Party politics spark interest in school board elections
COVID-19 created universal chaos in education, reflected in noisy, emotional school board meetings. Parents, teachers, and community members showed up to those meetings like never before, to blame and berate school board members about everything from mask mandates and vaccine requirements to critical race theory and LGBTQ representation.
Those issues have stirred high interest in this November’s school board elections.
“Strong Republican or Democrats who have these passionate partisan feelings now see the school board as a partisan body that might be attractive to them,” said Evan Crawford, a political scientist at the University of San Diego. He studies trends in school boards across the country.
School board seats are nonpartisan, but the upcoming election has school board candidates with big party support. San Diego County’s Democratic and Republican parties have both endorsed dozens of candidates in the many races on the ballot.
Shawn Steel is a lifelong Republican. He chairs the California Republican Party and is the state representative on the Republican National Committee. He has been at work recruiting and training candidates for school boards in a program called Parent Revolt.
“I don’t care how much experience they have. If they are parents and they love their kids and they’re reasonable, I would support them. That’s including non-Republicans,” Steel told KPBS News. “It’s a hidden giant with so many opportunities to get people in and have some say in their local school boards.”
There has also been a movement to give students some say on those boards. San Diego Unified now has two student board members, who are elected by their fellow high school students. But for boards that don’t have such offices, there is another way students can get elected. 18-year-old Shiva Rajbhandari is a high school senior who won a regular seat on his school board in Boise, Idaho in September. He defeated an established incumbent candidate who accepted the endorsement of a local far-right paramilitary group known as the Idaho Liberty Dogs.
“The only way we can stand up for our schools is to put our foot down and say ‘No’ …enough,” he said in a virtual interview with KPBS News.
“That extremism has no place here; everyone is welcome to participate in decision-making regarding our schools. Hate and violence have no place here in Boise or anywhere else in the country," he said.
“I would tell students in San Diego and across the country that your voice matters and you can make a difference,” Rajbhandari said.
His historic election provides a teachable moment, which Kisha Borden says is a good thing. She has decades of experience as a San Diego teacher who now serves as regional director for the California Teachers Association.
“It's a lesson that shows how important it is for everyone to be involved in the Democratic process,” Borden said.