Passion, and partisanship, fueling interest in school board races
When Ryan Curry first campaigned to represent District 4 on the Lubbock Independent School District’s Board of Trustees, he won unopposed.
That’s not the case this year in what has become a contentious election. School board races are supposed to be nonpartisan. But there’s an unmistakable political bent this election.
“If the folks in my community don't value what I've done, and they have a different idea, then so be it,” Curry said. “I believe that everybody has the opportunity to run.”
The conservative businessman said he is running for a second term on the board because he is a longtime volunteer in the district and is proud of the work they have done, especially during the pandemic. Lubbock ISD returned to in-person classes in the fall of 2020 and masks have been optional on campuses since August 2021.
For the first time in several cycles, three incumbents on the ballot are challenged by first-time candidates, including Curry. He said while he has not seen much mudslinging from actual candidates, this election cycle has been less civil in the community.
“Whether I agree or disagree with my opponent, I give her credit for standing in the ring,” Curry said. “It's not fun, it's not easy.”
That’s something his opponent Bethany Luna is learning firsthand.
“I've gotten to meet some really cool people,” she said. “There's also been a lot of really ugly things.”
Those have included false and homophobic allegations. Luna is a lesbian and said she is not political. Still, she said she has been criticized by both major parties, both in public at candidate events and in private messages sent to her personal social media accounts.
Luna’s a therapist, and her top campaign priority is improving mental health for the district’s kids and teachers.
“I just want to help kids,” she said. “Can we stop all the drama and let's just talk to voters about what I believe and what Mr. Curry believes? And then let them decide?”
But education issues are a hot political topic right now, especially in Texas. School board meetings nationwide became viral, politically-charged battlegrounds during the pandemic. Much of the tension has now moved from concerns about COVID to debates about what’s being taught in classrooms.
Because of these cultural clashes, Texas Tech University Political Science Professor Zoe Nemerever said it’s not surprising partisanship has infiltrated this year’s school board races.
“National Republicans are talking about CRT, and bathrooms, and transgender sports participation,” Nemerever said. “But it was probably something, as our politics have become more and more partisan over the past several decades, that this was inevitable anyway.”
She said most people interested in running for office hold strong beliefs. Just because an election is supposed to be nonpartisan doesn’t mean it will be.
“Nonpartisanship, aside from maybe something like a dog catcher, truly, I would venture to say probably does not exist,” Nemerever said.
Lubbock’s also seeing that play out in political action committees.
The 4 West Texas PAC has endorsed the three incumbent candidates they say are conservative, like Curry. The other two incumbents are Jason Ratliff and Beth Bridges. The PAC sent an email to supporters emphasizing the incumbents' votes to end mask mandates in schools. The email also states a need to fight a “progessive, liberal agenda” that they claim is being pushed on children.
Jody Ehlers is part of the 4 West Texas PAC. In his opinion, the incumbents have proven themselves.
“They've gone through the last two years, which is probably some of the most tumultuous and hard times we've faced in this country,” he said. “And I think that the incumbents have done a pretty good job considering that factor.”
Another group — The Every Child Every Day PAC — has endorsed the three first-time candidates, including Luna, because of the diversity and skills they’d bring to the board. They’re also endorsing Angelina Mojica and Jason Rinaldo. While Every Child emphasizes nonpartisanship, it’s largely being perceived as a liberal group.
Sarai Brinker is one of the PAC’s founders.
“We need to get some other people in there with some new skills, with some new ideas,” Brinker said. “Because what's going on currently isn't helping to improve the situation. So it's time for some new ideas, fresh perspectives and a more well-rounded team.”
All this attention may increase turnout. School board races usually see fewer voters. Nemerever, the Texas Tech political scientist, says the kind of people who do show up have strong motivations.
“Parents will do anything for their children,” Nemerever said. “Even something as boring as learning about school board elections and figuring out when those elections are held.”
Early voting for the election starts Monday and continues through May 3. Election Day is May 7. See if your school board district representative is on the ballot this year by looking at a preview ballot on the Lubbock County Elections Office website.
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Have a news tip? Email Sarah Self-Walbrick at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her reporting on Twitter @SarahFromTTUPM.