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OMAHA — Fueled by discontent over schools’ handling of COVID-19, sex education, curriculum and other issues, new political groups have sprung up this election cycle, endorsing local school board candidates and not pulling any punches on where they stand on the issues.
The endorsements may give voters greater insight into the candidates, whose values and beliefs could be hard to pin down in years past. Groups are contacting candidates, screening them and posting endorsements on social media.
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It will still take some work, however, for voters to sift through the endorsements, separate fact from fiction and figure out whose oval to color on the ballot.
Among the new groups active this year are Protect Nebraska Children Political Action Committee, Nebraskans for Educational Excellence, Nebraskans Against Government Overreach and Women Who Run Nebraska.
Jason Holling-Karas, a Bennington school board candidate, said he’s received about five questionnaires from various groups and political action committees seeking candidates to endorse.
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“There have been a whole bunch of them coming from different organizations, and some of them are kind of extreme. It’s really been all over the board,” he said.
Holling-Karas said the questions focused on a wide range of topics, from candidate opinions on the pandemic to parental control to racism. He said he chose to answer surveys from organizations that had values he aligned with and disregarded others that seemed to stray from the school board race.
“There were some others that I don’t think any good would come out of answering them either way,” he said. “Why do you need to know stances on abortion for a school board position? It’s supposed to be a nonpartisan position. It’s been a very interesting experience going through all of them.”
Holling-Karas has been endorsed by Nebraskans for Educational Excellence, a group formed by Millard Public Schools parents last fall.
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The group has endorsed candidates in the Omaha, Millard, Papillion-La Vista, Bennington, Bellevue, Gretna and Elkhorn districts, as well as elsewhere in the state.
Holling-Karas said when he filled out the form for an endorsement, the group asked if he agreed on values such as “public education for all” or using local health experts to make decisions concerning face mask policies.
“They were much more inclusive and much more community-focused — things that more resonated where I am at,” he said. “I’m glad I got endorsed by them, because they accurately reflect my views.”
According to its organizers, Nebraskans for Educational Excellence started as a grassroots group of Millard parents concerned about the district’s response to the pandemic.
Members were concerned about a lack of mask mandates in many public school districts, against the advice of local public health leaders, while COVID-19 numbers were still high and children under age 12 had no access to vaccines. Several members have or know children who are immunocompromised, said Allison Kinney-Walker, one of the group’s core members.
Additionally, the group was concerned about legislative bills members believed would restrict important conversations about race and gender in schools and redirect money for public schools to private schools.
The group has a written platform, which includes support for teaching students about “reproductive health, sexual orientation, gender identity and social-emotional well-being.”
“We support the development of health standards that would include these topics, while acknowledging that each district can adopt the standards that they feel are appropriate for their district,” Kinney-Walker said.
The platform also calls for teaching “an accurate depiction of American history, which includes the experiences and contributions of all Americans.”
The group says that critical race theory is not being taught in public schools and “the politicization of American history is having a chilling effect on teaching and on our teachers.”
Women Who Run Nebraska endorses progressive women running for office. Co-founder Denise Blaya Powell said while the organization was formed in 2017 solely to support women, it became a political action committee in 2019 after staff realized what candidates needed most was funding.
“We want to generate enthusiasm and support women up and down the ballot, to help candidates spread their message far and wide,” Powell said.
Women Who Run Nebraska is officially nonpartisan — though Powell said while it has historically endorsed Democrats and nonpartisan candidates, “there are a lot of Republicans in this cycle we are excited about.”
The four-person staff has endorsed 67 candidates across the state so far, including some running for school boards in Bellevue, Elkhorn, Gretna, Millard, Omaha, Papillion-La Vista, Ralston and the Westside district.
Powell said she has also seen the trend over the past few years that more political groups are popping up to support candidates. While midterm elections are usually quieter, Powell said she believes more people are involved in this year’s midterm elections than in recent years.
“I think it’s moved a lot more people to want to act and step up, whether that means showing up at a school board meeting or testifying at the Legislature or running for office themselves,” Powell said. “It’s a really big, important year. People are looking at decisions being made at school boards across the state, or big debates in the Legislature, and are sparking a lot of important conversations.”
Nebraskans Against Government Overreach, which was formed in 2020, has endorsed almost 60 candidates across the state, including school board candidates in the Bellevue, Millard and Elkhorn districts.
Founder Allie French said the group technically launched in 2018 but focused on fighting against mandated vaccinations. After COVID-19 hit, it transitioned to supporting conservative candidates running for local office. The group has also spoken out against the state health education standards and face mask policies. It’s also promoted a group that claims the 2020 election in Nebraska was fraudulent.
French said she hopes the organization provides voters “simple guidance” to selecting the right candidates.
“We look for individuals who stand up for medical freedom and are trying to lessen the government’s interference on people’s daily lives,” she said. “Sometimes that’s taxes, other cases it’s school choice or ensuring a patriotic curriculum is being delivered.”
The Protect Nebraska Children Political Action Committee has endorsed nearly 50 candidates statewide.
The group was formed by opponents of statewide health education standards that, as initially proposed, would have taught elementary school students about gender identity and sexual orientation.
The group supports conservative candidates and has a Facebook group that contains a membership of more than 22,000 people.
Sue Greenwald, one of its leaders, said the endorsements are meant as a service to voters.
“Nebraska is a conservative state and they want to vote for conservatives, they just don’t know who they are,” she said.
As of Friday, the group had endorsed candidates in Bellevue, Papillion-La Vista, Omaha and Elkhorn public schools.
Brian Parizek, a lieutenant with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, found out he was endorsed by Protect Nebraska Children last week. He’s running for the Omaha Public Schools board in Subdistrict 6.
Parizek said Protect Nebraska Children’s endorsement questionnaire was just one of a few he’s filled out and he was happy to learn he had received its endorsement.
“They certainly have children’s education and growth at heart,” Parizek said. “I know some people might describe the organization in a different way, but what they really want is the best education for their students.”
Meantime, Loan Eby, who is running for the Papillion-La Vista school board, said she rejects all endorsements and offers of financial support.
Eby said she doesn’t want to be beholden to any group or risk being accused of running afoul of accountability laws.
“I’ve been asked by multiple groups, and I’m not going to say which ones, if I wanted to be endorsed by that group,” she said. “And every time I have respectfully declined.”
She said she doesn’t fit into the usual political camps.
“I’m not blue. I’m not red. And, actually, I am not political.”
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