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Political endorsements, controversial cultural issues punctuate Northeast Ohio school board races

On top, left to right, Mirona Florian and Mike Telep, candidates for North Royalton Board of Education who are running on a ticket that expresses concerns about instruction around race in the
Photos courtesy of campaigns
The contest for North Royalton school board has been one of the more contentious races in Northeast Ohio. On top, left to right, Mirona Florian and Mike Telep, candidates for North Royalton Board of Education who are running on a ticket together. Below, North Royalton school board candidates Christian May, John Higgins and Jackie Arendt who are running their own ticket.

While Ohio’s school board races are nonpartisan, with no “D” or “R” next to candidates’ names on the ballot, elections in North Royalton, Mentor and elsewhere in Northeast Ohio this year have been fraught with controversial political and cultural issues.

Additionally, several conservative political organizations have endorsed candidates and even paid for mailers, while conservative state and local politicians have endorsed candidates in Northeast Ohio as well.

The candidates endorsed by these groups and politicians say they believe schools are ignoring parents’ rights around how their children are educated and have staked out various claims: that schools are indoctrinating students to liberal ideologies, that they should remove sexually explicit and other offensive content in their libraries and that they are teaching critical race theory.

Mike Telep, a lawyer in North Royalton who is running for one of three open seats on the North Royalton Board of Education, is running a campaign that heavily focuses on concerns about critical race theory and anti-racist philosophy creeping into curriculum, at the expense of the quality of education in the district. His website argues that schools are teaching white students to feel guilty for their race.

The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund defines critical race theory as an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society. It has become a hot button issue, with people flooding school board meetings in recent years to complain, despite districts maintaining it’s not part of their curriculum in Ohio.

Telep himself says he’s not sure if it’s actually being taught in North Royalton’s classrooms; he says parents don’t have a good window into what’s going on in the classroom since online learning ended through the pandemic.

"They're doing this in school systems in this country, particularly out West and other places," he said. "So we want to make sure that stays out. It has no place here."

Telep, whose daughter graduated from North Royalton, is part of a ticket with Mirona Florian, a local mom of four who sends her children to private schools. They’ve been endorsed by Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, which is prominently featured on mailers that have been sent out to North Royalton homes by the 1776 Project PAC, a national political action committee that raised almost $3.5 million in the last election cycle to support conservative school board candidates opposed to critical race theory.

Telep and Florian’s opponents include a three-person ticket: former North Royalton Board of Education Chair Jackie Arendt; John Higgins, an IT professional and parent of two North Royalton students; and Christina May, a former business owner and parent of two recent graduates. There are six candidates total running for three open seats. The final candidate is Jim Confer.

While Arendt, Higgins and May's ticket has mixed political leanings with two registered Republicans and one Democrat, Higgins says they’re united as an apolitical ticket focused solely on the business of operating the district.

“I was reached out to by the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County,” he said. “They asked me if I wanted sponsorship. I declined to attend any of those meetings because it's a nonpartisan race.”

Newspaper ads taken out by Telep and Florian’s campaign committee accuse their opponents of being against parents’ rights, in favor of “withholding information from parents about a child’s transgender ‘perceptions’” and promoting “Marxist school curricula."

Arendt in response called that “inflammatory wording,” based off a position statement she supported as past president of the Ohio PTA, which advocated against several bills in the Ohio Legislature. That includes HB 454, which proposes a mandate for teachers to notify parents if a student is experiencing gender dysphoria, distress resulting from feeling like one's gender identity does not match one's sex assigned at birth, and bars gender-affirming care for young people.

"We condemn any legislative efforts that do not support and care for LGBTQIA+ youth or silences important conversations about sexual orientation, gender identity, systemic racism, anti-racism, or diversity, equity, and inclusion," the PTA wrote in its statement.

Higgins said Telep and Florian are trafficking in misinformation to encourage people to vote out of “fear.”

“I'm not really sure where parental rights have been taken away," Higgins said. "I've only noticed an abundance of information being provided to me as a parent in our district.”

A distraction?

Lauren Marchaza, a first-time board of education candidate for Mentor Public Schools, said she was inspired to run after watching board meetings become overly “chaotic” since the pandemic, with dozens of parents showing up angry about issues running the gamut from masking to the content of books in the library.

I feel very strongly that over the last couple of years, we’ve at our school board meetings spent an incredible, like way too much, time on controversial topics and the stuff of culture wars,” she said. “And I feel that it is a terrible distraction from the real issues, The real issues as a parent that I have observed, have been things like our bus driver shortage, classroom sizes.”

Vladimir Kogan, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, is currently writing a book called No Adult Left Behind, about the tension between education policy dictated by adults, versus what students actually need. His research suggests that in the wake of major controversial incidents that consume a district and its board meetings, students see a small but significant decline in some academic performance measures.

