Election signs have sprung up like mushrooms at intersections around Prior Lake and Savage neighborhoods, at the edges of cornfields and lawns throughout the suburban district southwest of Minneapolis.
They bear the names of eight school board candidates vying for four seats and point to the intensity of an unusually contentious campaign as outside entities have come into play.
It’s “a divided time,” one candidate has said. The “middle ground” has disappeared, a local parent noted. Another candidate petitioned for a restraining order against a local parent who questioned him "aggressively" on his political views, but the courts turned it down because the candidate is running for office. The stakes feel significant.
The situation in Prior Lake-Savage is just one example of Minnesota school board races that have turned into a philosophical tug of war — a war that involves organized parent groups, teacher unions, networks of political donors and families who fear school equity efforts are in jeopardy.
In this year’s November elections, more than 1,000 school board seats will be on the ballot. And more than 1,600 people are running to fill them.
“This year we’ve had a lot more people running than usual,” said Greg Abbott, director of communications for the Minnesota School Boards Association.
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In some districts, the competition for open seats is in the double digits. And the amount of money being spent on school board races this year has skyrocketed. Abbott said he expects the number of candidates submitting campaign finance reports to double compared to two years ago.
“In a way, it’s a good sign that people are interested in serving,” Abbott said. “We just hope that they’re serving because they want to help all students succeed, not out of politics or some false reason that gets in their way.”
Racism and equity on the ballot
Last year was difficult for the Prior Lake-Savage school district where students from Prior Lake, Savage, Credit River, Cedar Lake Township, Sand Creek Township and Spring Lake Township attend classes.
In November of 2021, a student at Prior Lake High School posted a video online that targeted a 14-year-old Black classmate with racist invective and that called for the Black student to kill herself.
The video sent shockwaves through the community and inspired a rally of support outside the high school’s front doors.
But then there were other incidents at the high school where nearly 77 percent of the 3,000 students are white. Another racist video from a student circulated on social media just weeks after the first one. A student put a racist note in a bathroom. Another student put a racist note in the gym bag of a Black athlete.
“That just kind of ripped the curtain away,” said Prior Lake parent Nneka Sederstrom. “That opened up a much bigger conversation on what is actually happening in the schools and what are we doing to address the racism that is pervasive?”
Racism and equity are top of mind for many parents like Nneka and Charlie Sederstrom. Nneka is African American. Her husband Charlie is white. They have two children; one is enrolled in a district elementary school and another will soon begin kindergarten.
For them, the issue of equity is of central importance in this year’s school board race and has been a central issue for years. The couple’s front yard bristles with campaign signs for candidates who’ve been endorsed by the local teacher union.
They like Prior Lake for its good schools, proximity to the city, sense of community and the ability it’s given them to build a home overlooking a pond.
But they’re also familiar with Minnesota’s long-standing, close-to-worst-in-the-nation education inequalities that favor white students over students of color.
They know about the discipline disparities throughout the state that vary widely depending on a student’s race. They have encountered more specific instances of racism in Prior Lake — like the time Nneka, who is chief health equity officer at Hennepin Healthcare, was invited to speak to a district kindergarten class at her son’s school for Black History Month.
“There were families that literally removed their children from school on the days that they had a Black community member coming and talking about Black History Month, right? And there were parents who logged into the Zoom to hear what I had to say to ensure that I didn’t quote-unquote ‘indoctrinate their children,’” Nneka said.
But not every parent in Prior Lake shares Nneka’s views.
Rachel Carlson, who is white, has lived in Prior Lake for close to 20 years. She gets emotional thinking about racism discussions or signs about erasing hate displayed around Prior Lake High School could negatively affect children by stealing their childhood joy, she said.
She doesn’t want kids to be forced to think about racism constantly and doesn’t want teachers pointing out systemic racism or implicit bias in classroom lessons.
“It’s like ‘don’t push the red button’ for kids. I mean, don’t press the red button and you have this giant red button there every day, like how about ‘good job for erasing hate’? How about, ‘you guys have done really well. We’ve had a whole year without [an] incident,’” Carlson said.
When Carlson thinks about last year’s racist video targeting a high school student, she agrees: It was terrible, completely unacceptable. And there have also been times she’s seen people express biases in her healthcare work by refusing to treat patients, but she doesn’t think Prior Lake is an overwhelmingly racist place.
Candidate endorsements are key
The Sederstroms and Carlson support different groups of candidates running for the Prior Lake-Savage district’s four open seats.
