For the first time in recent history, three candidates are running together to fill the open spots on the Sartell-St. Stephen school board. And concern over that bloc of candidates has prompted the district's teachers union to do something it has never done before: endorse candidates.
"This year specifically we are dealing with some extraordinary circumstances," said Stacy Hurdt, president of the Sartell teachers union. "We have never really seen a national campaign like this before."
Nine candidates are running for three seats on the six-member nonpartisan board. The three running as a slate are Emily Larson, Jen Smith and Scott Wenshau. They did not return a request for comment but their website lists their priorities as increased transparency, restoring apolitical classrooms and promoting parental rights.
But critics say the trio is anything but apolitical. Two of the slate's members — Larson and Smith — created a group called Kids Over Politics following the district's involvement in an equity audit that showed students were concerned about racism, homophobia and discrimination. The group, which rallied against the audit and its results, states that its core belief is "character over race every time."
In recent years, school board races across the country have become more polarized with conservative candidates campaigning together as slates. Many question districts about the teaching of gender and sexuality, and are generally opposed to equity initiatives. Those groups also have often advocated against mask mandates and other pandemic safety measures in schools.
In Sartell, the teachers union invited all nine candidates to participate in the endorsement process but Larson, Smith and Wenshau declined, stating in a jointly signed letter they wouldn't participate and wouldn't accept an endorsement if it was offered. The letter also questioned if the union's endorsement could harm the relationships between the union, teachers and the school board.
Hurdt said it isn't unusual for unions to endorse candidates, citing the St. Cloud teachers union's endorsement of three candidates this year, but noted the Sartell union had never previously felt a need to endorse candidates.
The union voted to endorse Nate Crowe, Kris Lawrence and Molly McCann, who Hurdt said all believe in the importance of inclusive education.
Hurdt said she didn't want to comment on Larson, Smith or Wenshau specifically, but said national conservative campaigns generally don't seem to understand the role of school boards.
"A school board is in charge of the superintendent and developing policies," she said, noting board members can't singlehandedly determine the curriculum. "We have to follow state standards, so there's not much they can change about that."
Meanwhile, former school board member Julie Zupfer Anderson wants voters to know about what she calls Wenshau's "lack of integrity and good character."
In one instance, records from an appellate case show Wenshau and another office unlawfully expanded the scope of a 2011 traffic stop by detaining a suspect and searching his vehicle. The court also found Wenshau's testimony "lacked credibility" due to discrepancies between his testimony and those of other officers.
He was cited for a petty misdemeanor in 2019 after being pulled over for going 100 mph on a motorcycle. And in 2020, Wenshau violated two St. Cloud Police Department policies for conduct unbecoming to a police employee and for misusing mobile video recording equipment, according to a St. Cloud Times story.
"He's a police officer [who] doesn't follow the laws that he's supposed to be upholding," Zupfer Anderson said.