Mask mandates and critical race theory at play in NEO school board races
Sharon Kilbane is a longtime and well-known Strongsville resident. She and her husband raised five kids and ran a successful family business there — a chain of craft stores called Pat Catan’s.
At 64-years-old, Kilbane wouldn’t have predicted she’d be running as a first-time candidate for a seat on the Strongsville School Board. “Honestly, my oldest daughter said ‘Mom, I don't know, do you want to do this?’ And, I'm a Christian, and I just prayed and prayed about this and it kept coming up and it kept coming up,” Kilbane told Ideastream Public Media.
Kilbane is a grandmother of 16. Some of her grandkids are in the Strongsville Public School district now, and she felt she had to act on the frustration she was feeling for them. So, Kilbane is trying to take the board seat from appointee Sherry Buckner-Sallee, who’s running for her first full term.
Kilbane’s big issue is mask mandates. Wearing masks is encouraged in Strongsville schools. Kilbane thinks the decision should be up to parents. “If they want to choose to put a mask on their kids every day, that is their choice. If they don't, that is also their choice. I'm worried about down the line with these vaccine mandates... I feel like that's going to be the next push,” Kilbane said. “And for me, parents, children, doctors, they should be the only ones involved in that.”
These culture wars are raging in schools all across Northeast Ohio, and they’re playing out politically with hundreds of candidates running for school board seats across the state.
The Ohio School Boards Association reports more than 2,600 candidates are on ballots this year — a 50 percent increase from school board races four years ago, and many are political newcomers.
“This year, we have 1,287 people running for the first time,” said the organization's Jeff Chambers. “In 2019, we had 807.”
Many, like Kilbane, are pushing back against mask mandates and conversations about race in the classroom.
The emphasis on these student discussions about race and racism, Kilbane says, is doing the opposite of bringing kids together.
“I think we're dividing them. We're saying, if you're white, you can't be born anything but a white supremacist and you have to acknowledge that, and you have to, you know, apologize for who you are,” she said. “And then a Black child has to say, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm never going to succeed because of all you've done to me.’”
And Kilbane is far from alone in turning her frustration into a campaign for a school board seat. She is among a bevy of conservative candidates running in Cuyahoga County this election cycle.
A conservative wave
Rocky River school board candidate Chuck Bartsche is running to do away with Critical Race Theory (CRT), which he believes is being taught in the classroom and “makes people feel bad about themselves for no other reason than just being born.” “The schools need to stay in their lane,” Bartsche said. “That's academics, athletics and arts. Most of the things are being taught by the families and each individual family deals with it.”
Bartsche is part of a slate of conservative candidates whose yard sign reads “Education not activism.”
Candidate slates like these are running for school board in districts including Bay Village, Chagrin Falls and Cleveland Heights-University Heights.
Krissy Dietrich Gallagher has two kids in the Heights schools and is a long-time supporter of the district, having helped with multiple levy campaigns since 2011. Now, she’s part of a newly-formed PAC of parents and community members called “Keep MAGA Off Our Board.”
“The fear is incredibly real,” Dietrich Gallagher said.
She's worried the conservative candidates could ride a wave of cultural anger and roll back progressive priorities in this majority minority district.
“We work really hard to meet the needs and provide dignity to our students of color, to our LGBTQIA+ students,” Dietrich Gallagher said. “And I think those, obviously, are hot button issues. And I think that part of this is a move against that.”
This same story is playing out in Summit County, too, where a surge of first-time conservative candidates are running for school board and a large swath of incumbents decided not to run for reelection.
And when you listen to what’s being said in packed school board meetings across the region, you get the sense that come Election Day on Nov. 2, these contentious races will drive many more voters to the polls than ever before.
At a Hudson school board meeting in September, Jennie Levak spoke out against mask mandates, calling the face-coverings completely unnatural for kids.
“When you force children to go against their natural instinct and you question their intuitive sensibilities. That's called gaslighting,” Levak said.
At a July school board meeting in Bay Village, father Patrick Bittel decried an over emphasis on race in the classroom.
“We adamantly reject any notion that a child or group of children is inherently biased or privileged because of their skin color.,” Bittel said, as many in the crowd applauded.
Ultimately, it comes down to who gets out the most votes. Strongsville GOP head Shannon Burns says this election, the political momentum is on their side. “In Ohio, in Cleveland area, we're going to have opportunities to pick up school board seats and city council seats because we have an energized electorate, and the other side doesn’t. They're demoralized. I mean, look at the people that they have in their leadership right now, it's not exactly inspiring for them. So, we have an opportunity to grow that base and win elections this year,” Burns said.
The culture issues in this election are only a precursor to the GOP tidal wave Burns says he expects to see in next year's midterm elections.
Statehouse News Bureau Correspondent Jo Ingles contributed to this report.
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