Waukee Candidates Bring National Politics, Polarization To School Board Races

Graphic by Keith Warther

When the Waukee Community School District implemented an equity standard last year, it passed with little pushback. This year, however, it has become a target as part of a national wave of anti-critical race theory (CRT) candidates’ runs for school board.

In Waukee, Morgan Hughes, Andrea Lawrence, Vin Thaker, and Jeff Rubino are running on an anti-CRT platform and are backed by Warriors & Wolves United, a political action committee (PAC) led by Jeff Rubino’s wife, Tami.

The problem? Critical race theory, often a subject taught in law schools, is not a subject taught in Waukee.

Waukee Community School District Spokesperson Amy Varcoe noted that not only is critical race theory not being taught in the district’s 15 schools, but it is against the law in Iowa following the passage of HF 802, commonly called the divisive concepts law.

The equity standard was a major talking point during a few Waukee School Board meetings over the summer, with people who support the standard and those opposed to it making their respective cases during public comment.

“While they may not be perfect, I also want to point out that this board passed them without any significant objection to the purpose, intention, or context in which they are written,” said Waukee parent Derek Hoy said at the Aug. 9 meeting while wearing a T-shirt adorned with the words “Equity,” “Diversity,” “Justice,” and “Action,” the four pillars of Waukee’s equity standards.

“In my opinion, it feels like some of the newfound opposition to the standards is letting political views sway our judgment.”

Hoy is not off-base in his assessment: Opposition to critical race theory and COVID-protection measures act as rallying calls to elect far-right school board candidates across the country.

The gameplan

A former aide to Donald Trump created a literal playbook for people to run for school board on the grounds of opposing critical race theory—which is not taught in K-12 public schools—and it is being run to perfection in Waukee.

Formally launched on Aug. 30, Warriors & Wolves United—named after the Waukee Community School District’s two high school mascots—the PAC calls itself a nonpartisan grassroots organization that “is on a mission to defend our public schools from the movement across our country to teach harmful, political ideology in our schools.”

A Warriors & Wolves United video also claims the Waukee School District, which has more than 12,000 students and is the seventh-largest in Iowa, is trying to indoctrinate students into Marxist beliefs, another easily refutable claim.

“Marxism would only be covered as applicable within a social studies class as part of the social studies curriculum,” Varcoe said.

Some other tenets of the Warriors & Wolves United platform—besides opposition to critical race theory—include parental choice, transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility.

Similarly, the strategy and language used by Warriors & Wolves United resemble the language in a 34-page PDF titled “Combatting Critical Race Theory In Your Community: An A to Z Guide on How to Stop Critical Race Theory And Reclaim Your Local School Board.”

The guide was put together by Citizens For Renewing America, a right-wing advocacy group founded by Russell Vought, Donald Trump’s former budget advisor. The organization’s other priorities include taking on Big Tech, banning COVID-19 vaccine passports, securing the border, and election integrity, all of which are regular conservative political talking points.

“Combatting Critical Race Theory In Your Community” offers a guide on how candidates and their supporters can run a successful school board campaign, including tips on everything from how to write a press release to using social media to securing financial support. It also advises against speaking to “hostile media or social media mavens” to avoid creating a “process story.”

Funding

Should it prove successful on Nov. 2, Warriors & Wolves United could be held up as a textbook example for Citizens For Renewing America. The PAC is polished, well-organized, and appears to be well-funded, although it won’t disclose its finances until five days before the election.

When questioned about the origins of its funding and operations, Warriors & Wolves United put out two statements.

In a Sept. 26 press release, Warriors & Wolves United said it has received offers of financial help from political organizations but declined them. The PAC said its funding has come from 60 individuals who have made donations ranging from $10 to $500.

Warriors & Wolves chair Tami Rubino of Urbandale provided another update on the group’s Facebook page on Oct. 8 after a direct challenge from the Polk County Democrats. Rubino said she runs the PAC’s website and marketing and works with seven or eight other people for other aspects of the campaign.

