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Surge in engagement draws new candidates to run for school board seats in Midstate

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Election Signs 1

Elections signs are posted at the intersection of York Road and East High Street in Carlisle.

One side effect of the surge in public engagement with area school boards and school policy has been the slate of new candidates running for local office.

“It’s a good thing to get people with different ideas,” said Liz Knouse, current president of the South Middleton School Board. “You have the opportunity to shape what happens in your community.”

The Associated Press reports that interest in school board seats has surged across the country, with national conservative groups and state-level efforts encouraging challenges by right-learning newcomers amid debates over COVID-19 mask mandates, gender-neutral bathrooms, and teachings on race.

Local school board elections typically have been relatively quiet affairs where incumbents sail to reelection, often unopposed. This year, candidate training academies organized by national conservative groups and state-level recruitment efforts are encouraging challenges by right-leaning political newcomers. The results could have consequences for public education and coronavirus safety measures across the country.

The thousands of local school districts in the U.S. make it difficult to know how many sitting board members face challenges from conservative-leaning community members. But the challenges appear widespread.

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Election Preview 2021: Carlisle Area School Board
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Election Preview 2021: Cumberland Valley School Board
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Election Preview 2021: Big Spring School Board
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Election Preview 2021: Shippensburg Area School Board
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Election Preview 2021: Mechanicsburg Area School Board

A veteran of 12 years of service, Knouse said she was encouraged by the sight of school board candidates sitting in the audience of recent meetings getting educated on the issues.

In her last run for office, Knouse was unopposed for a vacant seat. Now the district has six candidates vying for four open four-year seats. There is also a campaign between a candidate on the ballot and a write-in challenger for a two-year seat.

What surprised Knouse this election cycle was the number of candidates who opted not to cross-file in the lead-up to the primary. While Republicans are in the majority in South Middleton Township, it has been the past practice of most school board candidates to cross-file as both Republican and Democrat.

In the primary for South Middleton, only one of the four candidates cross-filed, and two more candidates were added to the November ballot after gaining enough write-in votes during the primary.

“Being on a school board should have nothing to do with politics,” Knouse said. “You really represent the whole community regardless of your political party.

“I never feel that I’m voting for my party,” the Republican woman said. “You’re voting for what’s best for children. Each party wants what’s best for children.”

For six years, Michelle Nestor has represented Hampden Township on the Cumberland Valley School Board. She agreed with Knouse that partisan politics have no place in school board deliberations.

“There should not be a red or blue side,” said Nestor, a Republican. “It’s about running a school district, representing constituents and remembering that we’re doing this for all the kids.”

Nestor said she is concerned about the motives of some school board candidates.

“I don’t think it’s right for people to be passionate about an issue and then be angry with the decision and then say, ‘I’m going to run for school board,’” Nestor said. “What are you going to do? Get on the board and do what? There are nine members on a board. You’re one voice and you have a personal agenda that’s not for the betterment of all.”

While the perception exists across the nation that incumbent board members have personal agendas, the practical side of being on a school board creates a system of checks and balances.

“We’re all on an equal footing when we’re sitting at the table,” Knouse said. “You learn quickly that I can think whatever I want, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to sway the board. We’re a board of nine. Things are done at the collective level as opposed to individually.”

Being a school board member is not a position to take lightly, Nestor said. Before making the time commitment to run for office and serve, she had a meeting with her family to gauge their support. There are other things to consider.

“It’s good to have a lot of different tools to bring to the table,” Nestor said. A retired Spanish teacher, she is now a real estate agent with business connections in the community.

FreedomWorks, a conservative group that supported the rise of former President Donald Trump, launched a candidate academy in March that has trained about 300 people nationwide, with the largest number from Ohio, said Laura Zorc, the group’s director of education reform. About 1,000 people have signed up, she said.

“My message to these parents is: Run for office if you don’t like (it) and you don’t feel your voice is being heard,” Zorc said.Schools have been addressing issues of diversity and culturally responsive teaching for years without stirring much controversy, but flames of frustration in some communities have been fanned by groups with bigger agendas, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University.

Some Republicans, he said, see it as an issue that can help them win suburban votes in midterm elections.

“It’s in the current context where I think this is being deliberately exploited by national actors that this is getting the energy and attention it does,” he said.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com.

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