Carlson supports four candidates endorsed by a local Facebook group she’s a part of called Lakers4Change: Bill Markert, Lisa Atkinson, Geoff Zahn and Amy Bullyan.
The Sederstroms support four people who’ve gotten the nod from the local teachers union: Jonathan Drewes, Enrique Velazquez, Michael Nelson and Jessica Olstad.
The candidates Carlson supports have also received backing from a state-wide group called Minnesota Parents Alliance which treats discussions of racism in schools as “controversial,” and offers parents opt-out forms to give to teachers, requesting a heads up ahead of classroom teachings on race, gender, politics and social-emotional learning.
The Alliance also has links on its website to resources that describe critical race theory as something designed to “pit racial groups against each other” and “teach kids to hate America so they will destroy it” — an intentionally misleading description of critical race theory.
The local Lakers4Change group, of which Carlson is a participant, has cast doubt on some of the equity work being done in the Prior Lake-Savage district itself, wondering in an online post if it’s a waste of resources. Has the focus on equity “increased racial tensions and incidents?” the post asks. If we remove inequalities and systemic barriers to success, it questions, will it cause children to lose their drive to succeed?
Local groups part of larger strategy
Minnesota Parents Alliance was founded in part by Cristine Trooien, a mother from Mound, who started homeschooling her children during the pandemic, but then decided to continue keeping them home when she saw her district implement programs focused on equity.
The group’s three person board includes Ron Eibensteiner and John Hinderaker, the chairman and president of Minnesota think tank, Center of the American Experiment. The CAE is part of the conservative State Policy Network, a national web of organizations coordinated and funded by wealthy libertarian donor groups, some of whom are allied with the Koch family.
“I would consider us a partner with MPA, we were kind of there at the founding, let’s put it that way,” Center communications director Bill Walsh said. “A lot of people felt there was a need for a C4, a political organization to help [school board] candidates from the conservative side. I don’t think anybody’s shy about saying that out loud.”
In 2021 the Center of the American Experiment led a “Raise Our Standards” tour aimed at helping parents “push back against the politicizing of our schools.” It launched a website focused on K-12 education with instructions for parents on how to communicate concerns about critical race theory to teachers and school leadership. It has an email list that reaches 60-70 thousand people, and holds regular in-person events on a variety of topics, including seminars promising to help attendees “learn more about how critical race theory, gender ideology and identity politics are miseducating America’s youth.”
The Alliance has since endorsed more than 100 candidates to run in races across the state - people they identified by reaching out to dozens of Facebook groups across the state, including Prior Lake’s own Lakers4Liberty.
For some experts, the way in which the Center is operating, its creation of and ongoing guidance of the Minnesota Parents Alliance, points to a larger and familiar strategy.
“What we’re seeing in the school boards and in groups like Center for [sic] the American Experiment are just one front in this broader, incredibly well-funded and incredibly integrated and incredibly strategic long-term strategy,” said Isaac Kamola, associate professor of political science at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.
Kamola has studied ways in which libertarian and conservative activists and Koch-sponsored organizations and think tanks have shaped political debates and manufactured crises over things like free speech, book bans and critical race theory.
“There are a handful of incredibly wealthy individuals and corporations that have a keen interest in fundamentally transforming American society in the image of the world that they see fit, which is corporate deregulation, no taxation, no public goods and services. These are all ideas that have been roundly rejected by the American public that generally enjoys things like social security, K-12 education, public higher education,” Kamola said.
He likens what’s happening in Prior Lake and other Minnesota communities to what happened with the formation and expansion of the Tea Party.
“You have people who are upset about issues being taught in school and maybe they have their little groups and their Facebook and stuff like that. But then when you put them in conversation and you surround them by Heritage Action and then these state-level think tanks that kind of takes that anger, amplifies it, professionalizes it, networks it, refines it,” Kamola said.
The parents and the school board candidates involved in these groups might not know that their advocacy on school issues is being manipulated and manufactured in service of a variety of rightwing political operatives and plutocratic donors, said Kamola. The goal of the donors, he said, is not to help parents or kids, but to help a larger political movement which seeks to stoke parent fear about K-12 schools in a longer term goal of discrediting and dismantling public education.
But Minnesota Parents Alliance leader, Trooien has said her organization is pro-public schools. That it exists to, as she wrote in an email, “strengthen our public schools.” She also points out that MPA-endorsed parent candidates believe public schools are “vitally important.”
Trooien also sees her organization as a challenge to the state teacher union, Education Minnesota and what she calls its historically “powerful union influence” on school board races.
