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In high-profile school board races, some N.H. towns see record turnout, wins for progressive candidates

Polls in Exeter, NH
Todd Bookman
Town voting day in Exeter, New Hampshire.

After a year of contentious debates on everything from school mask mandates to racial inequity, this week’s local school board elections saw some of the highest turnouts in recent memory. And in a number of these elections, conservative candidates who were vocal critics of their school district fell short of winning a seat.

Several communities beset with divisions over diversity and equity efforts and school masking rules — Exeter, Bedford, Londonderry, and Merrimack Valley School District, among others — reported higher than usual voter turnout Tuesday.

“It was really exciting,” said Sherry Farrell, town clerk in Londonderry, where unofficial results showed a record turnout. “We had a lot of young people registering to vote for the first time, and some older people registering too.”

School board races across New Hampshire saw an unusual level of attention, funding and political organizing from both sides of the political spectrum this year. The interest was driven in part by the pandemic, which put school boards in the spotlight on major decisions, such as when to reopen schools and whether to require masks indoors for students and teachers.

Many school boards also got more scrutiny from conservative activists who took aim at curriculum, library books, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. And some of those most critical of school board policies chose to run this year, sometimes with training and support from conservative groups with names like the 603 Alliance, SaveSAU16, and Defend Our Kids.

But in many towns, this organizing did not translate to an overhaul of school board leadership.

Progressive candidates, some of whom received support from local Democrats and the statewide organizations Granite State Progress and 603 Forward, won in some of the most contentious races.

In the Exeter Cooperative School District, voters ousted two of the more conservative members of the school board and elected a number of progressive candidates. However, several candidates endorsed by a new political action committee, Exeter PACT, and the conservative-leaning SaveSAU16 also won seats.

In Londonderry, voters chose two candidates who positioned themselves as advocates of public schools over those who campaigned for greater parental input and tighter spending. Voters also rejected a warrant article that would have prohibited the school from imposing mask requirements in the future.

Several school board candidates involved in lawsuits against school districts over mask requirements last year also lost.

Zandra Rice Hawkins, the director of Granite State Progress, which sent out mailers in support of liberal-leaning candidates in Londonderry, Exeter, Derry and elsewhere, called Tuesday's results a big win for progressives and public schools.

“These results show that people support public education,” Hawkins told NHPR. They support an honest, accurate, inclusive education. And what you're seeing is parents and students and educators and community members coming together to protect our public schools and to make sure that our teachers can focus on teaching our kids.”

Some members of conservatives groups on Facebook vented their frustrations with Tuesday’s election results. Several suggested it was time for dissatisfied parents to homeschool their children or advocate for broader school choice options. Others pointed to mobilization efforts by the local Democratic Party chapters and suggested Republicans do the same in next year’s elections.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to Merrimack, rather than the Merrimack Valley School District.

Sarah Gibson joined NHPR's newsroom in 2018. She reports on education and demographics.

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