District leaders announced that they would double down on their efforts to combat racism and social justice in schools and teaching materials after George Floyd's death.
An organized protest began last year in the predominantly white community with a petition calling for the removal of the superintendent. Conservative activists won the endorsement of the GOP for the school board this summer, eliminating three incumbents from the Republican caucus. Their slate plans to take control of the school board in next week's elections.
Their platform's top issue is to combat critical race theory. This has been a rallying cry of activist candidates across the country in the Nov. 2-elections.
Superintendent Paul Freeman stated, "It was surprising to me to be included in that national conversation." "Direct accusations have been made in Guilford about teachers bullying and indoctrinating students in the leftist political agenda. This could not be further from the truth.
With much at stake, the school board elections will be a test of how durable conservative efforts to undermine equity initiatives. Opponents see attempts to stop liberal indoctrination. School administrators and incumbents fear that takeovers will lead to school board members becoming thorns for professional educators.
National conservative groups and state-level initiatives have encouraged more interest in school board seats. This is despite ongoing debates about COVID-19 mask mandates and gender-neutral bathrooms and teachings on race.
Although schools have dealt with issues of diversity and culturally sensitive teaching for many years, there has been some controversy. Jeffrey Henig, a Columbia University professor of political science, stated that groups with larger agendas have stoked frustrations in some communities.
He said that some Republicans see it as a way to win suburban votes in the midterm elections.
He said, "It is in the current context that I believe this is being deliberately exploitation by national actors that it is getting the energy & attention it deserves."
Critical race theory refers to a method of looking at American history through the lense of racism. Although the term is used broadly to describe any attempts at inclusion by some, it is not an integral part of K-12 education.
Guilford is a New Haven suburb with 22,000 residents. Freeman stated that the district's efforts to address equity and race have intensified following last year's controversy over the mascot (now the Grizzlies) and the 2019 episode in blackface at a Hartford-based game. He said that students and young alumni urged the school system not to ignore topics such as race and equity, so that graduates don't feel safe.
Opponents criticised Freeman's decision to require administrators to read "White Fragility" and why it is so difficult for white people to talk about racism. One national group, No Left Turn in Education organized a Guilford forum in June on what they consider to be the threat to critical race theory.
Danielle Scarpellino (one of five candidates on the slate opposing critical race theory) stated in a July appearance on Fox & Friends First that it was the district leaders who introduced politics into schools and said students were being "used as political pawns." Interview requests from The Associated Press were not returned by any of the candidates.
Tim Chamberlain, another candidate, stated on a campaign site that his child's teachers "tried to persuade" him to change his conservative view during discussions of topics such as global warming and affirmative action.
Democratic and independent candidates joined hands to oppose the anti-critical race theory slate. Kristy Faulkner is a molecular biologist, and zoning board member. She said that she joined the race after hearing negative remarks about equity and inclusion from her rivals.
She expressed concern that, if they win, there will not be any compromise with the current school board members.
She said, "I'm only imagining basically a total meltdown in productivity on the board."
Although it is not clear how many of the thousands in U.S. school board races are made up of agenda-driven newcomers there are plenty of examples all over the country.
According to the Ohio School Boards Association, Ohio's number of school board candidates is up 50% over four years. Nearly half of the 2,600 candidates for school board are political newcomers. This includes many who have been angered by critical race theory.
Three seats are up for grabs on the Chagrin Falls school board. This is a suburb in Cleveland where some parents object to racial inclusion policies. A conservative slate running in Rocky River is taking aim at critical racism and running under the slogan "Education, not activism".
Some candidates are questioning diversity and inclusion in communities where mask mandates attract the most attention, such as Dover, New Hampshire. Dover's newcomers have stated that diversity discussions should go beyond race and one candidate has criticized critical race theory.
Kathleen Balestracci (Democrat) is Guilford's chair of the nine-member school board. She said equity and inclusion initiatives were important work students and members of the community asked for. Balestracci is not running for reelection. She said that she often hears from parents asking for clarification on policies over her 10 years of service on the board, but nothing like the recent tenseness.
Balestracci, a Yale School of Medicine research faculty member, said, "I don’t think I’ve ever experienced a situation where we have fully explained what we’re trying do and the approach that we’re trying to take, and then have the response being, 'You’re lying.'"