Per pupil funding has increased dramatically but less than 50 percent of students can read or do math at grade level. It is simply a matter of priorities.
– Cristine Trooien, executive director of the Minnesota Parents Alliance
By Eden Campuzano
Minnesota’s suburban school board races are seeing more money than ever as the culture wars once again dominate campaigns and outside groups lobby on behalf of candidates in several districts.
Campaign finance records for this year’s election show that candidates and political action committees in the state’s five largest suburban districts had spent more than $336,000 as of Monday. That’s 50% more than at this time during the 2021 election cycle, which was already far more expensive than others.
Candidates and activists say the surge in spending is a continuation of the intense debate over social issues and how to raise sagging academic achievement in the wake of the pandemic.
While liberal candidates say districts should bolster their diversity and inclusion efforts, particularly for LGBTQ students, their conservative counterparts argue for cuts to those programs.
“Per pupil funding has increased dramatically but less than 50 percent of students can read or do math at grade level,” said Cristine Trooien, executive director of the Minnesota Parents Alliance. “It is simply a matter of priorities.”
Many of the candidates endorsed by the Minnesota Parents Alliance bristle at school districts’ inclusion initiatives. Trooien said districts would do better to adopt zero-tolerance policies for discrimination rather than spend time and money on equity training for educators.
“There is a finite number of hours in the school day for academic instruction and a finite amount of dollars in districts’ budgets,” she said. “Achievement-focused candidates are advocating for refocusing teaching time and funding toward initiatives that effectively and efficiently close the achievement gap.”
That campaign rhetoric spurred Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, to launch its own get-out-the-vote effort on social media.
“The amount of money spent already this year by anti-union groups that don’t share our values was worrying,” union president Denise Specht said in a statement. “Our union had to respond because we want to make sure every single student has access to a school that will prepare them to pursue their dreams, no exceptions.”
Political action committees lead spending
Political action committees set up by organizations such as the Minnesota Parents Alliance and Education Minnesota are the biggest spenders in three of the five largest suburban districts.
The Minnesota Parents Alliance has spent nearly $49,000 across the Anoka-Hennepin, Rosemount, South Washington County and Mounds View districts. Another, similar organization, the Anoka-Hennepin Parents Alliance, spent more than $30,000 in just that district — with much of it coming from one Andover donor.
Mary Ann Nystrom, who founded a chain of behavioral health clinics with her husband, is the largest individual donor to any committee in the state’s five largest suburbs. She did not return calls for comment.
Individual donors may only contribute $600 to a candidate’s campaign during an election year, or $1,000 if the voting district’s population is more than 100,000, according to Minnesota state law. But there’s no cap on how much a person can contribute to a political action committee.
Education Minnesota has spent nearly $85,000 in the Anoka-Hennepin, South Washington County and Rosemount districts. Education Minnesota spokesman Chris Williams said the union is attempting to juice turnout on the belief that most voters disagree with the conservative movement to restrict inclusion and equity initiatives.
“The general strategy is that higher turnout races are going to turn out candidates who appeal to a broader base,” Williams said.
Trooien is also banking on a high voter turnout working in the Minnesota Parents Alliance’s favor.
“We are just working hard to make sure that adults who are concerned about the dramatic declines in our public education system show up to vote for achievement-focused leadership who will prioritize closing the achievement gap over Education Minnesota’s political agenda,” Trooien said.
Anoka-Hennepin School Board Member Erin Heers-McArdle spent just over $9,000 when she won her seat in 2019. That was an unheard-of sum back then, and McArdle justified the expense by explaining that she was trying to unseat a 20-year incumbent.
This cycle, Heers-McArdle has spent more than $8,600. She’s spent more than $3,400 on digital advertisements and mailers.
Her opponent, Linda Hoekman, has spent $10,529, more than $8,000 of it on advertising. Hoekman wasn’t sure how much money she’d need when she announced her run. Navigating the campaign finance system has been a learning experience.
“I’m just a teacher,” she said. “All of this is new to me.”
But dollars don’t always translate into votes.
“Money can only get you so far at the end of the day,” Heers-McArdle said.
Wayzata bucks the trend
But in some districts, election expenses are lower than the last cycle.
One of those is Wayzata, the fifth-largest suburban district electing board members on Tuesday. Through Monday, reports showed just $9,834 in campaign expenses in that district, with all of that coming from individual candidates’ efforts.
No political action committees had reported spending in the Wayzata races.
Plus, the races there have attracted fewer candidates. There are six people running for four seats, compared with 13 candidate for three seats two years ago.