School board elections are nonpartisan, but many political groups are endorsing candidates across the Des Moines metro — some for the first time — and spending thousands of dollars to back them ahead of the Nov. 7 election.
That first-time engagement in local school board elections is happening across the political spectrum, including a social conservative organization that’s hosted Republican presidential candidates and an advocacy group that strives to protect LGBTQ rights. It comes as new laws continue to transform Iowa’s public schools.
The Family Leader, a Christian organization that in July hosted a half-dozen GOP presidential candidates, is endorsing school board candidates in Johnston, the first time it’s weighed in on local school elections.
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Led by Bob Vander Plaats, The Family Leader reported to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board spending nearly $13,000 to support the slate of four candidates: Josh Nelson, Charles Steele, Lori Stiles and Michelle Veach. They all are Christians “who are running to firmly establish a tradition of strong values and academic excellence” and are “passionate supporters of parental involvement in education,” the announcement said.
One Iowa Action, which advocates for LGBTQ Iowans, also has endorsed school board candidates across the metro for the first time, according to Keenan Crow, policy and advocacy director. In state campaign finance records, One Iowa Action reported using phone and text banking in October, spending $10,300, to support school board candidates in Ankeny (Shelly Northway); Johnston (Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher, Jason Arnold and Lya Williams); Urbandale (Josh Van Ryswyk and Margaret Young); Waukee (Wendy Marsh and Kate Boonstra); and West Des Moines (Elizabeth Larson and Mike Andreski).
“The Legislature has really forced a choice on voters this cycle,” Crow said.
What public education is, who should benefit from it and whether parents should have a say have all become divisive political issues in Iowa as Republicans have passed laws that impact what students can learn, what they can read in schools, or what nicknames or pronouns teachers can call them without parental permission.
This year, lobbyists for The Family Leader supported Republican bills that have remade education in Iowa, including bills that prohibit students from using bathrooms that do not correspond with their sex at birth; ban books depicting sex acts from schools; restrict instruction in younger grades regarding gender identity and sexual orientation; and use taxpayer dollars to subsidize families’ private school tuition. Lobbyists for One Iowa Action opposed the new laws, according to legislative records.
Meanwhile, school districts and boards are left to make sense of the sweeping new laws and craft policy around them. In the absence of state guidance, some Des Moines metro districts this year have chosen which books they should remove from school shelves and developed a nickname registry that applies to all students, not just those seeking to be called a different name or pronoun because of their gender identity. The results have been uneven across districts.
Conservative organizations see electing their preferred candidates as a way to support their values at the local level while boosting parental involvement and improving core academic standards. Progressive organizations hope candidates aligned with their values will narrowly enforce new laws, promote policies that protect students of diverse backgrounds and support teachers as districts struggle with retention.
In some races, such as in Ankeny and Johnston, a majority of the school board could lean one way or the other depending on who is elected this year.
Drew Zahn, spokesperson for The Family Leader, said the decision to endorse candidates in Johnston’s election “reflects the growth of our ministry.” Zahn said Johnston is the only district in which the group is endorsing candidates, but “we are encouraging Christians to choose well in local elections across the state.”
Crow of One Iowa said progressive candidates can work to limit damage from new laws, such as by keeping as many books as possible in schools. One Iowa Action also considered candidates’ stances on issues where school districts still have local discretion under law changes, such as teaching about the HPV vaccine, which is now optional, or making sure gender-neutral restrooms are available to students.
Activist sees 2023 school board elections as a replay of 2021
The push to elect more conservative board members in nonpartisan races is not new. Suburban school board races in the Des Moines metro in 2021 saw record turnout and fundraising — fueled by tense political debates over COVID-19 policies such as mask mandates and instruction about racial inequality.
That year, Gov. Kim Reynolds endorsed Ankeny School Board candidate Sarah Barthole, who ran on a platform of promoting parental choice in education, as political and legal wrangling continued in Iowa over COVID-19 policies. Reynolds also has proclaimed her support for Moms for Liberty, a conservative organization that advocates for parents’ rights in government. It too has backed some school board candidates this year, including in Johnston, West Des Moines and Dallas Center-Grimes.
In 2021, 58 candidates — a number of which ran on conservative platforms — in seven central Iowa districts raised more than $180,000 to finance campaigns, a huge leap from elections in 2017 and 2019, when candidates raised less than $35,000 each of those years. Campaign finance reports aren’t due this cycle until Nov. 2 and Jan. 19.
The results in the Des Moines suburbs in 2021 were mixed: For example, while conservative candidates swept in Ankeny, the conservative slate in Waukee was shut out.
Mitch Henry, chair of the progressive Iowa Unity Coalition, which advocates for issues such as affordable housing, health care and voting rights, says this school board election is similar to last cycle.
Iowa Unity Coalition has endorsed school board candidates in Johnston (Williams and Arnold), Des Moines (Anna Maria Campos) and Ankeny (Northway), supporting candidates who oppose book banning and new changes that impact trans youth and their experience at school. Henry said Republican politicians in Iowa have given the green light to discriminate against people who are different.
