I never paid attention to school board elections before I had children in school.
My apathy had plenty of company.
In St. Louis County, off-cycle municipal elections might draw anywhere from 10% to 20% of eligible voters. The National School Boards Association cites even bleaker turnout rates: as low as 5% to 10% in several areas.
This means that a tiny sliver of Americans elect the people responsible for educating the majority of our citizens.
Before I had kids in public schools, I assumed these elections didn't really affect my life.
Oh, what a sweet summer child I was.
I had covered dozens of school board meetings as a young reporter 20 years ago, and they could never be described as riveting entertainment. In recent years, however, local school boards have become battlegrounds for partisans more interested in fighting culture wars than balancing school budgets.
The Washington Post recently reported that the violent rhetoric of once-fringe movements has now seeped into the Republican mainstream. The article cited a 2022 Anti-Defamation League report, which documented more than 100 candidates in local and state races who expressed extremist views -- including at least a dozen with documented connections to far-right militant groups.
These are the people who decide what books children in your community can read, what they will learn about our country's past (and present), and how they should treat others. They see school board races as the easiest infiltration point, and for good reason.
In a review of school board election statistics from 2014 to 2016 in the country's 1,000 largest school districts, Ballotpedia found that between 32% and 36% of school board candidates ran unopposed each year. And between 81% and 83% of incumbents who sought reelection won.
A former candidate in our district referred to herself as a "Confederate" on a social media profile. But even when a candidate isn't sharing racist memes on Facebook or Twitter, troubling digital footprints can come to light.
For example, Ryan Kerr, 39, of Ballwin, Missouri, is one of seven people running for three spots on the board for the Parkway district, which serves almost 17,000 students in the St. Louis suburbs. In 2016, Kerr recorded a four-minute profane, unhinged monologue in which he calls an unnamed Asian woman "panda," uses derogatory slurs, references lewd acts and swears dozens of times. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote about the video, which surfaced during the campaign, and about Kerr's apology once it became public.
In his apology, Kerr said he was drunk during the incident, and that afterward, he enrolled in "voluntary cultural diversity, equity and inclusion programs" where he "fell in love with Asian history and culture."
"This was a very isolated and targeted event, intoxicated, and immediately following (a) false allegation of assaulting a female," Kerr said in a written statement. "It wasn't right regardless and there weren't any excuses. I apologized very publicly, privately, and sought a counselor."
I'm glad Kerr recognized that his behavior -- as a 30-something adult at the time -- was unacceptable, and apologized for it. But his past adult behavior does make me question if he has the temperament and judgment needed by an elected official responsible for making decisions affecting thousands of children. It's also concerning that a person who admits to benefiting greatly from a diversity, equity and inclusion program states on his public candidate profile that one of the reasons he's running for the board is because of his belief in "diversity based on opinion and life experience over skin color."
It seems students don't deserve a chance to "fall in love" with other cultures the same way Kerr says he did.
The reality is that the impact and influence of school board elections goes far beyond just the children in that district. If the schools for the majority of children in this country are controlled by extremists or unhinged board members, it affects all of us.
Within a month, I'll again be part of the demographic that doesn't have children in local public schools. Both of our kids, who received 12 years of outstanding public school education, will be in college in the fall.
But I don't plan to miss a school board election ever again.