School board candidates increasingly endorsed by partisan groups

Voters in several Minnesota cities had school board races on their ballots during Tuesday’s election, at a time when political experts say these races are becoming more divisive.

"School board elections used to be a sleepy affair, usually pretty nonpartisan. You'd have to kind of hustle to get the good people in the neighborhood to volunteer," Larry Jacobs, a professor of politics at the University of Minnesota, told FOX 9.

However, Jacobs said that's not the case anymore. 

Statewide, there are about 200 candidates running for 100 positions, and several of Tuesday’s races were heated.

"They're over the culture wars: race, LGBTQ identity. We're talking about book banning, parent rights. It's the full spectrum of things that get people really angry," Jacobs said.

School board races are non-partisan, but the candidates are increasingly being endorsed by organizations that skew conservative or liberal. In some cities, school board races were the main attraction that brought voters to the polls Tuesday.

Kirk Schneidawind, the executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said this trend coincided with the pandemic as children were distanced learning.

"Many who are interested in running for a school board seat saw firsthand what's going on in our public schools – that may be an opportunity to change this or question the process," he said.

National and state organizations have gotten involved in recruiting candidates, Jacobs explained.

Spending on Minnesota school board races is up 50% since two years ago: almost $350,000.

He said the momentum was, in part, spurred by the parents’ rights movement that blossomed in Virginia and other states.

Here in Minnesota, if elected, the school board candidates' main responsibilities will be hiring a superintendent, establishing a budget and adopting policies that reflect their communities' values.

"If our school board is constantly disagreeing on issues – whether it's discipline or curriculum – and they can't move forward, that has a way to impact our teachers and our students in our community as well. So having a high-performing board is essential for a good public school," Schneidawin said.

He also noted that in an odd-year election, candidates have recognized the margins are smaller and turnout is lower, so they must campaign harder.