“If we don’t get involved at the front end, there’s only so much you can do,” Henry said. That means getting voters to the ballot box and winning elections in purple areas, he said.
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But at least one group is resisting the urge to back partisan slates: The Ankeny Education Association, the teachers’ union, split its endorsement for Ankeny School Board between three candidates promoted by Democrats (Katie Claeys, Amy Tagliareni and Northway) and two candidates promoted by Republicans (Stephanie Gott and Nick Bourne). There are five seats up for election on the Ankeny School Board.
“We believe these candidates will be the best in working to attract and retain quality staff in Ankeny while creating conditions in which staff and students can thrive,” the association said in a Facebook post. “We also have grave concerns over the politicization of a non-partisan race, and we encourage people to examine each candidate on their merits rather than choosing a political slate of candidates.”
The Alliance for a Better Iowa, a group connected to Iowa Democrats, has reported spending nearly $20,000 on behalf of candidates in Ankeny (Northway, Tagliareni and Claeys) and Johnston (Mangra-Dutcher, Williams, Arnold and Jennifer Chamberland) through mail, texts, phone and digital ads. The organization did not return a request for comment.
All seven of the candidates have run in previous elections in 2019 or 2021. The Alliance’s spending exceeds what the candidates reported spending on themselves in those elections, combined.
Polk County Democrats sent a mailer and made social media posts listing the city council and school board candidates it says are registered Democrats. For school boards, that’s 30 candidates in Ankeny, Dallas Center-Grimes, Des Moines, Johnston, North Polk, Saydel, Southeast Polk, Urbandale and West Des Moines.
Bill Brauch, chairperson of the Polk County Democrats, said in an email this is not the first local election cycle the organization has endorsed candidates, but it too sees stakes in school board races for public education, teachers and students.
“Candidates who are Democrats will focus on providing more resources and improving educational outcomes and not on banning books or making public schools less welcoming for marginalized students. They will never use students as pawns in an attempt to impose a particular ideology,” Brauch wrote.
Moms for Liberty, the conservative group with growing influence in elections and Republican politics over education policy, is chiming in, too, with formal endorsements for school board candidates in Johnston, West Des Moines, Dallas Center-Grimes, Indianola, Interstate 35, Carroll, Linn Mar, Cedar Rapids and Marion.
The Moms for Liberty website lists endorsements including candidates in Dallas Center-Grimes (Sean Cully and Matthew Moran); West Des Moines (Teri Patrick); and Johnston (Steele and Veach).
Moms for Liberty is connected to nationwide legislative efforts to restrict or remove books and curriculum about LGBTQ topics and race. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled it an anti-government extremist organization. Moms for Liberty says it strives to defend parental rights, oppose government overreach and protect children. It has close ties to Reynolds.
“We are proud of everyone that is stepping up to run, whether we agree or disagree with their values. This is not easy on any of them, any side,” Jenn Turner, chair of the Polk County Moms for Liberty, said in an email. “Then, whomever wins, we will work to build a bridge in each community and work together for all of the students, teachers, administrators and families. We all want the best for our public schools, which is why so many parents are paying more attention than ever before. Parental involvement is a win for everyone.”
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Elected officials weigh in on school board races, too
Local Republican elected officials, including state Sen. Mike Bousselot, R-Ankeny, and U.S. Rep. Zach Nunn, R-Bondurant, have promoted a slate of five candidates for school board in Ankeny — Ryan Weldon, Joshua Palik, Bourne, Gott and Amy Guidry — while echoing messaging from the 2021 election.
“Parents are fired up to elect leaders who will put our kids first and keep politics out of the classroom,” Nunn said in a social media post.
State Rep. Bill Gustoff, R-Polk County, also indicated his support for some of the candidates on Facebook.
Bousselot posted a photo of himself on Facebook in late September holding a flyer listing the same five candidates and saying it was paid for by the Ankeny Republicans organization. Guidry posted a video ad on Facebook in late October that said it was paid for by Ankeny Republicans.
Officials with the Ankeny Republicans did not return emails seeking comment.
Meanwhile, State Rep. Heather Matson, a Democrat representing Ankeny’s southern half, promoted a separate slate of four candidates in a Facebook post: Tagliareni, Claeys, Amber Romans and Northway. State Rep. Molly Buck, a Democrat representing Ankeny’s northern half, also promoted the four candidates in a Facebook video.
The Ankeny Area Democrats have recommended the same slate on Facebook, and encourage voters, who have five votes, to strategically choose just those four candidates.
Here’s a closer look at some local school board races:
Ankeny Community School District
Ten candidates are running for five seats on the Ankeny school board, including four seats with a four-year term and one seat with a two-year term.
The Ankeny School Board has been a hotbed for headlines and political tension, including in April, when the board, in a 4-3 decision, rejected the superintendent’s recommendation to create a new specialist position focused on equity and student performance. Teacher contract negotiations also drew outcry this year after the union said the district refused to negotiate items such as personal leave, family illness leave and bereavement leave.
More:Meet the 10 candidates running for Ankeny School Board in the 2023 election
Numerous organizations have been weighing in on the race, including Ankeny Pride and labor groups.