“Every minute and every dollar that you spend arguing about critical race theory or arguing about LGBT issues is a dollar and minute that you're not spending improving your math and reading curriculum,” Kogan said. “It's a dollar and minute spent not improving your teacher instruction.”

Kogan said that while it might seem like politicization of education and school boards is a recent phenomenon, it can be traced back decades. For example, pro-temperance politicians pushed states to enact curricula teaching the harms of alcohol in the years leading up to prohibition in the U.S.

However, what's changed in recent years is these conflicts are falling more along national-level "partisan divides," Kogan said.

Suburban Mentor and North Royalton schools have long received high marks on Ohio's annual report card, with North Royalton in particular receiving five out five stars in almost every category this year.

Gil Martello, a parent of a Mentor High School student and a senior engineer at a local parts manufacturer, is also running for the school board in Mentor. Martello, a self-identified conservative, said he’s running a campaign focused on school safety, fiscal responsibility and academics. Lauren Marchaza said she's focused on similar issues.

But Martello, who's on a ticket with fellow candidate Rose Ioppolo, also takes stances on hot-button topics. On their website, Ioppolo and Martello argue bathrooms and locker rooms use should be "based on the biological sex of the individual," and that the district must prevent “sexually explicit content” from entering schools.

Martello argues a course correction is needed to preserve a strong public school system; he said his perception is the district is getting involved in matters of “morality.”

"The population is aging," he said. "So I want to protect the enrollment and I want to grow the enrollment. Now, to do this, you have to have mass appeal. You know, the school system has to appeal to everybody across the demographic kaleidoscope."

Martello and Ioppolo are endorsed by the Lake County Republican Party as well as statewide Republicans like Frank LaRose and State Senator Jerry Cirino, as well as the national 1776 PAC. Marchaza, meanwhile, says she has not accepted any political endorsements.

"This is not a position where we only serve a section of constituents," she said. "We have to serve everybody. So that's why my approach has been very nonpartisan."

There are a total of five candidates running for the two open seats in Mentor. The other two are Christine Henninger and Lyndsie Wall.

Battles over books, and education philosophy

Several books have been challenged in Mentor in recent months, including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Martello cited that book, which has a graphic depiction of incestual sexual assault, as inappropriate for children.

“We’re not going to ban books,” he argued. “That is an incorrect term. What we're advocating for are age appropriate (books).”

Other books challenged in the district, according to a post on board of education member Annie Payne’s Facebook page, include two books about gender and sexuality from the perspective of transgender people and a biography about Colin Kaepernick.

Ralph Case, who owns a general contracting company, is running as a first-time candidate for the Plain Local Schools Board of Education in Stark County. He's one of five people running for two open seats, a race which includes incumbents Eugene M. Cazantzes and Monica Rose Gwin as well as Deb Lea and Dan Wales. Case, a conservative, contended he’s successfully gotten books removed from his son’s school, although Plain schools officials didn't respond to a request for comment on that assertion.

"I actually brought it to the attention of the... assistant superintendent, and he actually found two of them (allegedly explicit books) in my son's school," he said. "And he told me he removed those."

Case is one of nine candidates in Stark County endorsed by the national political group, Moms for Liberty. It has been identified as an “extremist group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, advocating for book bans and restrictions on teachings about race, gender and sexuality.

Case says he believes schools are indirectly “piecemealing” lessons on critical race theory and gender identity into instruction, while getting involved in things they shouldn’t, like providing healthcare and mental health supports.

He said he views his campaign as a battle for the soul of public education; he said schools should simply focus on the core of instruction.

In North Royalton, candidate John Higgins said teachers are focused on that. But also, they’ve come to realize that “we all don’t come from the same place.”

“Some people don't get a good meal before school,” he said. “Some people live in, you know, different family environments where they might not have the same resources as others, along with socioeconomic disparities. When when they come to school, we need to give them the opportunity to succeed no matter what their starting point is.”

Higgins noted that social-emotional learning – a research-backed focus on helping students manage emotions, which acknowledges their differences - and other supports for students has been unfairly demonized by those supported by groups like Moms for Liberty.

“Not many kids stay in their same hometown the rest of their life,” he said. “They're going to meet different people from different backgrounds. We want them to have that advantage where they understand what happens in the real world.”

Despite their differences, all of the candidates interviewed for this story in Mentor, North Royalton and at Plain schools had some similarities in key priority areas: a desire for safe schools, strong academics and fiscally responsible leadership.

Corrected: October 30, 2023 at 1:45 PM EDT
North Royalton school board candidate Mirona Florian sends her children to private schools. She does not homeschool them as was originally reported.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.