Culture wars spill into school board races

Slates of candidates run to remove curriculum related to racial justice and gender identity.

MINNEAPOLIS — Local nonpartisan school board races across Minnesota are now infused with themes of a larger conservative movement against racial justice studies and recognition of gender identity.

One such battle is playing out in the Prior Lake – Savage Area Schools, where eight candidates are vying for four spots on the ISD 719 Board of Education.

Two distinct groups of candidates have emerged running in slates of four, one endorsed by teachers and the other endorsed by a statewide “parental rights” group.

One slate includes three incumbents – Jonathan Drewes, Michael Nelson, Enrique Velazquez – and Jessica Olstad. The four have been endorsed by the Prior Lake – Savage Education Association.

“That’s one of my biggest priorities I talk to people about, which is inclusion and safety for all of our families. And that is something a lot of people talk to be about,” Olstad told KARE.

“I also want to make sure we trust teachers to do their jobs and get out of their way. Let them teach the way they want because, just as all kinds of students learn differently, teachers teach differently, and so I want to make sure there’s harmony there.”

The other slate of four candidates – Lisa Atkinson, Amy Bullyan, Bill Markert, and Geoff Zahn – have been endorsed by the Minnesota Parents Alliance, a new statewide group that held a “Reclaim Our Schools” rally at the State Capitol in August.

All four spoke at that rally, documented by Minnesota Public Radio, where a reporter captured signs bashing gay pride, critical race theory, and gender identity. One sign declared “One race, two genders” and another read, “Educate, not Indoctrinate” which is a familiar theme from Republican candidates.

“I have seen for too long the moral compass is being pushed out our schools and out of our society. And it’s time for leadership to have a strong moral compass,” Bullyan told the crowd at the rally.

The group’s founder, Cristine Trooien, asserts that academic achievement is suffering because students are being taught about racial justice and gender identity.

“Administrators and activist school board members are embedding divisive curriculum and culture into our school classrooms with alarming urgency and efficiency,” Trooien told the crowd.

“School and district leadership continued to be obsessively focused on implementing failing trends in education such as equity initiatives, and ethnic studies.”

Most of the candidates endorsed by the parents’ group have signed “The Pro-Human Pledge” vowing to recognize “one human race” and not single out any one race for special treatment.

Bullyan repeated that notion at a recent forum sponsored by the Minnesota League of Women Voters, when candidates were asked how the district should make LGBTQ students feel affirmed and supported.

“I think that highlighting one group of students over another, our students are challenged by that. I would rather focus on thing that unify us rather than the things that set us apart.”

Olstad, by contrast, was adamant that inclusion and love should be the guiding principle when it comes to children’s gender identities.

“This is about our kids’ lives. This is how they feel. This is how they identify. This is about respect. We talk about the responsibility of our school board. That is our responsibility, to love and respect all of our children.”

Zahn declined an interview with KARE Monday due to scheduling issues. Atkinson and Bullyan hadn’t returned voice mail and email messages as of Tuesday morning.

In addition to the COVID pandemic, the school community is also still recovering from a incidents involving racist messages left by students in district schools.

The MN Parents Alliance and the candidates they back are running on a pro-transparency theme. They complain schools aren’t doing enough to inform parents about curriculum and their options to excuse their children from lessons that conflict with their family values.

This was the stated aim of the “Parents’ Bill of Rights Act” Senate Republicans passed in the 2022 session. They said it was about giving parents a chance to enter a conversation with teachers and administrators.

The one example they cited of a parent being denied a copy of their student’s curriculum, in Roseau, turned out later to be untrue. The senator who used that example in a press conference later apologized.

The legislation didn’t gain any traction in the DFL-controlled House of Representatives. Democrats said they trusted teachers to keep parents informed and to be open to questions about what’s happening in the classroom.

Olstad said many of the issues families have with particular lessons can be resolved easily by reaching out to the teachers.

“We’re a public education district, for goodness sake! We are transparent,” Olstad remarked.

“I can only speak as a parent at this point, but I have never felt that there wasn’t good communication between my husband and I and our kids’ teachers.  I’ve never felt otherwise.”

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