Masks, critical race theory drive surge in school board election interest

By: - October 28, 2021 6:00 am

An angry community member address the Stillwater school board during an August 2021 meeting.

Matt Onken ran for the Stillwater school board on the slogan, “Make school board meetings boring again.”

The goal, which was a reaction to the increasingly politically charged atmosphere, seemed within reach for a few months after Onken joined the school board in January 2021. But by August, tensions escalated. Attendees yelled false claims about masks into the microphone during public comment and shouted interruptions as a school board member shared her fears of students dying of COVID-19.

When the board voted 5-1 in favor of a mask mandate, audience members screamed “Bastards! You suck!” and “Kids will never learn when their leaders are liars!”

“My heart would be racing as fast at a meeting as it would be if I was out wrestling. I was like, ‘That’s not healthy,'” said Onken, a wrestling coach and education coordinator for a neighboring school district.

Onken said the stress started taking a toll on his physical and mental health. He resigned in September.

Onken is one of nearly 70 school board members statewide who have resigned or retired since August 2020, according to the Minnesota School Board Association (MSBA). That’s nearly four times the total for a typical year, as school board members exhausted by high-stakes decision making and misinformation-fueled community resistance vacate their seats.

Paradoxically, this will not mean empty school board seats. An unprecedented number of candidates are vying to take their places in the Nov. 2 election, some urged on by conservative political groups that see the importance of local elections and have taken an interest in contentious education topics like social studies.

More than 230 candidates filed to run in elections across 46 districts this fall, according to Minnesota Secretary of State records. Many of them are running on conservative slates, promising to take on hot-button national issues like mask mandates and racial equity efforts in schools. 

“Pre-COVID, I think people would perhaps have an agenda. But I don’t think the issues were as divisive or controversial as some of these issues now, whether they’re vaccinations, COVID, (critical race theory), distance learning,” said Kirk Schneidawind, MSBA director. “It’s created more of an election on these issues than on issues (specific to) the district.”

No matter what position you're running for, whether that's school board, city council — if you're a single-issue candidate, I think you will find the work is more challenging and broader than you anticipate.

– Kirk Schneidawind, director, Minnesota School Board Association

As school boards took on difficult discussions about COVID-19 precautions in schools last year, meetings across the nation were overrun by irate parents opposed to masks and distance learning. School board members came under even more pressure this year after conservatives organized against “critical race theory,” or CRT, in public schools.

‘The hate is too much’

Critical race theory, which former President Donald Trump brought to prominence on the right in 2020, is a branch of scholarship that emphasizes the role of the nation’s racial history and institutions in maintaining a hierarchy in which white people are perpetually preeminent. Strictly speaking, it is university-level scholarship and not taught to schoolchildren.  

Minnesota school boards have not escaped the national vitriol. One man has been charged with assaulting another parent at an Eastern Carver County School Board meeting about mask requirements in September. Another school board member in Byron cited concerns about her children’s safety in her resignation letter. A Robbinsdale board member said she retired because “the hate is too much.”

Still, not all school boards have experienced such extreme behavior. For some, the decision to depart is linked to lifestyle changes, just as the pandemic has spurred millions of Americans to reconsider their jobs or where they live, Schneidawind said.

Maureen Ramirez of the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan school board isn’t seeking reelection this year. Ramirez, a former member of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents, said she first joined the board in hopes of representing a wider range of voices, including students and Spanish-speaking families. 

Ramirez said the board hasn’t suffered as much abuse as others, although community response did become more hostile during the pandemic. She felt strained, however, as her work on the school board and as a director at the state Department of Employment and Economic Development both required increasing time and energy — not to mention her role as a mother to two teenagers. The prospect of running a reelection campaign on top of that seemed overwhelming, she said.

“I’m ready to step back and have a little break, and not have that additional evening responsibility after a long day of work,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez would have faced a crowded field in her campaign for reelection. Voters will choose between 10 candidates for three seats on the board, including two incumbents running for reelection.

That’s not unusual this year, Schneidawind said. For instance, 18 candidates filed to run for three seats in Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan; 15 candidates in White Bear Lake filed to run for four seats and 12 candidates filed for three seats in Wayzata, according to MSBA.

Aiming for ideological majority

Schneidawind said he’s glad to see healthy competition in school board elections. He suspects some of the increased local attention is linked to national conversations opposing diversity, equity and inclusivity efforts in schools — often erroneously referred to as “critical race theory” — as well as mask mandates.

In Minnesota, the right-wing think tank Center for the American Experiment used its statewide anti-CRT “Raise Our Standards” tour this summer to encourage like-minded parents and community members to run for school board. In August, Minnesota Young Republicans said it was focusing on winning a majority in the Legislature in 2022, “BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY playing a pivotal role in local elections, i.e. School Board & City Council.” The email listed “stopping critical race theory” as a top priority.

Some Minnesota school board candidates are also using tactics unusual for local elections here, Schneidawind said: Campaigning in blocs with the goal of winning an ideological majority vote on the board.

They include a group of four candidates in South Washington running as “the common sense candidates”; the “Wayzata Vote for 3” campaign; and four candidates running together in White Bear Lake.

Among the White Bear Lake group are businessman Bill Mahre and realtor Luke Michaud. Their campaign strategy was inspired, in part, by other school board members’ experiences, like a conservative member in a neighboring district who is “very ineffective on that board because she’s just one vote,” Michaud said.

Mahre and Michaud said they met after separately deciding to enter the race and realized they share common goals, including a desire for more focus on academic performance, opposition to mask mandates and concerns about “critical race theory.” They don’t see the role of the school board as “running a school district,” but rather providing guidance to district leaders and staff. 

“We assume that teachers already know how to teach. That’s not our job,” Michaud said.

Mahre said increased awareness of CRT is like the “silver lining in the COVID cloud,” and the school board should review curriculum to check for elements of critical race theory. He acknowledged that the district has said they don’t teach it, but “whatever alphabet soup you want to call it, it’s a descendant of the CRT curriculum.” 

Ramirez said she worries that school board candidates focused on single issues like CRT might be misinformed about the nature of the job. School boards generally don’t choose curriculum, for instance. 

“No matter what position you’re running for, whether that’s school board, city council — if you’re a single-issue candidate, I think you will find the work is more challenging and broader than you anticipate,” Schneidawind said. “We train our boards to say, ‘You’ve got to look out for the good of the district.'”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.