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Covid and critical race theory: Sleepy school board races are waking up

School board meetings became battlegrounds during the pandemic. Now, the influence of PACs and outside groups has put a spotlight on the November election.
Image: This year's school board race is heating up in Johnson County, Kansas' most populated county — and across the country.
This year's school board race is heating up in Johnson County, Kansas' most populated county — and across the country. Shahrzad Elghanayan / NBC News

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

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

But in past months, a school board meeting went virtual because of safety concerns after reported threats were made as dozens of people gathered to oppose the district's mask policy. A group, Mask Choice 4 Kids, has held rallies and encouraged children to wear T-shirts in support of the cause and pull down their masks in coordinated protest to "peacefully disrupt the educational system ... until kids and parents have a CHOICE to wear a mask in school."

This year's school board race is heating up in Kansas' most populated county — and across the country.

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

But this election cycle has shifted in another way: Outside special interest groups and political action committees have a toehold in nonpartisan races that might otherwise draw little interest from even local citizens, say some school board members, candidates and academics.

"It's telling that the conception of where decisions are being made is changing," said Van Der Laan, a father of three and self-employed business consultant and executive leadership coach who has never previously run for elected office. "You used to see presidential races, Senate races and gubernatorial races holding that influence. Now, you're seeing it filter all the way down to the schools."

In August, a group called The 1776 Project PAC said it was endorsing the slate of Blue Valley candidates running against Van Der Laan and two other candidates with shared interests. The endorsements are among more than 50 the PAC has made, supporting school board candidates 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 "The 1619 Project," created by The New York Times to examine the effects of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. The group contends such programs are "being taught in classrooms in nearly every state across the country."

Despite some recent efforts by GOP-controlled statehouses to ban schools' use of critical race theory, an academic study that suggests looking at U.S. history through a lens of systemic racism, 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 the theory.

Supporters of the theory and "their positions are incredibly hostile to white people, 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, federal campaign finance data from April to September show.

The Blue Valley School District, which has a student population of almost 22,000 and is 70 percent white, says critical race theory is not part of its district-approved curriculum.

And yet, parent groups within the community say they're confused as to why there's interest in endorsing local candidates. The 1776 Project PAC did not respond to a request for comment, but an organizer told Axios in May that its goal is to campaign on behalf of school board candidates nationwide.

The leader of Mask Choice 4 Kids, Tana Goertz, said the group plans to endorse school board candidates this week.

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

"The group grew into something much bigger than a college student could handle," Goertz said in an email. "I'm not shocked or amazed that people who disagree with our stance on the subject were quick to point the finger that this group had an agenda other than being patriots who stand up for our freedom, our faith and our families."

State Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Democrat from Johnson County, said school board meetings have become a "bastion of harassment" against members who sought to uphold the countywide mask mandate recommendation for children in kindergarten through grade six — instituted over the summer as the delta variant surged and public health officials affirmed that wearing masks can help slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Blue Valley School District's requirement for masking now includes all grades through high school.

"The difference is now there is a political action committee operating in our community. Two towns over, the governor of our state is getting into an election."

School board member Monic Behnken

The school board races "feel more like what we've seen for these state Legislature campaigns in terms of boots on the ground," Holscher said. "There's lots of marketing and fear tactics to get people whipped up."

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 took center stage.

Ideological clashes over school board issues are not new, said Vladimir Kogan, an Ohio State University associate professor of political science. Schools have debated the teaching of evolution and intelligent design, sex education and Common Core, an educational tool that was decried by Republicans in the last decade.

If candidates motivated by politically charged issues end up sweeping local elections this November, that could prop up more PACs, extremists and political operatives to set their sights on school boards, he added.

"You have adults basically arguing over national partisan issues because that's what they're angry about," Kogan said. "But you have to wonder: Are the kids going to be collateral damage from these polarizing debates?"

Monic Behnken, who sits on the school board in Ames, Iowa, just north of Des Moines, decided not to run for re-election this November after being a member since 2017. While she already knew she wanted to stay on for only a single term, ever-changing policies related to the pandemic and the fallout from racial justice protests in the area only made the position thornier.

Normally, she said, "our job is, do we want to pay for lights on the tennis court? Do we want to hire this DJ for prom?"

But in February, during Black History Month, the school district faced criticism for a weeklong "Black Lives Matter at School" event, with Republican lawmakers, conservative groups and some community members calling it a misuse of resources and morally objectionable or one-sided.

A PAC emerged over the summer, Ames Deserves Better, set up by parents in response, saying 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 garnered attention after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, made an unusual appearance by attending one candidate's campaign launch and openly endorsing her in the election.

Behnken, who is Black, said that while one upside is it seems like more people are interested in the work of the Ames Community School District's board, there's also more at stake on broader issues like classroom and learning equity for all students.

"The difference is now there is a political action committee operating in our community. Two towns over, the governor of our state is getting into an election," she added. "Those are unprecedented things in this community."

School board races have also taken hold of social media groups, with opposing sides and candidates' supporters slinging accusations.

Erica Massman, a parent who is on the steering committee of one nonpartisan community organization, Stand Up Blue Valley, said it once felt like no matter where your political allegiance lay, 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 being underfunded or losing top-tier teachers.

But she worries that "dark money" and outside influence may try to undermine that by supporting 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 public health officials' recommendations.

On the opposing slate, one candidate declined to comment to 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.

One Facebook group has accused Stand Up Blue Valley of being a "hyper-partisan PAC" and picking "ultra-progressive candidates."

Massman, a Republican, said she laughs when she hears about such posts.

"I just found out I'm a radical liberal," she said. "My neighbors get a kick out of it."

Van Der Laan said prospective voters have been polite as he campaigns in his district, which spans 91 square miles outside of Kansas City, Missouri.

On Facebook, however, the language people are using has been "combative," he said. He shrugs it off.

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

Van Der Laan replied that he's a Democrat. The person said, "OK, thank you," and then hung up.