Masks, equity, culture wars at forefront of Minnesota school board elections

Contentious disagreements and clashes at meetings led to dozens of resignations by school board members.

Two people sit at a table. One wears a mask, the other speaks into a mic.
Candidates for the school board in Minnetonka, Minn., participate in student-led forum on Oct. 18.
Courtesy of Amin Rahmatullah

In some ways, it’s a quiet election this year. Some school districts are asking voters to approve referendums to pay for operating or capital costs. Just over two dozen districts have their regularly scheduled school board elections. 

But for an odd year, Minnesota School Boards Association executive director Kirk Schneidawind said there are an unusually high number of district special elections.  

“We have a number of special elections around filling vacant seats. We’ve seen a number of school board members have resigned or moved on to special positions and as a result it’s going to require some elections,” Schneidawind said. “It certainly is a number that is higher than normal.”

According to Schneidawind, nearly 70 school board members have resigned their positions this year — triple the resignations in a normal year. The vacant seats are, in large part, the result of contentious disagreements over things like masking, COVID-19 policies, and critical race theory, or CRT

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Violent school board meetings and threats toward school board members over these issues have caused dozens of board leaders to quit their positions. And now, Schneidawind said, these issues seem to be at the center of many school board campaigns and platforms.

“People love their schools and love their kids and want it to be the best,” Schneidawind said. “Vaccines, masks, CRT, other relevant hot issues have certainly and will certainly play a part in the school board election this year. More so than we have seen.” 

In the Minnetonka school district the school board race is hotly contested. There are three open board positions and eight candidates have filed to run for those seats. 

And last week four of those candidates gathered at a church in the Minneapolis suburb to make their case as to why voters should choose them to fill those positions.

Issues of educational equality are at the forefront of voter and candidate discussions in Minnetonka. Multiple Facebook groups have formed for people to discuss hot button issues, including one called “Minnetonka Public School Board Election Discussion 2021 — Uncensored” and another called “Minnetonka School Board Election for Non-Right Wing Nutter Butters.”

Three people look down at notes while wearing face masks.
Candidates for Minnetonka school board participate in student-led forum on Oct. 18.
Courtesy of Amin Rahmatullah

School boards have drawn the ire of different political movements over the years, but opponents of critical race theory and mask policies have been championed by right-wing politicians and pundits. 

But it’s not just adults who are weighing in on Minnetonka’s school board race. A group of high school students has taken it upon themselves to make sure their voices are heard in the debate about who leads their school as well. 

Jin Bang, a 17-year-old student at Minnetonka High School, helped form the group Minnetonka Coalition for Equitable Education in the summer of 2020. She’s led protests and discussions with current board members. And recently she led a forum, grilling candidates on their policy positions.

“This election has kind of been looming over our heads for so many months ... because we knew how important, after having interacted with the school board, how important school board representation is and their goals,” Bang said. “In this year, where there’s finally an election and there are progressive candidates and pro-equity candidates running. We knew it was really important.” 

Three students ask questions as moderators.
Minnetonka high school students Jin Bang (left), Deepti Pillai and Maheen Rahmatullah lead a forum for school board candidates Oct. 18.
Courtesy of Amin Rahmatullah

Bang and other student leaders in the group can’t yet vote. But they’re not happy with some of the ways current board members have responded to their concerns. Fifteen-year-old Maheen Rahmatullah said they’re hoping the forum will encourage people to pay attention to issues she and other students care about.

“It’s the biggest election that we’ve seen so far,” Rahmatullah said. “Personally what I want to get out of this election is for people to understand that this doesn’t just affect you, doesn’t just affect your taxes. This affects your kids. They’re kids who sit in the classroom ... don’t go into the election blind and not knowing what values you want to be present in the classroom.” 

Rahmatullah wants to do what she can to make Minnetonka a place where she and students of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds feel welcome and supported. She said she knows change doesn’t happen overnight, but she hopes it can start with some school board members who view students as leaders in their own district. 

“We as students are the ones who are most directly impacted by the school board and their decisions,” Rahmatullah said. “We are the ones sitting in a classroom eight hours a day, five days out of the week, nine out of 12 months of the year. That’s why it’s so important for them to listen to our voices.”