#schoolsafety | Right-wing groups focused on winning local school boards this election. Did it work? ⋆ Michigan Advance

Education-related issues dominated the last few months of top campaigns in Michigan, especially as Republican candidates like Tudor Dixon pushed bans of “pornographic” books in K-12 schools, anti-critical race theory agendas and anti-LGBTQ+ policies in the classroom. 

With these contentious issues firing up parents on the right, that resulted in outsized attention and spending on local school board races and made for competitive local elections across the state. That’s been a recent trend, as these races are nonpartisan and have traditionally focused on local issues, like the budget, transportation and test scores, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the nonpartisan Michigan Association of School Boards.

Dixon, who ran a “parental rights” campaign focused on issues like banning trans students from school sports and supporting school vouchers, lost Tuesday’s election by 10.5 points to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who backs LGBTQ+ rights and touted her record on increasing spending for public schools. 

It was a big day for Democrats, with the statewide ticket winning reelection. They also took back control of both chambers of the state Legislature for the first time in decades and retained control of the state Supreme Court.

Democrats also swept all eight statewide education races, including the state Board of Education, which right-wing activists had targeted with complaints about CRT and LGBTQ+ issues in classes and Republican candidates ran on promising to abolish them from curricula. The other seats were for university boards — Michigan State University, Wayne State University and the University of Michigan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (left) and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon (right) | Andrew Roth

Michigan had about 1,400 local school board race elections on Tuesday, per Wotruba. Many groups from Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based right-wing group, to the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, endorsed swaths of candidates.

The big picture isn’t completely clear about the results of these down-ballot races spanning from the Upper Peninsula to Southeast Michigan. 

Some politicians and local and national groups have celebrated victories. But because school board candidates are required to run without a party affiliation, it makes it more difficult to determine if candidates campaigning on partisan platforms in local school boards did win unless they had the backing of well-known organizations.

One of the highest-profile groups is Moms for Liberty, which has GOP ties and cropped up after many right-wing parents objected to COVID-19 health rules during the early pandemic. The organization did a campaign event with Dixon and other GOP candidates in Troy last month, where she and others recited a pledge: “I pledge to advance policies that strengthen parental involvement and decision-making, increase transparency, defend against government overreach and secure parental rights at all levels of government.”

Moms for Liberty has chapters throughout the country, including 12 in Michigan. The group endorsed 74 candidates across Branch, Grand Traverse, Isabella, Kent, Macomb, Midland, Oakland and Wayne counties, per its website.

Of those 74 candidates, according to unofficial results, it was split pretty evenly between the candidates who won with Moms for Liberty’s support and those who didn’t. Some of these school board races had write-in candidates. Those races won’t be decided until each county Board of Canvassers can tally the write-in results. 

According to unofficial election results, of the 63 Moms for Liberty endorsed candidates across the state with reported results, 31 candidates won and 32 lost. An analysis by Chalkbeat and Bridge found that 48 of the 121 candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty and another right-wing group, the Get Kids Back to School PAC, won their races, although they noted there was some overlap in endorsements and not all results were available as of publication.

Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock at a GOP gubernatorial debate in Warren, June 30, 2022 | Laina G. Stebbins

After Republicans suffered big losses at the top of the ticket Tuesday, Meshawn Maddock, co-chair for the Michigan Republican Party who’s a strong ally of former President Donald Trump, turned her attention to local school board races.

Maddock, who frequently boosts Moms for Liberty on social media, tweeted Wednesday that the GOP “swept some glorious school boards across MI with parents who won’t be ‘tolerating’ any leftist nonsense in their schools.”

Josh Cowen, an education policy professor at Michigan State University, said that he wouldn’t be surprised if “culture war” issues fared better in local elections than in statewide races.

“Because we are such a local-control state, I think voters rejected as a statewide matter this push toward DeVos-ism,”Cowen said. “But at the local level, there will still be the people who are really intense about it.”

Dixon was backed by the billionaire DeVos family, longtime advocates and funders of vouchers and charter schools. 

Jennifer Tuksal, co-founder of Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MIPASS), a grassroot group of parents from across the state that advocates for school safety, was concerned about the number of far-right candidates who won school board positions. 

“The fact that in many districts extremist board candidates are now in a position to use divisive and harmful conspiracies to damage our schools and endanger the most vulnerable children —as many of their attacks have been focused on LGBTQ children and their families — is a frightening prospect for the majority of Michigan’s parents,” Tuksal said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, the MEA touted victories on Tuesday.

The labor union, which endorsed a record-breaking 330 candidates for local school boards, as well as 11 candidates for community college boards of trustees and six candidates for library boards, said 73.5% of its endorsed candidates won their race. That number could change as official election results are finalized. 

“Clearly, there was a coordinated effort by the far right to load up school boards with people who are spreading conspiracy theories and trying to drive a wedge between parents and educators,” said Thomas Morgan, an MEA spokesperson. “So educators across the state felt it was important, and rightfully so, to really get engaged in the school board elections and work to elect people who actually believe in the mission of public education.”

Morgan said the people who ran to get on school boards because of hot-button issues are “going to have a rude awakening when they begin serving on school boards and discover what serving on a school board actually means.”

American Federation of Teachers-Michigan President David Hecker, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a Capitol rally for public schools, June 18, 2019 | Derek Robertson

Here are the results from the state Board of Education and some contentious local school board races the Advance has been following:

State Board of Education

Democrats Pamela Pugh, an incumbent, and Mitchell Robinson took the two open seats on the State Board of Education, maintaining a Democratic majority. Pugh won with 25% of the statewide vote and Robinson garnered 24%.

