Culture wars spill over into school board races

Candidate slates are coming forward to cut programs related to racial justice and gender identity.

MINNEAPOLIS — Local, nonpartisan school board races in Minnesota are now steeped in themes of a broader conservative movement against racial justice studies and gender identity recognition.

One such battle is taking place at schools in the Prior Lake – Savage area, where eight candidates are vying for four spots on ISD 719 School Board.

Two separate groups of candidates emerged in teams of four, one approved by teachers and the other approved by a statewide “parental rights” group.

One list includes three starters – Jonathan Drewes, Michael Nelson, Enrique Velazquez – and Jessica Olstad. All four have been endorsed by the Prior Lake – Savage Education Association.

“That’s one of my biggest priorities that I talk to people about, which is inclusion and safety for all of our families. And that’s something a lot of people are talking about,” Olstad told KARE.

“I also want to make sure that we trust teachers to do their jobs and go out of their way. Let them teach however they want because, just as all types of students learn differently, teachers teach differently, so I want to make sure there’s harmony.”

The other list of four candidates – Lisa Atkinson, Amy Bullyan, Bill Markert and Geoff Zahn – was endorsed by the Minnesota Parents Alliance, a new statewide group that organized a ‘Reclaim Our Schools’ rally. at the State Capitol in August.

All four spoke at the rally, documented by Minnesota Public Radio, where a reporter captured signs denigrating gay pride, critical race theory and gender identity. One sign declared “One race, two sexes” and another read “Educate, not indoctrinate”, a theme familiar to Republican candidates.

“I’ve seen for too long that the moral compass was driven out of our schools and our society. And it’s time for leaders to have a strong moral compass,” Bullyan told the crowd at the rally.

The group’s founder, Cristine Trooien, says academic achievement suffers because students learn about racial justice and gender identity.

“Administrators and activist school board members are bringing divisive curriculum and culture into our classrooms with alarming urgency and effectiveness,” Trooien told the crowd.

“School and district leaders continued to focus obsessively on implementing failing trends in education such as equity initiatives and ethnic studies.”

Most applicants approved by the parent group have signed “The Pro-Human Pledge” pledging to recognize “one human race only” and not to choose any one race for special treatment.

Bullyan repeated that notion at a recent forum sponsored by the Minnesota League of Women Voters, when candidates were asked how the district should make LGBTQ students feel affirmed and supported.

“I think highlighting one group of students over another, our students are challenged by that. I prefer to focus on the things that unite us rather than the things that set us apart.”

Olstad, on the other hand, was adamant that inclusion and love should be the guiding principle when it comes to children’s gender identity.

“This is about the lives of our children. This is how they feel. This is how they identify. This is about respect. We are talking about the accountability of our school board. It is our responsibility to love and respect all of our children.”

Zahn declined an interview with KARE on Monday due to scheduling issues. Atkinson and Bullyan had not returned voicemails or emails Tuesday morning.

In addition to the COVID pandemic, the school community is also recovering from an incident involving racist messages left by students at district schools.

The MN Parents Alliance and the candidates they support are running on a pro-transparency theme. They complain that schools are not doing enough to inform parents about the program and their options for exempting their children from classes that conflict with their family values.

That was the stated goal of the ‘Parents’ Bill of Rights Act’ passed by Senate Republicans in the 2022 session. They said it was about giving parents a chance to engage in conversation with teachers and administrators.

The one example they cited of a parent being denied a copy of their student’s curriculum, in Roseau, was later found to be false. The senator who used this example at a press conference later apologized.

The legislation did not gain traction in the DFL-controlled House of Representatives. Democrats said they trust teachers to keep parents informed and to be open to questions about what’s going on in the classroom.

Olstad said many of the issues families have with tutoring can be easily resolved by contacting teachers.

“We’re a public education district, for god’s sake! We’re transparent,” Olstad remarked.

“I can only speak as a parent at this point, but I never felt there wasn’t good communication between my husband and I and our children’s teachers. I never felt the opposite.”


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