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Campaign signs have popped up in clusters and candidates are offering more pointed messaging than voters typically hear in suburban school board races: Educate, not indoctrinate, they say. Academics, not activism.

These are conservative voices and they're rising — many as part of multicandidate slates — seeking to flip school board seats in elections next week and then set what they describe as a new common-sense direction.

Fervent challenges to racial equity policies have turned what are sometimes sleepy off-year elections into partisan battles across Twin Cities metro suburbs, from South Washington County to Wayzata to White Bear Lake. In Bloomington, candidate Natalie Marose, an educator and child care provider, decries the distribution of Black Lives Matter T-shirts to staff members and an embrace by some of gender-inclusive restrooms.

"We are late in the game," Marose said of moves made by progressives and the ensuing challenges faced by candidates and others like herself. "The fight has begun and we need to be prepared for it to intensify."

It is a dynamic at play in school district elections around the country, including in neighboring Wisconsin, as heated boardroom debates over pandemic measures such as masks and attention given to issues like social and racial justice have spilled onto the ballot.

In South Washington County, Katie Schwartz, a school board incumbent, said she is saddened by suggestions that helping "historically underserved students" somehow does harm to others.

"All students do not learn the same and we need to be intentional in reaching all students," she said.

The campaign scene this year includes outside influencers like The 1776 Project PAC, a New York-based group opposed to the teaching of critical race theory, and TakeCharge Minnesota, founded earlier this year by former Minnesota Congressional candidate Kendall Qualls, who last year lost a bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minn.

Qualls and his wife, Sheila, have hit the road — recently in Woodbury and Thursday night in Plymouth — with a presentation, "The Fallacy of Critical Race Theory." In it, Sheila Qualls takes what is an academic concept outside state curriculum standards and associates it with social and emotional learning, ethnic studies and culturally responsive teaching.

Critical race theory, the argument goes, views society through the lens of race, with people defined as privileged or oppressed. The message has been taken up nationally and in Minnesota by the think tank Center of the American Experiment, which in August hosted a "campaign school" for candidates during which it shared thoughts on the subject.

Bill Walsh, the center's communications director, said 30 candidates attended, but he declined to name them.

In South Washington County, a flurry of red signs for four candidates spread across the district. Some residents took to social media to query the political newcomers about their allegiances, and three of the candidates — one being Eric Tessmer, a parent and police officer — said they had taken part in the Center of the American Experiment campaign school.

Tessmer said in a profile on the Patch online news site that the most pressing issue facing South Washington County schools was a policy mandating face coverings for students. In a video message, he said the district had "abandoned too much of [its] core curriculum to emphasize divisive equity and inclusion policies."

But when asked via e-mail about how the district shorted its curriculum, how it erred in its equity policy and where he stood on a school funding proposal that also is on next week's ballot, among a few other issues, he declined to specify.

"Upon reviewing your questions I have decided not to submit answers and have no comment," he wrote, instead referring people to the websites for his campaign and the slate of candidates.

Schwartz, who is endorsed by the United Teachers of South Washington County, said: "In past elections, I felt comfortable that anyone who would win would do what is best for students. This election, that is not the case."

In Wayzata, Erin Shelton is a board candidate running in tandem with two other challengers. She has put the phrase "NO CRT" on the back of her lawn signs and says on her website that while many teachers, including some in the Wayzata district, don't buy into critical race theory, parents are seeing firsthand that some teachers do.

Asked if she knew of any teachers in Wayzata who were asserting in the classroom that some groups are "automatically oppressed or oppressors" — language used on her website — Shelton pointed, instead, to the district's recently-adopted "equity commitment," which she argues treats students unequally.

"Regardless of whether CRT is currently pervasive in our system, this 'commitment' indicates the trajectory of our future," she said. "CRT is both divisive and regressive."

Sarah Johansen, an incumbent seeking her third term on the Wayzata board, counters the claim of unequal treatment by noting the equity commitment explicitly states: "We will find ways to create more equitable systems that honor each person's unique mix of overlapping identities."

This race is very different from her previous two, Johansen said, adding it is livelier, combative, frustrating and challenging — with conflict coming from both sides of the political spectrum.

"It has been nearly impossible to separate this election from the state and national political dialogue and although I have tried very hard to continuously repeat that I am nonpartisan, there are groups on both sides that are claiming otherwise," she said.

Stillwater has a special election for a board seat, but attention is focused on its operating levy, which is up for renewal and is subject to a Vote No campaign. If defeated, the district will have to make $12 million in cuts, board Chair Beverly Petrie said. Critics cite lackluster third grade literacy scores. Petrie questions how they would improve if budgets are slashed and teachers cut.

Emotions have been high since the district consolidated and closed some schools, but Vote No proponents have grown more passionate at board meetings with some also opposed to masks and mentioning critical race theory.

"Some of these people, not all of them, feel free to just shout at us," Petrie said. "It's disheartening to see the lack of respect for the process of board meetings."

At a recent board meeting, Vote No proponents brought signs and slid them into the view of the livestream camera as a Lake Elmo Elementary instructional coach spoke cheerily about the start of the school year. Soon, a few other people, one wearing a shirt saying "Kindergarten Has My Heart," stepped behind the instructional coach to block the camera's view of the signs.

A scuffle ensued, police were called and Petrie gaveled the meeting to a close.

Now, when people speak during the board's open session, they sit at a table with the camera focused on their faces and no signs in view.