School board meetings in Centerville, Ohio, used to draw just a handful of people. But that began to change last spring in this Dayton suburb when dozens showed up to a late April meeting, angry about school mask requirements.
That frustration has driven a slate of parents to contest this fall’s school board elections in Centerville, where polarizing national issues have transformed what’s typically a sleepy race.
It’s something that’s happening across the country. School boards have become the latest political battlefield, with fights over masks and COVID-19 vaccines, and with conservative parents concerned about diversity curriculum. These races are being watched by Republicans, who lost a lot of ground in the suburbs over the past eight years, and are hoping education could be a winning issue for them in congressional races in 2022 and the next presidential race as well.
In Centerville, there’s a slate of school board candidates who oppose mask mandates
In Centerville, at that school board meeting in April — a meeting that was quickly adjourned after it devolved into a shouting match — the crowd cheered as Lysa Kosins spoke about her health concerns about wearing masks.
Kosins said she had pulled her two children out of the school district because she didn’t want them to have to wear masks. “They complain to me every day about how they don’t want to wear it,” Kosins said. “They don’t want to go to school.”
Heather Schultz, another parent, spoke next, ending her remarks with a warning. “If you continue to ignore the families speaking out against this and other related topics,” she said, “the people who elected you will replace you with people who support our ideals and goals, because we are no longer asleep at the wheel.”
Kosins and Schultz are now running for the board. A third candidate, Dawn McGuire, is also part of their slate, running under the slogan “Parents’ voices matter,” which aims to replace three current board members and effectively take control of the five-member panel. Their campaign signs say “Conservatives for Board of Education,” though in Centerville, the school board is a nonpartisan election.
Centerville is the kind of suburb people move to for its high-quality schools. It went Republican in the last two presidential elections, but by smaller margins in 2020 than 2016, part of a pattern nationwide that saw voters in the suburbs stray from Trump.
Incumbent school board candidates have been harassed
David Roer has served on the board for 28 years and is now fighting to keep his post. A pediatrician, he stands by the board’s mask requirements. “The goal was to keep these kids in school,” he said. “But the only way we saw keeping these kids in the classroom five days a week was to use the masks.”
He said he’s been harassed on Facebook. And one night, Roer said someone even came to his house. “On a Saturday night in the dark,” he recalled. “Starts ringing the doorbell, starts yelling and screaming at us. ‘You’re what’s making America bad.’ I had to call the police.”
A colleague on the board, Megan Murray Sparks, who has five children and coaches just about every sport you can imagine, said she’s afraid of how intense it has become. At a meeting in late August, there was more outrage about masks.
“Every entrance we had security,” she said. “They had a safe room that they were going to put us in that they had planned out if anything was to happen. I was so scared before the meeting I was physically ill in the bathroom, texting my priest.”
The incumbents are pitching themselves as “qualified, experienced and reasonable” on their campaign website.
The fight has spilled into the community
The school board challengers said they don’t condone violence or threats and are shocked at how heated the race has become.
Take the case of Javier Mata, who owns a Mexican restaurant on Main Street with his parents. The challengers asked him if they could put up a campaign sign on the lawn in front of the restaurant.
“Because we’ve always done this in the past and never had any issues, we were like, ‘Sure, why not?’ ” said Mata.
He didn’t see it as an endorsement and offered to let the incumbents put up their sign too. But then he said he started getting emails and calls with people saying they wouldn’t come to his restaurant anymore if he kept the sign up.
“Something so small, became so big,” he said.
He thought about taking the sign down, but then got mad about the whole thing and let the challengers put up a larger sign. Mata doesn’t live in the district and can’t vote in the school board race, but it’s added a lot of drama to his life anyway.