Hot button issues of race, sexuality playing out in school board elections

No Comments

Running for the school board has long been a way for people to dip their toes into the political process. At times candidates may be backed – publicly and/or privately – by political parties.

But amid national political debates about racial justice and equality, school board elections across the country are increasingly mirroring the same discord  – with pandemic lockdowns and mandates since 2020 ramping up people’s interest in pushing political issues through local school districts.

School board races from Texas to Wisconsin have been called a symbol of “culture wars” and are becoming “partisan and venomous.”

While races in the Capital Region do not appear to be as fiery, the same issues are present. Some candidates in local races being decided May 17 are referencing the terms “parent rights” and “commonsense” to refer to stopping teachers from discussing racism, LGBTQ issues and sex education in schools. The Times Union found at least 18 candidates from a dozen school districts expressing such views online in connection to their candidacies.

In Bethlehem, the town Republican committee has criticized the school district’s diversity, equity and inclusion policy, and said candidate Doug Lloyd would help the district return to “sanity.”  

Voorheesville Central School District board candidate Erika Smitkin is one of several candidates in the Capital Region who want to require teachers to provide all materials to families before they are given out in class.

At a recent candidate forum, Smitkin said she wanted to keep learning focused “on just education, right, not on anything having to do with race-based things or, you know, sexual things that push onto our younger-age children.”

At an Averill Park Central School District forum, candidate Darryl Borton said the state Education Department is pushing critical race theory and “gender theory.” Teachers shouldn’t teach that, he said.

“They need to stay in their lane, let the family values be taught at home,” he said.

However, sometimes candidates are being unwittingly listed as “parent rights” candidates, without a clear idea of what that platform stands for.

A Shenendehowa Central School District candidate was surprised to find out he had been listed on a Facebook page list for “parent choice” candidates throughout the Capital Region. There, parents are concerned about a range of items, including sex education, teaching about racism, adding a “diversity, equity and inclusion” official or teachers mentioning anything related to LGBTQ people.

Again, it’s not clear which candidates on the list support which issues, though they described themselves as “like-minded.” While some candidates nominated themselves to the list, others were nominated without their knowledge.

Shen candidate Jason Little was nominated by someone else, and he quickly disavowed the group during an interview with the Times Union.

“When I started my legal career, I was a civil rights attorney,” he said. “There is no room in our world for any discrimination.”

But, he said, the groundswell of concerns showed him that districts need to be more responsive.

“I think parents think they don’t have a voice,” he said.

Politics and school boards

Some local Republicans say they have to now take action because school boards were already politicized by the left. Among their examples was Schenectady school board member Jamaica Miles, who was elected to the city school board last year and has joined student protests.

“We would rather stay out of school board elections,” said city of Schenectady Republican Chairman Matt Nelligan. “The history of school board elections is they’re supposed to be nonpolitical. I think that’s a very good goal.”

But that’s no longer the case, he said.

“The board unfortunately has become politicized. When (Miles) was elected last year, she brought her political agenda to the board … Helping kids to figure out how they can walk out of school and protest during the school day, that’s the opposite of good leadership,” he said. “If the extreme left backed away from the school boards, then we would back away from the school boards.”

The liberal group All of Us, which was co-founded by Miles, issued a statement saying schools are the latest front in the culture war.

“These are attempts to roll back the progress we’ve made as a country, not just in recent years but in decades passed. They are threatened by change that moves us towards a more equitable and just society, one that gives everyone access to opportunity, not just the “good ‘ole boys club,'” the group said in a statement.

Twelve years ago, Schenectady school board candidates went to great lengths to create their own party, SCOPE, specifically avoiding any political groups.

Now, Nelligan is bringing traditional political tactics to the race. He is trying to get copies of candidate petitions to see if anyone made mistakes that could get them thrown off the ballot.

Albany County Republican Committee Chairman Randy Bashwinger said political parties should get involved because school boards are more important than people realize.

“School taxes are most of our taxes we pay. Many people don’t vote in school elections. It is important to get involved, people complain about the schools and don’t get involved,” he said. “A lot of parents have seen the issues come up over the past year or so and now realize it’s time to speak up. I am hoping that this will also get more people interested in the political work.”

He added that it’s exciting to see so many competitive races.

In the past, many school board races have been uncontested, and in some cases seats had to be filled through write-ins because there weren’t enough people on the ballot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.