Election 2023

Culture wars, money muscle into Minnesota school board races

A sign for a school
There are 11 candidates running for school board with the South Washington County district this year, which includes schools like Liberty Ridge Elementary School in Woodbury, Minn.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Updated: 11:55 a.m.

Concerned over low staffing levels and the rapidly changing pace of technology in the South Washington County Schools, Molly Schaefer ran for a seat on the school board. She wanted to focus on better preparing schools to teach the skills and resilience her kids and others would need to face a changing world.

For decades, that kind of nonpartisan, problem-solving ethos formed the bedrock of school board elections in Minnesota and across the country. But not this year.

This year, Schaefer finds herself struggling to keep up with 10 others competing for three open board seats. Most are getting money, endorsements and door-knocking support from groups with very specific ideological beliefs around schools.

“Endorsement questionnaires” and invitations to train with various local and state groups fill her email inbox, but her focus doesn’t fit the political battle lines she feels have been drawn in her district. 

“You get pulled in all these different directions and it’s hard to even come up for air at some point,” said Schaefer. “There’s such a polarization right now within our world, within our nation, it concerns me that not all voices are getting heard. And there are going to be students that get left out.” 

Across the state, Minnesota’s school board races are growing more heated, partisan and well-funded. While the contests are technically apolitical, observers say it’s a fig leaf barely covering an obvious reality: Campaign money, training and backing are increasingly targeted toward candidates willing to fight culture wars, make very specific promises or pass ideological tests.

Those who can’t pass the tests or won’t play the game risk not getting elected. 

“School boards have become a kind of flashpoint for the culture wars and pawns in a kind of broader political game,” said Julie Marsh, a University of Southern California professor of education who studies school board races.

“It’s happening all over the country,” she added, “where conservative groups and individuals are sort of funding candidates, endorsing candidates under a kind of umbrella of parent rights.”

Observers, including those who are part of that shift, say it’s not realistic to think school board races can be insulated from the country’s deep political divisions. 

“We can hope and be nostalgic about the days when people didn’t approach these positions through a partisan lens, but we're not going to go back to those days,” said Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin. “So we now have to compete in those arenas.” 

‘Tired of being plowed over’

The South Washington County board races offer a clear-eyed look at how the political landscape has changed. Among the 11 candidates, three are endorsed by conservative groups and three others are backed by the local teacher union and a collection of activist and liberal groups.

Those endorsements and investments from political groups have been accompanied by a partisan line in the sand that candidates say didn’t used to exist in school board elections. 

A coalition of conservative groups has rallied in recent years to recruit and back candidates that advocate for what they call parents’ rights in schools and better outcomes in Minnesota’s standardized tests. 

Many local parent groups trace their origins to organizing they did during the pandemic over advocating for schools to drop mask requirements or open their doors to more in-person learning. But the state and national groups they’re now connected to have more politically-focused origins and goals. 

Marsh said the GOP “has seen the benefits that have been accrued by state leaders who have used this (focus on parents’ rights) as a strategy to gain power,” pointing to Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin as the first to lean into the issue and win in a battleground state.

In South Washington County, three candidates have allied themselves with the parents’ rights movement: Jaime Kokaisel, Anthony Mahmood and Ryan Clarke have the backing of the conservative Minnesota Parents Alliance.

Some in the trio have questioned the necessity of social-emotional learning programs and advocated for paring back lessons and resources around diversity and inclusion and LGBTQ+ identity to focus more on core curricula like math, reading and writing. 

“For some reason, our government and school officials think it’s their job to socially engineer our children into the mold they feel our society should become,” Mahmood wrote in a Facebook post. “I personally feel that our government needs to stay out of our personal lives and the school should teach reading, writing, math, science and history.”

Groups including the Minnesota Parents Alliance, Minnesota Voters Alliance, Restore Minnesota, Freedom Club, American Majority and others have led strong campaign pushes this year to get conservative voters out for local elections. And they’ve helped raise money for candidates in school board contests.

“You’ve heard people say they want to stand up for freedom. They want to stand up for truth, they want to stand up for what’s right there in the center for what’s just, they want to stand up for families and children,” said Dale Witherington, chief steward of Restore Minnesota. The conservative Christian group promotes the concept of biblical citizenship, which Witherington said involved “spiritual and civic transformation based on the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

“The nice people in Minnesota are tired, tired of being plowed over. And we’re just saying, ‘OK, it’s time that we share our voice in a loving, godly manner.’”

In South Washington County, Freedom Club, a conservative organization in coordination with the Minnesota Parents’ Alliance, launched a door-knocking and phone-calling campaign.

Across the country, there’s been a push by conservative groups to elect candidates at the most local levels of government, education experts told MPR News.

According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, there has been a significant increase in campaign spending this year. In South Washington County alone, the spending has hit at least $13,000. 