Rubino also provided a financial update. At the time, she said 105 individuals averaged $90 in donations to the PAC. That comes out to $9,450, which is more money than current board members David Cunningham, Lori Lyon, Wendy Marsh, and Alex Smith have spent combined in races dating back to 2013.

The Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosures Board only has one other PAC on record in connection with the Waukee Community School District. That PAC, Waukee Citizens for Excellence in Education, was formed to support a 2008 bond referendum and collected $1,500 from two donors.

Background

There are groups similar to Citizens For Renewing America providing templates for right-wing school board candidates to utilize, including Parents Defending Education, No Left Turn in Education, and the 1776 Project, all of which Popular Information was able to trace back to Koch family-funded conservative operators.

The Waukee Community School District adopted its equity standards on Aug. 10, 2020, but most of the complaints to the school board started after May 2021, according to board minutes reviewed by Iowa Starting Line. Furthermore, the equity standard implementation came a year after an internal committee of staff, administration, students and families, began developing them, although a Warriors & Wolves United video ties it to the murder of George Floyd and the social justice movement that followed.

Warriors & Wolves United Chair Tami Rubio agreed to an interview with Iowa Starting Line, but did not answer her phone during the agreed-upon time nor did she return the call.

Ryan Glick of Clive serves as treasurer of Warriors & Wolves United. Glick is the co-founder and co-owner of Pixelayn, a web-services business that helps companies with social media and creating websites.

A voicemail left for Glick at Pixelayn’s business number has gone unreturned.

The Race

Warriors & Wolves United endorsed four school board candidates—Morgan Hughes, Andrea Lawrence, Vin Thaker, and Jeff Rubino, husband of PAC Chair Tami Rubino—each of whom is challenging a candidate endorsed by the Waukee Education Association (WEA), the collective bargaining unit that represents teachers there.

The WEA’s approved candidates are Lori Lyon, Armel R. Traore dit Nignan, Michael Schrodt, and Jaime Secory.

Critics of the PAC have pointed out that many of its advocates and some of the candidates are open supporters of former President Trump, even though Warriors & Wolves United considers itself nonpartisan.

Thaker, for instance, has used his campaign Facebook page to share posts from conservative rabble-rouser Ben Shapiro and express his opposition to mask and vaccine mandates. He also started using #MEGA—Make Education Great Again—as a sign-off on some of his posts.

“Combatting Critical Race Theory In Your Community” stresses that candidates and groups should present themselves as nonpartisan because it views stopping critical race theory—which, again, is not a subject taught in Waukee schools—as a bipartisan issue.

Accusations

Warriors & Wolves United’s website is filled with criticisms and accusations against the district and district personnel. In October, the PAC mailed out a twopage document outlining some of those grievances.

In one instance, Warriors & Wolves United claims a teacher told students “all white people are racist.” Varcoe, the Waukee spokesperson, refuted this.

“No, this was a concern that was raised last school year, and following an investigation at WHS was found to not have occurred,” she said.

All four Warriors & Wolves United-endorsed candidates have questioned the district’s transparency. Varcoe noted Waukee communicates with parents and students in a variety of ways.

“It has been a top priority to continue to keep our stakeholders informed and engaged,” she said. “Our district uses many modes and channels to communicate, including; email, social media, text messages, website, board meetings and minutes from meetings, and videos. Pre-COVID and in our current reality, our district transitioned to 1:1 devices to ensure each student would have access to a device to keep them engaged and informed.”

Varcoe also noted the district is not trying to hide things from the public nor mastermind strategic cover-ups for the sake of protecting its equity standards from scrutiny over “comments or actions” that did not occur or paint a different story from the reality of what happened.

“When they have occurred, they have been taken seriously and there has been appropriate follow-up and, at times, discipline,” she said. “What would not happen is a release of information regarding the results of the investigation, as personnel situations are confidential under the law.

“Some families have raised the concern that this lack of reporting about ‘what happened when a concern was raised’ shows a lack of transparency or that things are being ‘swept under the rug.’ Rather, all concerns that are raised are investigated and actions are taken in response, as the situation dictates.”

 

by Ty Rushing
10/19/21

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