Nov 6, 2023 - Politics

Minnesota school board races see more than $336K in funding to candidates

Illustration of Benjamin Franklin wearing a vote button.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

The school board elections held across Minnesota in Tuesday's municipal elections are the culmination of dozens of unusually costly and divisive races.

Why it matters: The people elected to these roles will shape school spending and policies for tens of thousands of students.

The big picture: Mirroring a national trend, these typically sleepy and non-partisan school board races attract more money and interest from outside groups as the contests become more politicized.

State of play: About 200 candidates are running for 100 open seats statewide, per MPR News. Some suburban races have attracted a dozen candidates.

  • Spending is up 50% compared to 2021, with candidates and outside groups pouring more than $336,000 into the races as of late October, the Star Tribune reports.

What's new: Several national groups with conservative ties, including the Concord Fund's Free to Learn Action program, are backing candidates in the state races for the first time this year. Others are intensifying their efforts recruiting, training, and supporting candidates.

  • One such group, the Minnesota Parents Alliance, has endorsed 44 candidates in 20 Twin Cities districts, according to its website. Its candidates have touted safety in schools and parental rights while opposing equity training.
  • The organization has spent $49,000 in four of those districts, according to the Star Tribune.

Zoom in: New entrants and influences are bringing new issues to the forefront, Minnesota School Boards Association executive director Kirk Schneidawind told Axios.

  • That includes topics some consider part of academic "culture wars" — such as book bans and gender and racial identity.

What they're saying: Groups like the Minnesota Parents Alliance and their candidates say they want districts to focus on basic issues of academic achievement, with less of an emphasis on diversity and equity initiatives, the Star Tribune reports.

  • "Per pupil funding has increased dramatically, but less than 50% of students can read or do math at grade level," Minnesota Parents Alliance executive director Cristine Trooien told the paper. "It is simply a matter of priorities."

Yes, but: Jonathan Weinhagen is an incumbent on the Mounds View school board and endorsed by the teacher's union. He is one of 11 candidates running for four at-large seats. Four MPA-endorsed candidates are also running.

  • He pointed to a survey of residents and parents showing high satisfaction with schools there.
  • "They're pushing on achievement, safety, and complacency in a district where 80% of people think they're getting good or excellent value from the district," he told Axios. "What they really want to do is come in and ban books, dismantle equity programs, and upend LGBTQ+ initiatives."

Of note: Attempts to interview Trooien, as well as two MPA-backed Mounds View candidates, were unsuccessful.

The other side: Groups aligned with Democrats are also intensifying their campaign efforts, including via the "School Board Integrity Project," a nonprofit led by DFL operatives that aims to counter what it describes as candidates with extreme views.

  • Local teachers' unions in nearly a dozen districts have endorsed candidates, some for the first time, and the LGBTQ+ advocacy group OutFront Minnesota has also weighed in on races across the state.
  • Education Minnesota, which is running get-out-the-vote ads in suburban school districts for the first time, has so far spent nearly $85,000 in the Anoka-Hennepin, South Washington County, and Rosemount districts, the Strib reported.

Reality check: While school boards set the district's budget and policy, state and federal law and court rulings limit what they can do.

  • That makes it hard to gauge how big of an impact a new slate of candidates could ultimately have on issues that go beyond the traditional responsibilities of a board, Schneidawind said. Terms last four years.

What we're watching: If successful, political messaging on parental rights and other school-related topics could re-emerge as driving issues for state and federal races in the 2024 election.

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