The sleepy races of the school boards are waking up

The Blue Valley School District in Johnson County, Kansas has some of the best public high schools in the state. Typically, school board candidates sail to unopposed victory, while the turnout is a meager single-digit percentage of all eligible voters.

“Very sleepy, very calm,” said Andrew Van Der Laan, who is running for one of three contested school board seats in the Nov. 2 election.

But in recent months, a school board meeting has gone virtual due to security concerns after reported threats as dozens of people gathered to oppose the district’s mask policy. One group, Mask Choice 4 Kids, organized rallies and encouraged children to wear t-shirts to support the cause and to remove their masks in coordinated protest to “peacefully disrupt the education system … until the children and parents have the CHOICE to wear a mask at school. “

This year’s school board race is intensifying in Kansas’ most populous county and across the country.

School board meetings have become ideological battlegrounds during the pandemic, activating public comment and lawsuits regarding the application of masks and other learning requirements related to Covid. They have also become a forum for fights over teaching critical race theory in the wake of the racial justice protests in 2020. And school board recall efforts are underway in districts in several states, including Louisiana, Virginia and Wisconsin.

But that electoral cycle has changed in another way: Outside special interest groups and political action committees have a foothold in non-partisan races that might otherwise attract little interest even from local citizens, some members say. of the school board, applicants and academics.

“It is telling that the conception of where decisions are made is changing,” said Van Der Laan, father of three and independent business consultant and executive leadership coach who has never been a candidate. to an elective mandate. “You used to see presidential races, Senate races, and governor races hold that influence. Now you see it filtering down to schools.”

In August, a group called The 1776 Project PAC said it approved the list of Blue Valley candidates running against Van Der Laan and two other candidates with common interests. The approvals are among more than 50 that the PAC has made, supporting candidates from school boards in Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and elsewhere.

The group, which has a New York mailing address, says it rejects the “divisive philosophy” of critical race theory and “Project 1619,” created by the New York Times to examine the effects of race. slavery and the contributions of black Americans. The group argues that such programs are “taught in classrooms in almost every state in the country.”

Despite recent efforts by GOP-controlled state houses to ban schools from using Critical Race Theory, an academic study that suggests examining U.S. history through the lens of racism systemic, a June survey by the Nonpartisan Association of American Educators found that more than 96 percent of teachers in K-12 schools said they were not required to teach theory.

Proponents of the theory and “their positions are incredibly hostile to whites, Western civilization, classical liberalism, the Enlightenment, the founding of America, and capitalism,” according to The 1776 Project PAC.

The group raised more than $ 437,880 in contributions, according to federal campaign finance data from April through September.

The Blue Valley School District, which has nearly 22,000 students and is 70% white, says critical race theory is not part of its district-approved curriculum.

And yet parent groups within the community say they don’t know why there is an interest in supporting local candidates. The 1776 Project PAC did not respond to a request for comment, but an organizer told Axios in May that its goal was to campaign on behalf of school board candidates nationwide.

Mask Choice 4 Kids executive Tana Goertz said the group plans to approve school board candidates this week.

Goertz – who was a finalist for season three of NBC’s “The Apprentice” and campaigned for former President Donald Trump, the show’s former host, in his home state of Iowa – n is not from Johnson County. But she became involved with the group after a county student who started it abruptly resigned last month amid scrutiny of her father’s role as CEO in the healthcare industry. health.

“The group has grown into something much bigger than a student could handle,” Goertz said in an email. “I am neither shocked nor surprised that people who disagree with our position on the subject quickly pointed out that this group had another goal than to be patriots who defend our freedom, our faith and our families.”

State Senator Cindy Holscher, Johnson County Democrat, said school board meetings had become a “bastion of harassment” against members seeking to uphold the recommendation of the mask mandate across the country. county for children in kindergarten to sixth grade – instituted over the summer as the Delta Variant has jumped and public health officials have claimed wearing masks may help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Blue Valley School District masking requirement now includes all grades up to high school.

