Many of Iowa’s school board races in November are shaping up to be unusually hyper-partisan contests, with far-right candidates challenging incumbents over masking policies and the teaching of American history. In several high-profile cases, they’re being publicly backed by local fringe activists and groups who often promote disinformation about COVID, among other topics.
In Ankeny, a Des Moines suburb, school board candidate Sarah Barthole has the backing of Emily Peterson and Kimberly Reicks, two Ankeny anti-mask leaders who have become known as “Mama Bears” in far-right circles. Members of their local movement of parents and community members last night heckled pro-mask speakers at a school board meeting, while one well-known Q-Anon supporter blatantly threatened the board members. Gov. Kim Reynolds has also publicly endorsed Barthole.
But what happens if these new local activists, many of whom are—whether themselves or their supporter base—engulfed in online conspiracy theories, win?
One such scenario is playing out in Rapid City, South Dakota, which the National Review noted could serve as an example for the rest of the country.
When local journalist Abby Wargo took over the education beat at the Rapid City Journal in February, school board meetings were sparsely attended and she was often the only reporter there.
During her final school board meeting on Sept. 7, outlets from across South Dakota covered the contentious gathering. It was also at that meeting where the 5-foot-2 reporter was surrounded by a crowd of anti-COVID-protection protestors who yelled at her until she left when she tried to ask them questions.
Shaken up, Wargo was later escorted to a balcony so she could cover the meeting.
“I knew it wasn’t going to go well, but I was like I have to try; that’s my job as a journalist,” Wargo said, noting those same people later complained their side wasn’t shared in the eventual story.
Much of the vitriol aimed at Wargo was due to her in-depth reporting on the new makeup of the seven-person Rapid City School Board, which features five members who didn’t like how the district handled COVID last school year.
Since the new board was installed on July 26, the district has drastically reduced its COVID mitigation efforts.
The board members who led that charge—including board president Kate Thomas—are vehemently against masking.
Thomas and other board members elected over the summer ran on anti-COVID-protection platforms, such as anti-mask mandates, no social distancing, no quarantining after exposure, and more. They also promoted better transparency and protecting students’ and parents’ rights.
Thomas and company also received financial support from right-wing political action committees and worked as a coalition in everything but name.
“They all campaigned together, and if one person had their signs in their yard, they would have all four of those signs,” Wargo said. “They basically took ahold of the discontent some parents in the school system were feeling with all of the COVID regulations the school district was putting in.”
This playbook is similar to the one a number of extreme conservative Iowa school board candidates are rolling out.
During her first board meeting, Deb Baker wanted to remove “health” as a reason for school closures in Rapid City, but the district’s superintendent talked her down by noting health closures didn’t apply only to COVID.
However, the new board was successful in August in implementing a new COVID plan that prevented the district from performing contract tracing and asking students to quarantine; changed mask guidelines from recommended to voluntary; removed health screening; made hand sanitizer optional; and eliminated social distancing, among others.
When that plan was approved, the district had 44 students and staff infected with COVID-19 while 80 students and staff were in quarantine. On the day of the meeting during which Wargo was surrounded, there were 35 staff COVID cases and 254 student cases, with 47 staff and 560 students in quarantine.
Wargo has chronicled the entire board transition, which has made her a target for the supporters of the anti-COVID mitigation school board members. She’s been the subject of numerous derogatory posts in the Rapid City Students 1st Facebook Group, which bills itself as “an advocacy group to ensure children of Rapid City have a science-based voice of reason looking out for their education.”
The 23-year-old Maryland native was unaware of what was happening in the group until friends told her about it. Posts have included calls for her to be fired with the contact information for her direct editor, her paper’s publisher, and her regional editor listed.
Another critique was that she must be liberal because she has pink hair.
“I know people give me weird looks because it’s South Dakota, that’s fine,” Wargo said. “But then as I was thinking about it a little more, I was like, this [is] kind of a concerted effort to target me as a person. Now everyone in that group knows what I look like and knows who I am, therefore, they can pick me out at meetings—single me out like what they did [last] Tuesday.
“I was unfortunately right about that assumption.”
Besides ending COVID mitigation strategies, the board is attempting to rewrite many other district policies, and implemented a policy to “not allow media members to have special access to board members.”
Wargo was amused by the formalization of the limited-media access policy. She said most board members never returned her phone calls anyway, even though transparency was mentioned throughout the campaigns of some of the newer members.
“I did a story two weeks ago on the board agenda for last week’s meeting because I had so many parents and teachers reaching out to me about the items on the agenda,” Wargo said. “I obviously reached out to all the board members about it—and other people have, too—but they’ve just shut down and they don’t respond to anyone anymore.
“There’s no transparency for the media, but there’s also no transparency for the people they claimed they were representing in the first place.”
Wargo, who announced she was leaving the Rapid City Journal before she was confronted for doing her job, offers this advice to Iowans as the school board election date nears: vote.
“I’ve been on this beat for months now, and only now people in the wider community are starting to notice because the new board has already been seated and is starting to make these detrimental changes,” Wargo said.
“Do you want to wait and see what happens like, ‘Oh, maybe they won’t be terrible,’ or do you just not want to take that chance and get it right from the get-go? How bad can it be? You should always answer that question with the worst possible answer and vote accordingly.”
by Ty Rushing