Nov 1, 2021 - Politics
Ohio school boards are the new political battlegrounds
Data: Ohio School Boards Association; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

Politicized issues peripheral to education have become dividing lines in Ohio's schools, prompting a spike in candidates running for local boards of education and a massive influx of campaign donations.

Why it matters: School boards are responsible for setting policy, adopting curriculum, determining budgets and hiring superintendents. While candidates can run for any reason, their four-year terms will be about more than just hot-button issues.

  • Ohio school board elections occur every two years, with half of members up for reelection, and candidates are nonpartisan.

By the numbers: In Franklin County, 104 candidates are running Tuesday, well above any total this past decade.

  • Campaign contributions are also way up this cycle, according to an Axios review of Franklin County Board of Elections data.
  • Candidates in 2021 have received a collective total of $565,800 through the latest October filings, up from $210,400 during the same period in 2019.

What they're saying: Rick Lewis, Ohio School Boards Association executive director, tells Axios he's never seen races this tense in his 37 years with the organization.

  • "These are very polarizing issues and there's not a lot of ground for compromise, which we've seen spill over already at school board meetings," Lewis said. "What we can't lose sight of, in the meantime, is what schools are for — and they're bigger than any one of these single issues."

Of note: The local campaign finance figures don't include every dollar raised. Outlying districts that overlap counties, such as Pickerington and Olentangy, have candidates reporting to other county election boards.

  • Additionally, candidates only have to report if they reach a $2,000 threshold.

The intrigue: "Dark money," or political spending to influence voters by unknown and undisclosed sources, is also a concern, along with threats.

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