Spending and competition are up in Minnesota off-year school board races

Three people speak at on a panel
Candidates for Rochester school board position 6 debated during a forum organized by the League of Women Voters at the Rochester Public Library on July 14.
Ken Klotzbach for MPR News | 2022

Nearly 200 candidates have thrown their hat in the ring to run for the more than 100 open school board seats in districts across Minnesota. And they’re spending more money on those races than they have in the past. 

That’s according to Kirk Schneidawind, who is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association — an organization that’s been around for more than a century. 

“Sometimes what we would see is some vacancies where we had no filings and that is not the case this year,” Schneidawind said. “We would rather see a competition for those seat(s) rather than having only one or no one interested in serving on the school board.”

Most districts hold elections in even years, but there are still 29 districts represented on the ballot with openings this year and another 16 are holding special elections to fill vacancies. Tuesday was the deadline for school board candidates to file and 5 p.m. on Aug. 17 was the deadline to withdraw filing. As of midday on Thursday, Schneidawind said 183 candidates had filed to run. 

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There are several suburban districts with stand out competition for seats: Mounds View, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and South Washington County all have around 12 or 13 candidates running for open seats. Hastings has 10.

Schneidawind said some of the heightened interest is likely the result of state-level and national interest and investment in school board politics. 

“We're also seeing some folks who are running to perhaps challenge the current structure and system that our school districts currently operate under. And so that has probably been a little bit more of a new dynamic … where we have seen some of those folks bringing in larger national issues that may have little, if any, import at the local school board level,” Schneidawind said. 

School board candidates in Minnesota are listed on the Secretary of State’s site and on the ballot as non-partisan — something that has changed in some states such as Tennessee

But Schneidawind said there are some districts where school board candidates are receiving what appear to be partisan endorsements or are included in campaign literature with House and Senate candidates. 

“We've seen more in-kind contributions, where we hadn't seen that in the past,” Schneidawind said. “The school board candidate may be lumped in with the local House or Senate member on their flyer — those pieces we never really have seen before. And I think you see it a little bit sometimes in the yard signs.”

There’s also more money pouring into school board campaigns. 

“We have seen an uptick, certainly, in the contributions and I don't think Minnesota is unique in that,” Schneidawind said. “In talking to my colleagues from other states …they are experiencing this as well.” 

Still, national issues heating up local board races is not the norm in Minnesota. According to Schneidawind there are many places where candidates are focused on local issues. He thinks much of the increase in candidate interest in school board positions is likely due to years of pandemic schooling raising community interest. 

“Coming out of COVID, there seems to be a greater interest in individuals running for local boards. And I think that, in general … it's great that people are interested in serving their communities and leading the school boards,” Schneidawind said.

“Rather than just saying, you know, ‘Geez, man the school board races are just spicy and hot, in every community,’ there are going to be some of those. But there's also many who are focused on the election issues and the campaign issues and school district issues.”