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COLUMBUS, Ohio – Two years ago, Jillian DeLong raised $4,101 for her Beachwood City School District Board of Education campaign.
This year, she raised 50% more, $6,245, and that doesn’t include any donations she received after Oct.19, which will show up in a later campaign finance report.
Across Ohio, once-sleepy school board races have intensified, with more money — including dark money — and mudslinging. The latest conservative culture wars, over mask and vaccine policies and critical race theory, are at the center of challengers’ campaigns.
While many conservatives are challenging incumbents, progressive political newcomers are also jumping into races. They embrace programs promoting diversity, equity and inclusion and are interested in public health policies that protect students and school employees.
“This year, school board races are hot,” said Catherine Turner, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Ohio. “This is not business as usual. School board races are sleepy affairs generally, campaigning one neighbor to another. A neighbor saying ‘Hey, I like this person.’ Sometimes folks will hand out fliers. Generally, these are races that don’t attract a lot of attention.”
But many of the debates in school board races are the same, from district to district, across the country. Blame dark money and the influence of national organizations for the nationalization of school board races.
A PAC called Save Chagrin Schools raised $32,950 for school board races.
It is supporting Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools Board of Education candidates Mandy Hilton, Megan McClain and write-in candidate Erin Gooch, who believe masks should be optional and oppose a “divisive agenda” in the school district, which is how many conservatives describe critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion programs because they believe they assign guilt to white people.
Of the $32,950 raised for Save Chagrin Schools, Timothy and Heather Ryan donated $20,000. The couple, who are not related to the Democratic U.S. congressman from Ohio, previously donated money for a 4,300-square-foot center for students and teachers in grades 7 through 12 to work on technology and creativity, called the Innovation Center.
Mike Gibbons, a candidate in the crowded U.S. Senate primary to replace outgoing Sen. Rob Portman, also contributed $1,000 to Save Chagrin Schools.
Some conservative candidates are teaming up, pooling resources to gain a competitive edge.
Weiss, Caputo, Charms Mason for Beachwood is a combined campaign committee to raise money for Dr. Miriam F. Weiss, Kareen Caputo and Valerie Charms Mason, who are all running for Beachwood City School District Board of Education.
The campaign committee received a $250 check from Bruce Mandel, a prominent attorney and father of Josh Mandel, former state treasurer and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
Along with many conservative Cuyahoga County school board candidates, the trio is endorsed by Ohio Value Voters, formerly Northeast Ohio Value Voters, a 501(c)(4), a nonprofit advocacy and social welfare organization that generally doesn’t have to disclose donors. It’s run by John and Diane Stover, and other religious conservatives in Northeast Ohio. Ohio Value Voters candidates describe themselves as dedicated to protecting faith, family, freedom and the sanctity of life, favors candidates opposed to critical race theory, comprehensive sex education and social and emotional learning.
Some candidates supported by Ohio Value Voters have complained that their opponents are supported by the progressive Protect Ohio’s Future, which says it’s trying to fight the “radical right” by supporting diversity, equity, inclusion and justice programs, comprehensive sex education, social and emotional learning and in-school masking and vaccines. It is primarily focusing on races in Northeast Ohio.
But as with Ohio Value Voters, it’s also unclear who is donating to Protect Ohio’s Future. It’s not registered as a political action committee with the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. Its website only says that its website is paid for by Protect Ohio’s Future and not authorized by any candidate.
“One of the things we always need to be aware of is dark money can often fuel the perceptions of an issue,” said Turcer of Common Cause Ohio. “One of the things we do know is there are these conservative groups that are mobilizing these attacks on critical race theory.”
For instance, the Heritage Foundation is one of the leading voices against critical race theory. However, donations to the think tank are not public. Yet, it plays a critical role in framing how some people see the issue.
The Matriots PAC, which contributes to Ohio women candidates, gave $500 each to Wendy Leatherberry and Kim Allamby, who support diversity and public health measures during the pandemic.
State law says a school board member can earn up to $125 a meeting and a maximum of $5,000 a year, said Rick Lewis, CEO of the Ohio School Boards Association.
That means in some cases, candidates are raising more than they’d earn on the board if they won.
Candidates may be surprised at how little the issues they campaigned on come before the school board, said Nancy Binzel Brown, a member of the Stow-Munroe Falls City School District Board of Education who is not up for reelection this year but has watched how expensive the races have become.
She believes one of the most important issues facing her district is how board members spend money raised from voter approved bonds. Another important issue the replacement or remodeling of old district buildings. She said a board members have been working for the last two years on a plan for the older buildings.
“We had somebody speak (last) week to us about opposing vaccine mandates,” she said. “That hasn’t even come up. We’ve never even discussed whether we should mandate that for teachers or students. It just boggled my mind.”
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