Partisan issues are finding their way into non-partisan elections in Iowa
In Ankeny, the fast-growing suburb north of Des Moines, the issue of requiring masks in schools because of COVID-19 has been as contentious as anywhere in the state. So when school board candidates get together, you might think it could get heated.
But it wasn’t like that at a meeting last week where the main topic was diversity and equity. Candidates were asked how they would change the district.
Lori Bullock, one of three Democrats in the non-partisan race, said she wants to build better relationships between teachers and students of color.
“Because oftentimes, particularly with our communities of color, school is not a welcoming place for them and that starts in the classroom,” Bullock said.
Joy Burk, one of three Republicans running for the board, said the district needs to deal with the disproportionate number of expulsions among Black students.
“We need to keep these kids in school, so whatever’s happening to get them in trouble we need to use those as teachable moments. We need to be working with their families,” Burk said.
Masks did not come up during the forum, but the issue was present in the background when candidates referred to the "noise" around the race.
“I think we just need to shut down a lot of the noise, and we need to get past some of these issues that have been blown out of proportion and get to some real work,” said Shelly Northway, another Democrat running for the board.
Voting is underway across Iowa to elect candidates to non-partisan offices like school board and city council. Except, in some races, some of the most partisan issues dividing the country are playing into the campaigns.
The controversy around masking in Ankeny schools came to a head just over a month ago when the current board approved a mask mandate for all grades. That was in response to a federal court ruling blocking Iowa’s ban on school mandates.
After one meeting on the topic, dozens of people opposed to the plan rallied outside the district office. They carried signs that read, “one size does not fit all,” and “mandatory masking of our children is abuse.”
Kimberly Riecks, a vocal opponent of mask requirements in Ankeny addressed the crowd over a bullhorn. “The school does not know what’s best for my little girl,” she said.
Riecks and another Ankeny parent, Emily Peterson, created a Facebook group called Iowa Mama Bears, that has been a source of opposition to masks and hostility toward board members.
In the school board race, Riecks has endorsed the three Republicans: Burk, Sarah Barthole and Trent Murphy. At the district office she invited others to show their frustration over the mask mandate at the ballot box.
“We elect them to work for us, not the other way around,” she said. “We do not work for them, they work for us.”
From the top level to the ground level
National issues are at play in other district elections, too. In Waukee, where eight candidates are running for four seats on the school board, conservative candidates have organized against the district’s plans for teaching about equity and racism.
The district adopted new equity standards in the summer of 2020. Then they came up for revisions this year to ensure Waukee complied with a state law that bans some topics from schools, such as teaching that Iowa or the U.S. are systemically racist.
Some parents pushed back against the revisions and claimed the district’s standards for teaching diversity were divisive.
Now a campaign committee called Warriors & Wolves United is backing a slate of four candidates in the Waukee school board election. The group says on its website that its mission is to “defend our public schools from the movement across our country to teach harmful, political ideology in our schools.”
Polarizing social issues aren’t new to school elections, according to Matthew Record, an associate professor of political science at Drake University. Record points to debates over textbooks in Texas and intelligent design in Kansas. But those were more grassroots. This year, he says, school elections around the country are feeding off national rhetoric on race and the coronavirus.
“Some issues kind of bubble up from the bottom and some issues are very top down, and I think the kind of debates that we're having right now on the school boards are super-duper top down,” Record said. “And so for that reason, this feels very much like a political controversy that was created at the highest levels of government that we're now seeing play out at the ground level, at the local level.”
School board elections are non-partisan and are set apart from federal and state races, but political scientist Donna Hoffman at the University of Northern Iowa says they are still political. The saying used to be that “all politics is local,” but she says more and more that is not the case.
“That is true especially for congressional elections and now it seems that it’s trickling down to lower levels such as school board, as we see in this cycle, and that national issues are becoming kind of that framework in which Americans sort themselves into what they're for and what they're against,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman says the nationalization of local elections has intensified during the pandemic, but predates the coronavirus. She believes the changing media landscape has contributed to the trend, through the rise of social media and the loss of local news outlets.
Looking past Election Day
It’s not clear this election could actually reverse the mask mandate in Ankeny schools, even if all of the Republicans were to win.
Joy Burk says her family is following the district’s mandate, but she supports parents choosing on masks. Sarah Barthole, who’s campaign was endorsed by Gov. Kim Reynolds, also believes parents should decide on masks.
But Republican Trent Murphy, who served on the Ankeny school board for 10 years up to 2011, told the Des Moines Register he agrees with following the court ruling even though he supports parent choice. Murphy stopped actively campaigning after his wife Renee was hospitalized with COVID-19. Renee Murphy, who was known for her own work in the community, died on Friday at the age of 51..
Candidate Christian Holtz, who is unaffiliated with a party, opposes universal mask mandates.
For Lori Lovstad, a Democrat running for re-election to the Ankeny school board, the next big issue for the district isn’t anything to do with the coronavirus, but creating a new 10-year strategic plan. She thinks partisan debates like the one over masks are temporary.
"Our kids, they don’t care about politics, so it’s a distraction from what our schools need to be able to function," Lovstad said.
For the national issues that are still around after the election, she’s hoping more conversations within the community bring them back down to the local level.