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Todd Madson takes note of the signs in his neighbors' yards when he goes campaigning door-to-door in Orono.

The father of two and first-time school board candidate gravitates toward homes that display support for a conservative slate campaigning on policy proposals diametrically opposed to his.

Those residents typically want to talk about issues that have nabbed headlines over the last two years, such as critical race theory and inclusivity for LGBTQ people.

"The questions are out there," said Madson, who supports diversity and equity initiatives. "And I think it's because it's a national conversation that's happening."

School board races have often been hyperlocal or low-energy affairs. But over the last few years, those contests have become ever more polarized, drawing on national culture war debates and energized by disputes over how schools handled pandemic precautions, from masks to distance learning.

That's a shift from the past when conservative school board candidates were driven to run by a desire to rein in district budgets, said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.

"The national battle over social issues is coming home to roost, here in Minnesota and in conservative areas where you might not expect that," Jacobs said. "There's a new type of conservatism. It's not just budget issues. It's also social issues."

Last year, several conservative candidates campaigned together, pooling their resources and running as slates in an effort to gain majorities on school boards in Twin Cities suburban districts. Voters largely rejected those candidates.

Those contests unfolded amid a backdrop of uncertainty over COVID-19 policies when the delta variant scuttled school reopening plans and school boards had to once again consider whether students should wear masks to class.

Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said those conversations reminded many families of the early days of the pandemic when parents felt they had little to no say in how their districts responded to the evolving pandemic.

"All of a sudden, it felt like the decisionmaking matrix for many things — you're learning from home to sometimes you're learning in school — became very unclear for a lot of people," he said. "Over the last two years, the whole inconsistency really raised some questions for parents about who is in control."

Frustrations over that loss of control didn't subside when schools reopened, Schneidawind said.

Plus, Jacobs added, protests over George Floyd's murder by Minneapolis police also spurred intense debates on issues of racial justice. Parents took note as educators grappled with how best to contextualize those conversations in the classrooms.

"That really put a spotlight on these issues, and then you had schools that were developing curriculums around race in America," Jacobs said.

By Schneidawind's count, there are 1,022 school board seats on the ballot in Minnesota this year. All told, 1,620 people are running. That's a typical number of candidates for any given year, he said.

A Star Tribune analysis of this year's school board elections found that about a quarter are uncontested, and about half are races with a couple of candidates per seat.

The outliers, Schneidawind said, are places like South St. Paul, where 22 candidates are jostling to claim four open seats. In Owatonna, Red Lake and Rochester, 11 people are running to claim three or four positions.

Even in districts with fewer candidates, cultural issues are at the forefront of hotly contested races. In New Ulm, a slate of conservative candidates is railing against LGBTQ-friendly policies.

Two of those candidates — Jo-ell Flitter and Michael Thom — were endorsed by a parents association backing conservative school board candidates across the state.

Cristine Trooien of Mound founded the Minnesota Parents Alliance, reaching out to parent groups on Facebook, after the lackluster performance of conservative school board candidate slates in 2021.

The group has so far endorsed 114 school board candidates across the state in races from Wayzata to Becker.

Local teachers unions also sometimes make endorsements in school board races, as is the case in Minneapolis this year where several union-endorsed candidates are running as a slate.

Trooien declined an interview, but she said via email that prerequisites for an endorsement are that candidates commit to bolstering "academic achievement, equal and inclusive treatment of all students and respecting parental rights."

Parents she's spoken with have professed concern over what they perceive as politically divisive issues making their way into school curricula and a lack of administrative transparency.

A lawn sign promoting three candidates for Orono School Board was displayed Thursday near a road in Long Lake.
A lawn sign promoting three candidates for Orono School Board was displayed Thursday near a road in Long Lake.

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune, Star Tribune

That's on display in Orono, where the slate of three parents alliance-endorsed candidates is among seven people running for four seats: Dan Achtor, Sarah Borchers, Brady Haislet, Wendy Lundsgaard, Madson, Melinda Ringenier and Timothy Usset.

The west metro school district is in an area narrowly won by President Joe Biden in 2020.

Ringenier, Achtor and Haislet, endorsed by the parents alliance, are campaigning together on a platform of ensuring equal treatment of all students and greater transparency in the district. Their signs touting all three of them with the slogan "RAH! RAH! RAH! FOR CHANGE!" dot lawns across the district.

The local teachers union has endorsed Madson, Lundsgaard and Borchers.

During a school board candidate forum in early October, Achtor blamed the district's masking policies for declines in third-grade literacy. He also accused educators of introducing "divisive curriculum" into the classroom.

Ringenier insisted schools should "respect the boundaries" between classroom and home. And at various points, all three pushed for greater parent involvement in school matters.

They all declined requests for interviews.

Those talking points worry some parents and at least one former board member in the district. John Malone, a local lawyer who served on the Orono school board from 2000 until 2016, said calls for greater transparency regularly follow unpopular votes.

"When somebody doesn't agree with the outcomes, they often feel like they weren't listened to," Malone said. "Those voices were heard but not agreed with."

He worries that candidates who are galvanized by a single issue — whether it be school reopening plans, equity initiatives or LGBTQ policies — aren't prepared for the more mundane tasks that school boards take on.

"I think it's wonderful that people want to run and serve their communities. I'm concerned when what motivates them is a single issue or two," Malone said. "What happens to the governance when the other 90% of the time, they're focused on other elements of it?"