Minnesotans elect hundreds of new school board members in often heated contests

A wide shot of a room with seated people.
The Rochester Public Library hosted candidates for Rochester school board position 6 during a forum organized by the League of Women Voters July 14.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News

There were hundreds of Minnesota school board races on the ballot Tuesday as well as several dozen school funding measures.

More than 300 of the state’s 330+ districts held board elections this week, with just over 1000 board seats on the ballot. The competition for many of those open seats was unusually heated with close to 1,600 candidates running. In Bemidji 23 people sparred over five seats. In South St. Paul, 22 people contended for four seats.  

The last several years of the pandemic have had widespread effects on schools and on school boards, including intense controversy over masking and distance learning. Some of the local groups that formed around these issues became interested in putting forward board candidates. 

National conservative activists and political groups have also focused strategically on schools and school board elections as a means to a political end. They have introduced and shaped political debates over things like critical race theory, social emotional learning and which books should be allowed in school libraries. 

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In Minnesota this year, the conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment founded and led the Minnesota Parents Alliance as part of this effort. That group identified, trained and endorsed more than 100 school board candidates. 

Over 49 of those candidates won election to school boards Wednesday — some 40 percent of the people they endorsed. 

“We are thrilled with our success in year one,” said MPA executive director, Cristine Trooien. “(We) look forward to making an even bigger impact in 2023.”

MPA leaders have said their endorsed candidates are planning to focus on, among other things, academic achievement and what they’re calling “parental rights.” The group has said it sees itself, in part, as an alternative or opposition to teacher union-endorsed candidates. 

Local Minnesota teacher unions have been making school board candidate endorsements for decades. Usually only about 10 local teacher unions endorse school board candidates, but this year there were endorsements in almost 40 districts. 

The state union said this uptick in endorsements was a reaction to the candidates unions were seeing in many districts who seemed to be bringing a national political agenda to local races. 

Just over 60 percent of the board candidates unions endorsed this year won their seats last night. 

“This has been a difficult and divisive election season for school boards, and the misinformation coming down from the big money MAGA groups worked as intended in many places,” said Education Minnesota president Denise Specht. “While most communities rallied to protect their students’ freedom to learn an honest history of America in a welcoming school, others did not. Now it’s time for Minnesota’s school communities to come together, learn the truth of what’s really taught in schools and why, and do what’s right for every student.  No exceptions.” 

Some Minnesota districts also asked voters to weigh in on bond or levy questions. 

Twenty-five out of 34 Minnesota school districts had voters approve operating levies, which pay for day-to-day school operations. That’s a 73 percent passage rate, which, according to the Minnesota School Boards Association, is a rate similar to last year, and much higher than the 48 percent approval rating in 2020. 

Sixty-eight percent of districts with bond or capital project levy questions on the ballot also got approval from voters. Bonds and capital project levies will go for new school building projects or technology resources.