Teachers unions make more endorsements
Local Minnesota teacher unions have endorsed school board candidates for decades. But this year, Education Minnesota president Denise Specht said the state union has put together a centralized voter guide of endorsed candidates.
It’s something they’ve never had to do -usually there are only about 10 unions in the entire state that endorse candidates. This year, however, the number of local unions making endorsements is in the dozens. It’s a change the union has called “seismic.”
“This year is an unprecedented year. We are seeing more local unions getting involved in school board races than we have ever seen in the past. There are candidates with a national agenda,” Specht said.
The union Specht leads is involved in school board elections in a variety of ways. It provides sample questionnaires for local unions to use and puts money from member dues into PACs that can be used for school board or levy campaigns. In Prior Lake this year, teacher union representatives used this money to get information on endorsed candidates out by mail or phone banking to local residents.
According to Bradley Marianno, assistant professor of education policy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, local union endorsements typically prioritize candidates who will work to increase funding for schools, who don’t support efforts to privatize education and who are pro-labor and pro-collective bargaining.
“When a union endorses a [school board] candidate, it’s a very localized decision. It’s not something that is top-down, driven from state affiliates or national affiliates. It is really the local organization, the union president and its memberships taking a hard look at the candidates and trying to figure out to what extent do these candidates align with education policy issues that the union might have,” Marianno said.
But Marianno agrees that local elections are changing across the country.
“I do think there’s more of a partisan element in school boards that we are seeing now that we haven’t before,” Marianno said. “I think unions and the democratic party have realized a long time the importance of school boards and I think more conservative groups are starting to wake up and say, ‘Hey, let’s organize here.’ So we’re going to see more partisan conflict in school boards now than we’ve seen in years past.”
Shawn Beaudette is the president of the Prior Lake Savage teacher union. He said the first time in history his union thought it necessary to endorse candidates was in 2018.
“2018 was a big political shift with Trump in office. It was divisive, combative. Teachers were concerned and we decided to get more involved,” Beaudette said.
This year they’ve endorsed again. They invited all eight Prior Lake candidates to an interview streamed live on Facebook to local union members. Six candidates participated, including two endorsed by the MPA.
But Beaudette said his 10-person Education Advocates Committee unanimously decided not to endorse candidates backed by the conservative group.
“The candidates we did not endorse have published or stated the need to remove social emotional learning,” Beaudette said. “One of the people we interviewed called the diversity, equity and inclusion policy racist and that they would like to see it revoked, and that would be one of the things they would want to do.”
The union committee endorsed Drewes, Velazquez, Nelson and Olstad — a decision backed by the majority of other Prior Lake-Savage union members who sent in their endorsement preferences by form letter.
Parents in action
Parent Rachel Carlson says she is new to political activism, something she traces back to the pandemic.
When her district stopped in-person learning and instituted a masking policy, she saw the effect isolation had on her kids and others in the community. She started to worry district leaders weren’t making good decisions.
“I started to question whether they were listening to those of us that didn’t believe in it or didn’t want it, or just wanted our kids in school,” Carlson said. “I felt very much unheard.”
When Carlson started going to school board meetings, she met other parents who shared her concerns. Together they started to think of other ways to influence the district, looking among themselves for people who could run for board seats.
“To truly be heard and represented, as a group of parents, we needed to come together and find candidates that were supportive of our collective views [although] no one agrees 100 percent with anybody else,” Carlson said.
Local activism is not new to the Sederstroms and isn’t limited to education issues.
They have joined community forums; they’ve hosted get-togethers at their home to get to know the police chief, city manager and mayor. They’ve helped draft a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative for the district.
For them, these have been important ways to build community and to ensure their district would be a safe place for their kids and other kids of color.
But Nneka Sederstrom is concerned about the four MPA-endorsed candidates running for the district’s open board seats. She contends that those candidates are trying to derail diversity, equity and inclusion measures.
“They have been really vocal that they don’t believe in that work being meaningful,” she said. “They feel that that work is somehow making little white kids feel bad about being white so therefore we should not teach any truths around racism in this country, and they should continue to go on and live their sheltered, blind lives and not understand how that impacts.”
To her, the way conservative parents and school board candidates are framing the conversation, both ignores and disadvantages Prior Lake’s students and families of color.
For the Sederstroms, the equity work that’s begun in Prior lake will continue, regardless of who wins this year’s school board elections. They say, there's no fighting a current that's already moving.
This story is part of a series produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.