Conservative candidates underwhelm in suburban school board races

Fewer than half of school operating levies passed Tuesday — the lowest since 2006

By: - November 8, 2023 2:44 pm

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An effort by conservatives to win suburban school board races running on the theme of “parental rights” came up short in most races Tuesday, but they scored major victories in the state’s largest school district: Anoka-Hennepin. 

Even as most Minnesota voters rejected the prospect of school board fights over polarizing culture war issues, many also told their elected officials to make do with what they have, rejecting a slew of operating levies that would have provided a funding infusion.

The Minnesota Parents Alliance, which served as a key asset this year for right-leaning candidates, endorsed 44 candidates in 20 districts in the Twin Cities area, but just nine of their candidates clinched their election, according to unofficial results. Three races were still too close to call as of Wednesday afternoon.

Although MPA-endorsed candidates won just a handful of races, they were in significant metro districts. 

MPA-endorsed candidate Linda Hoekman ousted Anoka-Hennepin school board incumbent Erin Heers-McArdle, who was backed by Education Minnesota — the state’s teachers union. 

Zach Arco, a MPA-endorsed candidate, won his race by 12 votes over Susan Witt, the teachers union-endorsed candidate. The Anoka-Hennepin school board has six members.

Hoekman and Arco both campaigned on culture war issues. Arco said he would work to remove “culturally divisive” content from classrooms, and Hoekman said she would ensure “children are protected from danger and politicized instruction.” 

Given their success, Republicans will likely look to their campaigns as a guide for messaging to turn swing districts red in the 2024 election. Republicans and their allies in the conservative movement need to develop candidates to take back the Minnesota House in 2024 and 2026, and school boards are an ideal place to start. 

“For a small organization in our second year, these wins represent tremendous success and give us a lot of confidence to continue our mission,” said Cristine Trooien, the MPA’s executive director, in a statement.

MPA’s candidates also won big in Hastings, with three of their four candidates gaining seats on the seven-member school board. MPA-backed candidates now have a 5-2 majority on the Hastings school board, according to the group.

“MPA had an impressive tally of wins tonight. Look for MPA’s influence in local/school board elections to expand,” former GOP operative Michael Brodkorb said on Twitter.

School board elections over the past few years have been dominated by culture war issues, including the teaching of the role of race and white supremacy in American history. 

Many of the contested school board elections were influenced by outside political groups spending tens of thousands to elect a desired candidate. In Anoka-Hennepin, the Anoka-Hennepin Parents Alliance, an affiliate of the MPA, raised over $44,000, and Education Minnesota’s political action committee spent nearly $40,000 for a digital ad campaign. 

Low number of levies passed

Fewer than half of school operating levies passed Tuesday — the lowest since 2006, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association. 

Twenty-seven districts across the state asked their residents to increase their property taxes for schools’ operating budgets, and 44% passed. The majority of levies voted down were located in greater Minnesota, reflecting the continuing rise of conservative politics outstate.

Greg Abbott, spokesperson for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said it’s not always clear why levies fail, but a factor this year could be the state Legislature touting record-breaking education funding — like the $2.2 billion in new spending it passed in May — so voters may have been less inclined to pass levies. 

But voters were more amenable to school construction projects, with about 65% passing. 

“People understood the need for schools,” Abbott said.

In Mankato, voters approved a $105 million bonding referendum to fund building upgrades and improve building security, among other projects. 

The Minneapolis-based Minnesota Private Business Council, a GOP-aligned group backed by business interests, spent $47,600 to urge Mankato residents to vote down the bonding referendum. 

Voters in Osseo approved a $223 million bonding referendum to build a new elementary school, addition to the high school and other renovations. Stillwater approved a $175 million bond to replace two elementary schools with new buildings and add classroom space in the middle school. 

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues.