Activists on right and left prepare for fierce school board elections

By: - December 20, 2021 5:38 am
A school board meeting in a gymnasium

In August, Merrimack Valley School District hosted a contentious meeting to discuss whether to require students to wear masks. In districts throughout the state, school board elections are shaping up to be very different than races in recent years. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

For parents considering a run for school board next spring, 603 Alliance is ready. The conservative activist group is setting up candidate trainings across the state over the next few weeks. But first, candidates will have to answer a few questions. 

“They have to be accepted,” said Fran Wendelboe, managing director of the group. “They fill out a questionnaire, which helps us to see what areas they are not educated on, that they don’t understand.”

Some of the questions are procedural. How much time does the candidate think is necessary to run for school board? How much money?

Others dive right into cultural conflicts. 

“Do you think it’s OK for boys to use girls’ restrooms?” Wendelboe said. “Do you feel it’s OK for biological boys to compete against biological females in athletics? Do you feel that you work for the superintendent or that the superintendent works for you?”

Town and school meetings are still months away. But after a year of acrimonious school board meetings, and with weeks left until the filing period for school districts, advocacy groups on the left and the right are already kicking off efforts to recruit, train, and support candidates.

And as mask mandates and accusations of racist teaching practices dominate debates, campaign organizers are hoping for – or bracing for – unprecedented attention on school board elections next year. 

“There’s a well-funded effort on the fringe right to stoke these meetings, and even to support turning some folks into candidates for office,” said Brian Hawkins, director of government relations at the National Education Association of New Hampshire. 

‘Parents are mad as hell’

For conservative groups like 603 Alliance, the anger at school board meetings is a resource to tap, potentially allowing first-time conservative candidates to break through in progressive towns. 

“Parents are mad as hell,” Wendelboe said.

COVID policies such as virtual learning and mask mandates brought some parents out to the meetings, Wendelboe said. Once there, they started to pay attention to other policy areas. For conservative attendees, that interest has ranged from frustration with the perception of “critical race theory” entering school curricula to more obscure areas. 

In the Newfound School District, where Wendelboe serves as a school board member herself, one topic of intense discussion has been the district’s policies toward due process for children facing expulsion. It’s an issue that many parents wouldn’t have been attuned to without attending the meetings in the first place, Wendelboe says.

National politics have played a part too, Wendelboe acknowledged. Many of the attacks against critical race theory came after parents saw intense debates last summer in Loudon County, Virginia, over race in the school curriculum, Wendelboe said. Claims in New Hampshire of critical race theory being taught in schools began to circulate on conservative websites, fueling those parents’ concerns.

To Wendelboe, who is also a former state representative, the increased rancor at meetings helped to shake up the process. 

“Up until recently, the attitude was you sit down and you keep your mouth shut,” she said. “That if you disagree on something that the board votes on that you no longer have a voice, that you’re supposed to shut up and not say anything against it.” 

603 Alliance didn’t always devote attention to school board elections. But acknowledging the newfound energy, the organization has already hosted a virtual webinar for candidates in November, and held an in-person event on Dec. 18.

“We’re focusing more on school boards this election cycle because of all of the controversy swirling around about various issues, from the rights of parents’ involvement, to parents starting to attend meetings and being made to feel like they’re not wanted or that they’re not taken seriously, to the issues going on with gender and critical race theory and diversity inclusion,” Wendelboe said.

For all the attention on lightning-rod issues, though, Wendelboe says the group isn’t interested in single-issue candidates. 

“We don’t want to make it just about critical race theory,” Wendelboe said. “We want to make it about the entire picture. And (the questionnaire) gives us an indicator if somebody is mad as hell about CRT and that’s all they care about.”

Other conservative groups are more focused. The Lebanon-based organization “Defend Our Kids” has made concerns over critical race theory a keystone of its activism next year. 

A representative for Defend Our Kids did not answer a request for an interview. But the group is hoping to make its own investments to support conservative candidates in blue school districts, Wendelboe said, augmenting 603 Alliance’s efforts by seizing on contentious decisions by those boards to try to topple sitting members.  

“Well-intentioned school board members and parents are being led by radicals in our communities to implement Critical Race Theory principles in our schools,” the group’s website reads. “This has been done without public notice, input or in accordance with New Hampshire law. It must be stopped.”

Concerns on the left

The past year’s climate of charged rhetoric and at times menacing behavior toward school board members has not escaped organizers on the left. But some say the environment has done as much to attract progressives to run as it has to repel others. 

“You’ve had some communities where school board members have been just under tremendous inappropriate treatment,” Hawkins said. “And the concern that I spoke about is that that could lead to people saying that maybe they wouldn’t run.” 

Increasingly, though, the NEA is seeing the opposite, Hawkins said. 

“Rightfully there have been a lot of community members, especially parents that we’ve heard from, who are concerned and have approached us about what should they – what can they do. And aside from attending their school board meetings, making sure that their voices are heard, it’s also running for office,” he said. 

Progressive groups are hoping to use that concern to counter any wave from the right. One organization, 603 Forward, is hosting its own candidate trainings this winter, encouraging younger and newer candidates who support public school policies around masks. The group has already hosted eight trainings this year, many of them ahead of municipal elections in the fall.

The state’s largest teacher’s union is also stepping up its own efforts. On Jan. 13, the National Education Association will join 603 Forward and Granite State Progress in hosting a candidate training for school board members. 

Founded in 2020, 603 Forward was created explicitly to advance progressive policies with an eye toward attracting young people to the state. The group carries out advocacy work on issues it says affect young people and that could improve the attractiveness of New Hampshire as a state – everything from voting access to arts and culture. And it helps recruit candidates. 

“Young people are currently in crisis in New Hampshire,” said Tim Peltier, the group’s leadership development director. “They feel the brunt of … the affordability crisis particularly hard and yet they’re underrepresented in local and state government.

“We want to be an entryway for folks to run, but also a kind of one-stop shop where folks can get the mentorship, the coaching they need to feel prepared, and most importantly, the support.”

603 Forward’s trainings are designed to dive into all layers of campaigning, from the big-picture motivations to run for office to the minuscule pieces of process along the way. The trainings cover what the office is, the expectations of the jobs, and the opportunities for policy changes it entails. They also detail how to talk to voters and juggle family and work responsibilities, and how to navigate the campaign trail as a younger candidate. 

Key to 603 Forward trainings is the addition of young officials who have already run campaigns and won their elections; those officials can provide inspiration and tailored advice to prospective candidates, Peltier said. 

And Peltier said the goal was to create a sense of community among progressive candidates and supporters that can be perpetuated after Election Day. 

​​”Even if someone does get elected, and they have to face some of that vitriol, we want to make sure that folks understand that there are people that have their backs and appreciate the work that they’re doing and will continue to support them,” he said. 

Listen to the other side

As progressives look nervously to spring, some are taking comfort in the recent past. Across cities from Laconia to Nashua, left-leaning candidates swept most of the municipal school board elections this November, many of them backed and trained by groups such as 603 Forward.

Now, one of those victors has advice for the next crop of candidates: Listen to the other side. 

“My biggest advice has been to remove yourself from yourself and try to see it from their perspective,” said Christina Darling, a newly elected school board member in Nashua, speaking of conservative parents. “Put yourself in their shoes because at the end of the day, if you lived their life, and you had every experience that they had had, you would be making the same call that they are.”

Darling, a parent who has starred in a campaign ad for U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan to help tout the passage of the child tax credit this year, said she had first been drawn to her local school board meetings by the early days of the pandemic. Initially, she was looking for information on school reopenings. Later, she was developing policy criticisms of her own.   

When the district developed a system to allow low-income families to pick up take-home meals at school buildings, they didn’t include a delivery mechanism for families without transportation, Darling says. So she took it upon herself to pick up meals for the 22 families in her apartment complex. 

That and other issues drove Darling to run for one of the seats – despite the intimidating environment. Nashua school board meetings attracted a police presence near the end of the summer after a contingent of the Proud Boys – an alt-right militant group – appeared at several meetings. And one Black school board member, Gloria Timmons, reported receiving threats throughout the year. 

Darling says she received fewer personal threats than others. Still, she argued that candidates on the left that are worried about the political environment should consider empathy. 

“I think a lot of it is about control and then feeling like everything around them is completely out of control,” she said. “And the masks were kind of an easy thing to latch on to.” 

It’s a strategy that worked in Nashua, where Darling ran with a slate of other candidates. In rural towns – where the conservative 603 Alliance is hoping to assist up to 200 candidates – the effort to simply listen could run against its limits. 

For her part, Wendelboe is urging conservative candidates to keep their focus broad. 

“We hope that our candidates will be positive and talk about what their concerns are,” she said. “They might draw a contrast. ‘Your current school board member voted for mandatory masks and would vote for mandatory vaccines.’ Our candidates are going to be talking about those issues, but they’re going to be talking about the quality of education, and parental involvement and parents who feel like they’re part of the community instead of being felt that you’re an interloper.” 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]