel Colorado contributed to this story. Thompson reported from Buffalo, N.Y. Associated Press writer Julie Carr Smyth in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.