School board campaigns heating up

School board candidates used to be virtually invisible, an after thought for many voters filling out their ballot at the polls. But the increasing dissatisfaction of parents with their local schools post-pandemic, plus their involvement at school board meetings in districts across the state, changed all that. School board members and their policies have come under far greater scrutiny and criticism from parents turned activists, dozens of whom will be on the ballot for the first time themselves in November.

Though technically still nonpartisan, school board races have become as polarized as legislative races in many areas. The campaign to fill four seats on the Rochester School Board serves as a window into the issues on the line in many districts this year.

The race features three incumbent insiders vying to hold onto their seats against conservative insurgents running as a slate, in addition to an open seat up for grabs. The Post-Bulletin coverage of the debates between candidates for two seats reveals much about the defensive, aggressive tone rapidly becoming the new normal.

The first debate included incumbent Julie Workman and her challenger John Whelan. The second debate included candidates Justin Cook and Rae Parker. The incumbent for the seat, Melissa Amundsen, chose not to run for re-election.

The first debate touched on a number of social issues, and revealed contentious differences between the two vote-seekers. Workman used her opening statement to strongly criticize her opponent for allegedly providing incorrect information about the school board’s work.

“Is the slate in some kind of omniscient, clairvoyant or convoluted time warp to know things before they occur,” Workman said. “Shame on the slate.”

The adversarial back and forth never let up, according to the paper.

The candidates discussed topics ranging from the gender-neutral bathrooms to book banning to student discipline to the use of school resource officers.

“I think we’re doing some things in the school right now that put children at risk,” Whelan said, referring to the gender neutral bathrooms. “I see no reason for any such thing, and I think there’s going to be a catastrophe. If the school district’s in financial trouble now, they’ll be in huge financial trouble from that.”

The library staff asked one person to leave for refusing to remain quiet during the debate. The staff issued at least one other warning to others in the audience.

Workman challenged Whelan right up to his closing remarks, during which he quoted Martin Luther King Jr. and his renown speech “I have a dream.”

The second debate involved two candidates for the open school board seat, focusing less on the opposing candidate, more on key issues facing the school district. Rochester schools have lost hundreds of students since the pandemic, declining test scores and face serious disciplinary issues, as well.

Parker pointed out the district’s declining test scores and emphasized the need to restore student performance.

“We will again have academic scores that are the envy of the state,” Parker said.

When asked what the candidates’ main priorities would be if elected, Cook emphasized the importance of making students proficient in literacy by the third grade. He emphasized the importance of that during an earlier debate leading up to the primary election as well.

“Not only is ensuring that early elementary students achieve reading proficiency a moral imperative, but it’s a strategic opportunity for the district,” Cook said. “We can be a leader in the state (with) Rochester Public Schools.”

The Rochester school district may be larger than most. But the issues and tensions on display in debates offer a sneak preview of school board races across the state.