School board elections will be an early test of what issues motivate voters05:58

A campaign sign for a slate of candidates challenging three incumbent board members in Centerville, Ohio. If they win, they would control the five member board. It is a non-partisan position, but national political hot buttons have infused the race. (Tamara Keith/NPR)
A campaign sign for a slate of candidates challenging three incumbent board members in Centerville, Ohio. If they win, they would control the five member board. It is a non-partisan position, but national political hot buttons have infused the race. (Tamara Keith/NPR)
Updated October 20, 2021 at 10:55 AM ET

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.

Lysa Kosins, one of the candidates challenging the incumbents for the Centerville school board, meets with voters at a local ice cream shop. (Mawa Iqbal/WYSO)

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.

Dr. David Roer and Megan Murray Sparks, incumbent members of the Centerville school board. They have been alarmed by anger and threats. (Tamara Keith/NPR)

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.

Javier Mata was surprised when a school board campaign sign prompted complaints from some customers, who threatened to boycott. (Tamara Keith/NPR)

This isn't the norm for school board races in Centerville, which fall during off years, when candidates for president and Congress aren't on the ballot. They typically fly under the radar, with low voter turnout and little controversy. In fact, an NPR review of Ohio voting records finds the challengers did not vote the last school board election in 2019.

They volunteered in their children's classrooms and sports teams, but they say the pandemic and frustration with school closures is what got them engaged in the work of the school board. Schultz said they felt like they had to run because the current board wasn't listening.

"We absolutely respect a parent's right to put a mask on their child, or not," she said. "If you want to send your kid in a mask or have them get any vaccine of any kind, that is your decision. And as a board member we will not make that decision for you. We will respect yours."

The slate of challengers also opposes diversity education, writing on their campaign website that they will not allow any curriculum taught in the schools that "pretend to be about 'diversity and inclusion,' but advocate for the utilization of racial discrimination to achieve 'antiracist' ends."

Many Republicans see a winning issue. Others are skeptical

This is another flashpoint in the culture wars of the moment, intense debates in which national issues have crept into even the most local of races.

What happens in races like the one in Centerville this fall may provide a sense of whether this is a real groundswell of concern among parents or whether it is coming a vocal minority.

Many Republicans see opportunity here for races higher up the ballot next year and beyond. As an example, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has made school fights a centerpiece of his campaign.

A candidate running in the Republican primary for the open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio showed up last week to a school board meeting saying he was there to speak up for parents, a political stunt that got attention after he was escorted out by police.

Emily Smith, Erin Ruef, Emily Denlinger and Bonnie Smith have kids in the Centerville schools. Concerned with the chaos and division, they are now working to get the incumbents re-elected. (Tamara Keith/NPR)

But Republican pollster Christine Matthews, who spends a lot of time doing focus groups with suburban women, isn't convinced this strategy will work for the GOP.

"This is not something that's going to bring a swing suburban mom into the fold," said Matthews, who is president of Bellwether Research. "In fact, what swing women tell me that they hate almost more than anything right now is the division between people in our country, the fights."

She said it excites Republican base voters but for independent voters needed to win elections, this could actually cause a backlash to all the chaos. Unlike a presidential election, where the candidates are distant and the stakes abstract, with school boards, people's kids are involved and school board members are trusted members of the community.

There were some early signs of backlash in Centerville, where a group of moms have gotten together, united by their frustration with the fights. Most of them haven't been active in politics before — but now they're working to get the slate of incumbents reelected to the school board.

"We are a top-performing district," said Bonnie Smith. "We are a reasonable community. And to create this friction and this chaos is inappropriate and personal."

Additional reporting for this story was contributed by WYSO's Chris Welter and Mawa Iqbal and NPR's Lexie Schapitl.

Copyright NPR 2022.