‘If you want politics out of education …’

Those messages have also motivated teacher unions and a collection of progressive groups and school board candidates to launch a counteroffensive this year.

Three candidates in the district — Melinda Dols, Simi Patnaik and Satonia Moore — have publicly called for keeping mental health and social-emotional learning programs in schools and for maintaining resources that teach about LGBTQ+ and cultural identity at age-appropriate levels.

Moore, who has a student in the district and earned both a teaching license and master’s in social work, spent 13 years working in a South Washington County middle school. She now works in District 916 in family engagement and cultural liaison work. One of her top priorities in running for school board is protecting and expanding the district’s equity policies and programs. 

“Academic achievement cannot be improved by just slashing programs that benefit our diverse populations of students,” Moore said. “It’s tough in school for kids and they need help and guidance and allies and people to support them. And if they don’t feel comfortable to talk to you or reach out, then they go without the help that they need.”

Moore, Dols and Patnaik are endorsed by the local teachers’ union, OutFront, a local parent group and the local group Woodbury for Justice and Equality. Some of them also received or were offered training from the newly-founded progressive-leaning School Board Integrity Project

Dols said she was offered an endorsement and a letter of support from the DFL but declined it because she believes the “school board is nonpartisan and should remain nonpartisan.” 

The endorsements Dols and others have received tend to come with a flood of support. The teachers’ union has sent out mailers to local residents, urging them to vote for their preferred candidates.

OutFront Minnesota, which advocates for equality for LGBTQ+ people, has also made their endorsements public and local parent groups have hosted fundraisers. We Can Change the World, a progressive PAC based out of Washington and Dakota Counties has donated to their campaigns.

“We want students reading and we want them to know how to do math,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “But we also need to remember that when we hear attacks on social emotional learning, they want to block students from developing life skills like confidence, like being good decision makers, how to understand and express their emotions, to empathize with others or stand up for people of different backgrounds.”

For Rich, a parent in the South Washington County district who asked MPR News not to use his last name to protect the privacy of his transgender son, the stakes in this year’s school board elections feel high. He worries rhetoric from Minnesota Parents’ Alliance-endorsed candidates will lead to his son or other LGBTQ+ students being bullied or made to feel unwelcome in the school and community.

“We’re all parents,” Rich said. “I’m not really comfortable with how the parents’ rights groups have kind of assumed that they're the only parents, that they speak for all of us.”

The landslide of endorsements and donations has felt like an arms race to some. 

Priscilla Dimbo, who’s attended MPA events, found she missed her opportunities for training and endorsements. “These campaigns need to start at a minimum nine months before the election,” Dimbo said. “There’s so many avenues to go, there’s so many people that you want to reach that I should have actually started campaigning the end of last year.”

Dols won her current South Washington County school board seat in 2019 — back when, as she said, “the school board was boring.” But this year has been different. Dols said she’s spent close to $3,200 — more than triple the amount of money she spent last time. 

Four years ago, “I completely funded my own campaign, I didn’t go after any type of donations, I spent maybe $1,000 max on my campaign. I had probably less than 100 signs out in the community and I did all my own door knocking, all my own lit dropping. I didn’t have a campaign manager. It was just so different,” Dols said.

“Now this year, I have two campaign managers, we have a whole [local parent group] that are working for the three of us that have all the same endorsements.”

District residents have also noticed the partisan divide. Marvin Taylor, who lives in Newport, Minn., and is serving his first term on the Newport City Council, said candidate yard signs are divided by slate and color. His yard is an exception. He installed one red sign in support of Jaime Kokaisel and a blue sign in support of Simi Patnaik. 

“I’m probably the only person with two different colored signs in my yard,” Taylor said. 

Kokaisel is someone Taylor knows personally after working with her to vote down a ballot measure and district plan that would have closed his students’ elementary school. He’s not conservative but thinks Kokaisel is caring and a good organizer. And Patnaik is someone he thinks has done a good job in her time on the board. 

“I’m not a slate kind of person,” Taylor said. “And I also know, there’s a couple of candidates who aren’t part of those slates who are good candidates, too.”

Chad Borseth, a union teacher, has eschewed endorsements on principle, even though he thinks it harms his ability to compete: “They said, ‘You can’t do this without endorsements.’ And I’m like, ‘I know, but I don’t want to lose any friends over it and this is the way I’m gonna do it.’”

Borseth doubts he’ll get enough votes to put him in one of his district’s top three spots. And Schaefer is concerned her voice will get drowned out by the candidates who are more vocal and have more support. But neither of them has dropped out. 

“If you want politics out of education,” said Borseth, “then you need to start with politics off the school board.”

Correction (Nov. 2, 2023): Satonia Moore works at District 916. An earlier version of this story misstated her place of employment. The story has been updated.