During the pandemic, school board meetings were a battlefield. The influence of PACs, outside groups and other organizations has placed a spotlight upon the November election.
Blue Valley School District, Johnson County, Kansas is home to some of the best public high schools in Kansas. Candidates for school board win easily, with a small percentage of eligible voters turning out to vote.
Andrew Van Der Laan said, “Very sleepy and very sedate” in his candidacy for one of the three seats on the school board.
In the past, however, school board meetings have been canceled due to safety concerns. Several people protested the district’s new mask policy. Mask Choice 4 Kids organized rallies encouraging children to wear T-shirts to support the cause and to take down their masks in protest to “peacefully disrupt” the educational system until parents and kids have the right to choose to wear masks in school.
The race for school board seats in Kansas’ most populous county is heating up — as well as across the country.
During the pandemic, school board meetings became ideological battlegrounds. This led to public comments and lawsuits about mask enforcement and other Covid related learning requirements. In the wake of 2020 racial justice protests, they have become a platform for fighting over critical race theory teaching. In several states, including Louisiana and Virginia, recalls of school boards are underway.
This election cycle is different. Nonpartisan races are now open to outside special interest groups and political committees. These races might not otherwise attract much interest from local citizens.
Van Der Laan, who is a father of three children and a self-employed executive coach and business consultant, said that it was telling that the way people think about where decisions are made is changing. He has never run for office before. “Van Der Laan used to think that the influence was held by presidential, Senate and gubernatorial elections. You can now see it filter down to schools.
A group called The 1776 Project PAC stated that it would endorse the slate of Blue Valley candidates against Van Der Laan, and two other candidates who share common interests in August. These endorsements are just a few of more than 50 made by the PAC to support school board candidates across Colorado, Minnesota and New Jersey.
The New York-based group has a mailing address. It says it rejects critical race theory’s “divisive philosophy” and “The 1619 Project”, which were created by The New York Times to study the effects of slavery on Black Americans. According to the group, such programs are being taught in schools in almost every state in the country.
Despite recent GOP-controlled statehouse attempts to ban schools from critical race theory, an academic study suggesting that we look at U.S. history through the lens of systemic racism. A June survey by the nonpartisan Association of American Educators revealed that more than 96 per cent of K-12 teachers said that they are not required to teach this theory.
According to The 1776 Project PAC, supporters of the theory and their positions “are incredibly hostile to white persons, Western civilization and classical liberalism. The enlightenment. The founding of America. and capitalism.”
Federal campaign finance data from April through September shows that the group received more than $437 880 in contributions.
Blue Valley School District has almost 22,000 students and is 70% white. It says that critical race theory is not part its approved curriculum.
Yet, the parent groups in the community are confused about why they want to endorse local candidates. Although the 1776 Project PAC didn’t respond to a request to comment, an organizer said to Axios that it was working to support candidates for school boards across the country.
Tana Goertz (leader of Mask Choice 4 Kids) stated that the group will endorse candidates for school boards this week.
Johnson County is not home to Goertz, who was a finalist on season three of NBC’s ‘The Apprentice’ and campaigned for former President Donald Trump in her home state, Iowa. She became involved in the group last month after a local college student who founded it abruptly resigned amid concerns about his father’s position as CEO of the health care sector.
Goertz stated in an email that “The group grew to something much larger than a college-aged student could handle.” “I am not surprised or surprised that people who disagreed with our position on the subject were quick and fervent to point out that this group had other agendas than being patriots who stand for freedom, faith, and families.”
Cindy Holscher, a Democrat representing Johnson County, stated that school board meetings have become a place of harassment for members who want to enforce the countywide mask mandate recommendation. This recommendation was made over the summer when the delta variant of the virus surged. Public health officials confirmed that masks can slow the spread. Blue Valley School District now requires all grades to wear masks.
Holscher stated that the school board races are “more like what we’ve seen in terms of boots on ground” for state Legislature campaigns. “There are a lot of fear tactics and marketing to get people excited.”
Last week’s Blue Valley Candidates Forum featured topics on critical race theory, diversity, equity, and inclusion. The district’s mask policy, and Covid-related protocols were also discussed.
Vladimir Kogan, an Ohio State University assistant professor of political science, stated that ideological clashes over school board matters are not new. The teaching of evolution and intelligent designs, sex education, and Common Core have been topics of debate in schools. Common Core was a controversial educational tool that Republicans decried over the past decade.
He said that if candidates who are motivated by politically charged issues win local elections in November, it could encourage more PACs, extremists, and political operatives to target school boards.
Kogan stated that adults are arguing about national partisan issues simply because they’re angry. But you have to wonder: Will these polarizing discussions cause collateral damage to the children?
Monic Behnken is a member of the Ames school board, Iowa, just north from Des Moines. She decided to not run for re-election in November. Monic Behnken knew she wanted to remain on the board for one term. However, the ever-changing policies regarding the pandemic as well as the fallout from the racial justice protests in this area made it more difficult.
She said that normaly, her job was to pay for the lights on the tennis court. Are we willing to hire this DJ for prom?
However, in February, Black History Month, the school district was criticised for hosting a week-long “Black Lives Matter at School” event. Republican lawmakers, conservative groups, and community members called it a misused resource and one-sided.
Ames Deserves Better was a PAC that parents created in response to the situation. It states on its website, “embracing diversity means respecting each family’s decision.” After the Iowa governor, Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb, received attention for its school board race. Kim Reynolds, a Republican made an unusual appearance at the campaign launch of one candidate and publicly supported her candidacy.
Behnken is Black and is the only person of color on Ames Community Schools District’s board. He said that although there are some positives, the board has more to lose on larger issues such as learning equity and classroom education for all students.
“The difference is that now, there is a local political action committee. She added that the governor of our state, two towns away, is now running for election.” “These are extraordinary things in this community.”
Social media has also been used to promote school board elections. Candidates’ supporters and opposing parties have made accusations.
Erica Massman is a parent and is on the Steering Committee of Stand Up Blue Valley. She said that it used to feel like, no matter what your political affiliation was, everyone could agree that they wanted the district’s public school system to be protected — the “golden goose”, that keeps property values high, attracts businesses, and keeps jobs — from being underfunded and losing top-tier teachers.
She is concerned that outside influence and “dark money”, may attempt to undermine it by supporting candidates for school boards with a different agenda.
Stand Up Blue Valley supports Van Der Laan as well as two other candidates who support masking efforts that follow the recommendations of public health officials.
One candidate on the opposing slate declined to comment to NBC News, while the other didn’t respond to a request to comment. The third candidate, who was not eligible for the September school board race, resigned. Her name will still be on the ballot.
One Facebook group accused Stand Up Blue Valley, calling it a “hyperpartisan PAC” that picks “ultraprogressive candidates.”
Massman, a Republican said that she laughs at such posts.
She said, “I just discovered that I am a radical liberal.” “My neighbors get a kick from it.”
Van Der Laan stated that prospective voters were polite while he campaigned in his district. It covers 91 square miles just outside of Kansas City, Missouri.
He said that Facebook’s language is “combative”. He laughs it off.
Unidentified caller called him recently, claiming he wanted to discuss his candidacy. The question seemed unrelated at first: Which political party are your registered with?
Van Der Laan responded that he was a Democrat. Van Der Laan replied, “OK, thank-you,” and then hung on.