The school board races “are more like what we’ve seen for these state legislative campaigns in terms of boots on the ground,” Holscher said. “There are a lot of marketing and fear tactics to turn people on.”

At a Blue Valley Candidates Forum last week, topics surrounding Critical Race Theory; diversity, equity and inclusion; and the district’s mask policy and Covid-related protocols have taken center stage.

“The difference is that there is now a political action committee operating in our community. Two towns down the road, the governor of our state is running for an election.”

SAID, member of the Monic Behnken school board

Ideological clashes over school board issues are not new, said Vladimir Kogan, associate professor of political science at Ohio State University. Schools have debated teaching evolution and smart design, sex education and core curriculum, an educational tool decried by Republicans over the past decade.

If politically charged candidates end up winning local elections in November, it could prompt more PACs, extremists and political agents to target school boards, he added.

“You have adults arguing over national partisan issues mainly because that’s why they’re angry,” Kogan said. “But you have to ask yourself: are the children going to be the collateral damage of these polarizing debates? “

Monic Behnken, who sits on the Ames, Iowa, school board just north of Des Moines, decided not to stand for re-election in November after being a member since 2017. When she already knew she was not. wanted to stay only one. Ultimately, the ever-changing policies related to the pandemic and the fallout from the racial justice protests in the region have only made the position more difficult.

Normally, she says, “our job is, do we want to pay for the lights on the tennis court? Do we want to hire this DJ for the ball?”

But in February, during Black History Month, the school district came under fire for a week-long “Black Lives Matter at School” event, with Republican lawmakers, conservative groups and some community members l ‘calling for a misuse of resources and morally reprehensible or one-sided.

A PAC emerged over the summer, Ames Deserves Better, set up by parents in response, stating on its website that “embracing diversity means honoring the decision each family makes for itself.”

In Ankeny, another Des Moines suburb, a school board race drew attention after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, made an unusual appearance while attending the campaign launch for a candidate and openly approving her in the elections.

Behnken, who is black, said that while one of the perks is that it seems like more people are interested in the work of the Ames Community School District Board of Directors, there is also more at stake. on broader issues such as equity in the classroom and learning for all students.

“The difference is that there is now a political action committee operating in our community. Two towns away, the governor of our state is launching an election,” she added. “These are unprecedented things in this community.”

School board races have also taken hold of social media groups, opposing camps and supporters of the candidates making accusations.

Erica Massman, a parent who sits on the board of a non-partisan community organization, Stand Up Blue Valley, said that once it seemed like no matter where your political allegiance was, everyone could agree that they wanted to protect the district’s public schools – the “golden goose” that keeps property values ​​high and attracts businesses and jobs, she added – from underfunding or losing high-level teachers.

But she fears “black money” and outside influence may try to undermine that by backing school board candidates with a different agenda.

Stand Up Blue Valley is backing Van Der Laan and two other candidates who have expressed support for masking initiatives that follow recommendations from public health officials.

On the opposite list, one candidate declined to comment on NBC News and the other did not respond to a request for comment. A third candidate dropped out of the school board race in September, although her name will remain on the ballot.

A Facebook group accused Stand Up Blue Valley of being a “hyper-partisan PAC” and of choosing “ultra-progressive candidates”.

Massman, a Republican, said she laughed when she heard about such messages.

“I just found out that I am a radical liberal,” she said. “My neighbors are having a lot of fun.”

Van Der Laan said potential voters were polite as he campaigned in his district, which spans 91 square miles outside of Kansas City, Missouri.

On Facebook, however, the language people use has been “combative,” he said. He shrugs his shoulders.

He recently received an anonymous call from someone who he said wanted to talk about his candidacy. But the question, it seemed at first, was irrelevant: in which political party are you registered?

Van Der Laan replied that he was a Democrat. The person said “OK, thank you” and then hung up.

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