Pandemic-era policies usher a wave of interest, money into N.H. school board races
As New Hampshire voters participate in their local elections this spring, school board races are stirring up a level of public attention, political organizing and outside spending not seen in recent memory.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a heightened level of polarization to what could previously be viewed as a largely bureaucratic role, as school boards in New Hampshire and nationwide were forced to navigate some of the fiercest debates and political divisions of the last year.
In earlier phases of the pandemic, it was up to school boards to decide whether schools went remote or hybrid, which forced some parents or caregivers to stay home from work. And this school year, school boards have had the final call over mask rules and other COVID mitigation measures. In some cases, parents accused board members of disregarding their input or not updating guidance to reflect evolving science; in other cases, school boards attempting to find a middle ground faced frustration from both sides of the pandemic fault line.
In addition to getting scrutiny on their COVID policies, school board members in some towns are fielding concerns over a host of social issues that have animated debates in the State House and across the country. These include how schools should teach about racism and the legacy of slavery, whether certain conversations and books about race and gender and sexuality should be banned, and how to support students with emotional and mental health challenges.
That’s led to heated debates on social media, where racist and inflammatory remarks have highlighted the divisions on these issues. In some cases, members of white nationalist groups have also shown up to local school board meetings.
Increased attention on school board meetings and elections
In many communities, the controversy over COVID policies has converged with these other concerns – and energized parents and activist groups. This fall and winter, some of those groups coalesced around certain school board candidates and are working hard to get them elected.
In Haverhill, a small group called Grafton County Association of Parents has formed in what they call a “crusade against corruption.” That group is republishing misinformation about COVID and also endorsing school board candidates.
Groups in other towns, including Hollis and Sunapee, have organized to support candidates running to unseat incumbents.
The school boards in SAU 16, a wealthy and historically high-performing cooperative district that includes Exeter and five surrounding towns, have also attracted attention.
The cooperative district has faced major controversies — and in some cases attracted national media attention — over hot-button issues ranging from the mask mandate, to COVID vaccines, to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives.
Recently, much of the critique has shifted to SAU 16’s academic rankings — its enrollment and test scores are on the decline, in part due to the pandemic. And today, every school board seat in the cooperative district is contested, for what some voters say is the first time in decades.
With school board elections in the spotlight, new campaign tactics emerge
Some communities are seeing the kind of organizing and spending one might expect from traditionally partisan races.
In SAU 16, newly formed groups have emerged representing the interests of residents across the political spectrum. Several of those groups have a focus on elevating the concerns of parents who, the groups claim, are being shut out of major school policy decisions.
One such group, called SaveSAU16, has endorsed candidates in all six towns within the district. In mailers, it has taken issue with the district DEI director’s involvement in a local Black Lives Matter chapter and claimed that the school’s DEI initiatives are an “ideological social experiment.”
Another group, Exeter PACT, was launched in 2021 by parents who first connected over frustrations that the district’s schools remained remote or hybrid for the majority of the year.
“You had this long period of time where decisions were being made and the community felt left out of those decisions,” Exeter PACT co-founder Susan Shanelaris told NHPR in a recent interview.
The group has since taken up many of the same strategies used by other political action committees. They endorsed a slate of candidates, published a voter guide, bought Facebook ads, made candidate videos, hosted “road show” events and sent out mailers related to the election.
The Exeter PACT skews conservative; two of its candidates sued the school district over its mask mandate. But Shanelaris says the group includes a mix of political ideologies, and at least one of the PAC’s endorsed candidates is a registered Democrat.
Some residents have suggested that Exeter PACT is taking big money from outside interests. Exeter PACT told NHPR it’s largely a volunteer and self-funded effort, accepting donations only from residents within the district. They estimate they’ve raised under $20,000. (By comparison, most of New Hampshire’s state representatives raised $10,000 or less during their most recent campaign cycle, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets.)
State campaign finance rules are murky when it comes to local school board elections, but the group says it formed a PAC in order to make its finances more transparent.
Other organizations run by Democrats are also getting involved in the Exeter school board races.
A group called Friends of Exeter Region Cooperative Schools is sending out mailers endorsing incumbents and candidates who support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in SAU 16.
Granite State Progress, a statewide progressive organization, recently sent out mailings about school board races in a number of towns, including those in SAU 16. Zandra Rice Hawkins, its director, says the group chose to get involved in these elections for the first time this year in response to more activity from extremist groups at school board meetings.
“We felt like it was a moment for everyone to get off the sidelines to help make sure public education stays strong and students get a honest, accurate education,” she wrote to NHPR.
Outcome of local races could have long-term impact
While technically non-partisan, this isn’t the first time these races have been overtly political. Local Democratic and Republican committees have gotten involved in past campaigns, and some school board members are also involved in partisan work.
But some are viewing the elections this week as a potential referendum on the public institutions that steered school districts through some of the most difficult and contention decisions in memory.
While schools have dropped mask requirements per updated state health guidance, a new COVID variant may put board members in the hot seat again and create pressure to reinstate mask rules.
And as lawmakers at the state level craft new policies aimed at shaping curriculum and increasing parental oversight over school districts, the winners in this year’s school board races are likely to find themselves in the middle of political debates in the year to come — either enacting or resisting those new policies.
We want to hear from you: If you serve in a public role in your community, how has your experience changed in recent years? If you’ve thought about getting more involved in your community, as a voter or an elected official, what has motivated you — or, what’s held you back? Let us know at email@example.com.