Democrats Pamela Pugh (L) and Mitchell Robinson (R) | Courtesy photos

Over the last few years, the state Board of Education has been frequently burdened with hours of public comment during meetings, usually led by far-right groups and often pushing anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.

The two Republican candidates, Tami Carlone and Linda Lee Tarver, a longtime GOP activist who signed on to a lawsuit to overturn the results of the 2020 election, have accused educators of “indoctrinating” students over issues like critical race theory. Both candidates lost. Carlone garnered 23.3% of the vote and Tarver received 22.8% of the vote. 

Grosse Pointe 

In Grosse Pointe Public Schools, which serve nearly 7,000 students, there were 10 candidates running to fill three seats. 

Two candidates who ran on book bans, gender identity and parental rights during their campaign won. Sean Cotton, a newspaper owner and attorney from Grosse Pointe Farms, took 16.7% of the vote. Ginny Jeup, a small business owner from Grosse Pointe, garnered 13.2% of the vote. 

The third seat was filled by MEA-endorsed Valarie St. John, a public health consultant from Grosse Pointe Park. St. John won 14.3% of the vote. 

The other candidates who did not win a seat on the board include Terry Collins, a finance supervisor from Grosse Pointe Park; Clint Derringer, a program manager at Stellantis from Grosse Pointe; Timothy Klepp, a partner at IBM Consulting from Grosse Pointe Park; Joseph Herd, a retired deputy chief from Grosse Pointe Woods; Christopher Lee, an orthopedic surgeon from Grosse Pointe; William Broman, a patent attorney from Grosse Pointe Farms; and Je Donna Dinges, a small business owner from Grosse Pointe Woods.

Whitehall

In Whitehall, there were three seats up for grabs on Tuesday. 

Melissa Moore, the executive director at Read Muskegon, garnered the most votes with 23.5%. She was endorsed by the MEA.

Ryann Jibson, a Whitehall High School senior, speaks in support of inclusion and equity in the school during a school board meeting June 21, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

Christopher G Mahoney (incumbent), a Whitehall police officer endorsed by the MEA, earned 21.7% of the vote.

Tim Cross, a pastor from Whitehall who previously protest the Gay-Straight Alliance club at Whitehall High School, filled the final open seat on the school board with 19.1% of the vote. 

Incumbent school board president Doug Ogden, a pastor from Whitehall, fell short to win reelection with 18.6% of the vote, and Tom Ziemer, a business owner from Whitehall who ran in conjunction with Cross, had 17.2%. 

Hartland

There were nine candidates vying for three seats and two candidates competing for a partial term ending in 2024. 

The “Clean Slate,” a slate of Hartland school board candidates running together and consisting of Glenn Gogoleski, Greg Keller, Bob Merwin and Michelle Blondeel, took at least two of the open seats. There is a tie in the third seat.

The Clean Slate webpage lists concerns about transparency, parental rights and “the threat of boys in girls’ sports and restrooms.”

In the race for the full term, Gogoleski, an entrepreneur and business owner from Hartland, had the biggest win with 15.4% of the vote. Glabach, a health care executive from Hartland, followed closely behind with 15.3% of the vote. 

School board election signs in Hartland | courtesy photo

The last open seat for the full term will likely go to a recount after Keller, a salesman from Hartland, and Michelle Hemeyer, a restaurant owner from Hartland and an incumbent on the school board, tied. Both candidates had 5,246 votes, or 14.9% of the vote. 

For the partial term, Blondeel, an automotive supplier from Hartland, beat incumbent Vic Bugni, the executive director of instructional services at Saginaw Intermediate School District. Blondeel won with 57.4% of the vote. 

Merwin, a small business owner from Hartland, is the only candidate from the Clean Slate group who did not win, or at least tie. The other candidates who lost in this race were Ed Gentile, the director of talent acquisition at Teradata Corp; Thomas Dumond, an incumbent on the school board and a civil engineer from Hartland; George Skendi, a mechanical engineer from Hartland and Trish Mrozek, a Hartland resident. 

Forest Hills

In Forest Hills, a community just outside of Grand Rapids, there were 10 candidates running for three open positions for a six-year term and three candidates running for one special election to fill a two-year term ending in 2024. 

Just one candidate from the “Chalkboard Four” group, which pushed for a list of books to be banned, won on Tuesday, with the three other candidates who lost the race. The Chalkboard Four includes Doug Lee, Robert Cribbs, Kevinn Donovan and Holly DeBoer.

Sign for Forest Hills school board race, Nov. 8, 2022 | Allison R. Donahue

Holly Deboer, a former daycare provider from Grand Rapids who was endorsed by Moms for Liberty, is the lone representative from the group who will serve a full term. She garnered 13% of the vote. 

C.J. Michaud had the most votes, with 17% of the votes cast for her and Malorie Ninemeier, a Grand Rapids resident, earned 14% of the vote.

For the partial term, Mary Vonck, an engineer from Grand Rapids and an incumbent on the school board, won the seat with 34% of the vote. 

Ed Aboufadel, a Grand Valley State University mathematics professor from Ada, and Cribbs, one of the Chalkboard Four candidates with an endorsement from Moms for Liberty, both lost and each took 33% of the vote. 

The other candidates who lost in the race for the full term were Doug Lee, a small business owner from Cascade Township with a Moms for Liberty endorsement; Kevinn Donovan, a businessman from Ada; Suzanne Callahan, an incumbent on the board and a businesswoman from Grand Rapids; Jessica Johns, a co-founder and director of a local nonprofit in Grand Rapids; Jackie Nickel, a martial arts school owner from Grand Rapids; Justin Sheldon, a Professor at Grand Valley State University from Grand Rapids; and Brian Spratke, a software engineer from Grand Rapids. 


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