Area Democrats have been promoting Tagliareni, Northway, Romans and Claeys. If all four of them win, they would hold a majority on the board. Tagliareni and Claeys are incumbents.
Meanwhile, area Republicans have been promoting five candidates: Weldon, Palik, Guidry, Bourne and Gott. If all of them win, there would be no sitting board members aligned with Democrats. Weldon and Palik are incumbents.
The 10th candidate on the ballot, Christian Holtz, told the Register Oct. 25 that he had suspended his campaign because he will be moving to a different city. The deadline to officially withdraw as a candidate passed in September. He also said he was disappointed with the politicization of the race.
Holtz previously ran in 2021 and received 1% of the vote. He completed probation in August for a 2020 charge of threatening terrorism.
More:Ankeny school board candidate convicted of threatening terrorism in 2020 changed his name for ‘privacy reasons’
Meanwhile, A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy (AMOS) and Ankeny Community Network hosted a candidate forum Oct. 24. Originally, the Ankeny Area Chamber of Commerce also was a co-host of the event, but AMOS announced in an open letter that the Chamber had pulled out due to personal attacks against Chamber leadership.
The Chamber declined to provide specific details about the nature of the attacks, but said in a statement the decision was made for the safety and well-being of Chamber staff.
The five candidates supported by conservative groups all said on Facebook they would not attend the forum. Four of the five publicly stated they had a personal or professional conflict. Some also said they faced disrespect or hostility and suggested that played a role in their decision. One said he was concerned about bias.
The four candidates supported by progressive groups attended the forum. Some said before the event they were saddened or disappointed that other candidates did not appear and felt voters deserved a chance to hear from everybody running, even when dialogue gets uncomfortable.
At the forum, Claeys, Tagliareni, Northway and Romans spoke about their hopes for the Ankeny district and how they plan to address bullying, support teachers and improve equity for students of different backgrounds, among other issues.
Johnston Community School District
The Family Leader said it’s sending more than 1,700 mailers to support candidates Nelson, Steele, Stiles and Veach — “an outstanding slate of four conservative school board candidates,” according to its announcement.
Polk County Democrats listed Arnold, Chamberland, Mangra-Dutcher and Williams in its mailer. Chamberland and Mangra-Dutcher are incumbents.
The eight candidates are vying for four at-large seats out of seven seats on the board.
More:Meet the 8 candidates running for Johnston School Board in the 2023 election
In November 2021, the three candidates who won in Johnston opposed the district’s COVID-19 pandemic-era mask mandate and were endorsed by a conservative group called 1776 Action. That would suggest that the board would be entirely comprised of conservative members if all four backed by The Family Leader win seats.
Urbandale Community School District
Six candidates are running for four seats on the seven-member Urbandale School Board.
Polk County Democrats listed Ryswyk, Carissa Williams and Young in its mailer, as well as Katherine Howsare in a social media post. Howsare is an incumbent.
The district’s interpretations of Iowa law Senate File 496 have been in the public spotlight this year after the district created a list of 374 books that could potentially be in violation of the law and be subject to removal from district shelves. It later narrowed the list to 64 after community backlash.
More:Meet the six candidates running for Urbandale School Board in the 2023 election
Several board members expressed concern in August about having been caught off guard by news about the district’s attempts to interpret and act to comply with the law. At one point, a move was made to insert the board more into the district’s decision-making, but that motion failed to receive a majority vote.
West Des Moines Community School District
Eight candidates are running for four seats in the West Des Moines School Board election.
Polk County Democrats listed Andreski, Larson and Jill Caton Johnson in its mailer. Johnson is an incumbent.
Meanwhile, Polk and Dallas county Republican groups have been promoting events for candidates Patrick, Scott White and Laurie Beilstein on Facebook.
More:Meet the eight candidates running for West Des Moines School Board in 2023
Also running are Aaron Sewell and Jeff Hicks, an incumbent.
Patrick would bring new reach for Moms for Liberty to the school board if she is elected: Patrick is listed as the education chair for the group’s Polk County chapter.
The local teachers union has recommended Hicks, Johnson, Andreski and Larson, according to the Iowa State Education Association.
What is happening in Des Moines?
Not all Iowa school board races have been steeped in controversy. Two of the three Des Moines Public Schools board races are contested, but the candidates’ views have been similar on several high-profile topics. For example, earlier this month the five candidates pledged to work with A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy or AMOS officials on a strategy to retain and diversify the district’s teaching staff.
AMOS is made up of members from local faith congregations, neighborhood groups and nonprofits who focus on finding solutions for community issues.
Patrick Dix and Logan Villhauer are vying for the Des Moines School Board at-large seat. Campos and Victoria Henderson Weber are vying for the District 3 Des Moines School Board seat.
Kim Martorano, representing District 1, is the only incumbent seeking reelection. She is running uncontested.
Des Moines Register reporter Samantha Hernandez contributed to this story.
Phillip Sitter covers suburban growth and development for the Des Moines Register. Phillip can be reached via email at [email protected]. He is on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @pslifeisabeauty.