Six districts where right-wing candidates are bringing culture war to school board

Gov. Kim Reynolds in her private office with Iowa Moms for Liberty in May 2023.

By Ty Rushing

October 16, 2023

National politics set the tone for a fair amount of school board races in Iowa two years ago, and this year promises more of the same.

The 2023 Iowa Legislative session saw Iowa Republicans pass a number of measures aimed at undermining and defunding public schools. Now, many right-wing candidates are running for their local school boards to further implement and advance the right’s culture war priorities.

Iowa’s six Moms For Liberty chapters had an outsized voice in getting some of those bills passed, including Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school voucher bill and SF 496. The latter enacted a multitude of changes to Iowa’s public education system, including book bans, removing explicit instruction on HIV/AIDS, banning discussion of gender identity in K-6, and forcing teachers to out students to their parents.

Additionally, Moms for Liberty and other right-wing groups are not only endorsing candidates in this year’s school board races, but some candidates have connections to the group.

School board races are always important, but the spotlight for this year’s races will be bigger than usual. So here are six Iowa school board races you should pay attention to:

District: Ankeny

Conservative candidates: Nick Bourne, Stephanie Gott, Amy Guidry, Joshua Palik, Ryan Weldon

Other candidates: Katie Claeys, Shelly Northway, Amber Romans, Amy Tagliareni

Wildcard candidate: Christian Holtz—formerly Issac Holtz—who recently completed a three-year probation for threatening to rape and murder students at Waukee High School.

Why this race stands out: Ankeny has been Iowa’s ground zero for right-wing-driven school culture wars over the last few years. It’s gotten to the point that even Gov. Kim Reynolds broke with traditional norms in 2021 and made an endorsement and attended a fundraiser on behalf of Sarah Barthole, who now sits on the Ankeny School Board.

Ankeny’s five conservative candidates this year are supported by the Ankeny Republican PAC, a political action committee that successfully helped conservative candidates get elected to school board and city council in the 2021 cycle.

Ironically, one of the PAC’s platforms for this year’s race is “Keep politics out of the classroom.”

Financial disclosures for this cycle won’t be available until a week before the race, but in 2021 the Ankeny Republicans PAC was financially supported by some notable Iowa Republicans including state Sen. Majority Leader Jack Whitver and state Sen. Mike Bousselot, who has doorknocked for this year’s conservative slate.

Outwardly, Ankeny’s 2023 conservative school board candidates have not made inflammatory remarks or publicly dabbled in broader culture war attacks (a successful strategy in 2021 as well), but a sitting state senator who voted in favor of a number of those culture war bills isn’t door-knocking during his offseason for the love of the game.

Six districts where right-wing candidates are bringing culture war to school board

L: State Sen. Mike Bousselot (R-Ankeny) door knocking for conservative school board candidates.
R: State Sen. Mike Bousselot poses with Ankeny’s slate of conservative school board candidates and their supporters.

District: Johnston

Conservative candidates: Josh Nelson, Charles Steele, Lori Stiles, Michelle Veach

Other candidates: Jason Arnold, Jennifer Chamberland (incumbent), Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher (incumbent), Lya Williams

Why this race stands out: In 2021, Johnston elected three conservative school board members who have proven to be a solid right-wing bloc in district decisions. Since then, the district has approved a Turning Point USA chapter, seen multiple high-level district staff departures including a diversity, equity, and inclusion director—who has not been replaced—and the three conservative board members wouldn’t even support a non-binding resolution to oppose private school vouchers.

This year’s school board race will determine if the Johnston School Board will fall totally under conservative influence or not since only one conservative candidate has to win to swing the pendulum.

A notable entry in the conservative bloc is Michelle Veach. Not only is she a member of the Polk County Chapter of Moms for Liberty, but Veach helped the three current conservative board members get elected. Veach was also on the frontline for attempted book bans in Johnston and used slurs and curse words out of context in an attempt to use shock value to prove a point.

Starting Line sources have also indicated that Josh Nelson, Charles Steele, and Lori Stiles were all recruited as candidates by Moms for Liberty.

Six districts where right-wing candidates are bringing culture war to school board

A float from the 2023 Johnston High School Homecoming parade float entry submitted by the four conservative candidates.

 

District: Linn-Mar

Conservative candidates: Tom Law, Kevin Slaman, Laura Steffeck, Jodi Terharne

Other candidates: Barry Bucholz (incumbent), Justin Foss, Katie Lowe Lancaster, Britannia Morey (incumbent)

Why this race stands out: The Linn-Mar School Board race is a de facto national race thanks to Rep. Ashley Hinson—whose kids attend school in Linn-Mar—and former Vice President Mike Pence who have continued to use the school district as a political punching bag because it tried to support LGBTQ students.

Moms for Liberty-Linn County has endorsed Tom Law, Laura Steffeck, and Kevin Slaman, who is also a member of the chapter. Jodi Terharne has declined any endorsements, but several Linn County Moms for Liberty members have endorsed her on their personal pages.

Six districts where right-wing candidates are bringing culture war to school board

District: Cedar Rapids

Conservative candidates: Rick David and Barclay Woerner

Other candidates: Cindy Garlock, Dexter Merschbrock, Jen Neumann, and David Tominsky (all incumbents)

Why this race stands out: Because of the national hoopla surrounding Linn-Mar, the Linn County-Moms for Liberty is inserting its influence into other Linn County school board races, including Cedar Rapids. The chapter endorsed Rick David and Barclay Woerner.

David has used his campaign Facebook page to show support for SF 496 and book bans. He also used his page to falsely accuse the Cedar Rapids School District of collaborating with Planned Parenthood to secretly provide kids with hormone replacement therapy.

Barclay Woerner’s wife, Janice, is a Moms for Liberty member. He also accused the school district of secretly helping provide kids with hormone replacement therapy, which was already something schools couldn’t do legally even before Iowa Republicans made gender-affirming care services illegal for anyone under age 18.

Woerner supports book bans because he believes the “innocence of our children is no longer being protected as 30+ inappropriate books have been found in the libraries.”

Six districts where right-wing candidates are bringing culture war to school board

District: Indianola

Conservative candidate: Patty Alexander

Other candidates: Eric Christensen, Rob Keller (incumbent), Aaron Labertew, Ben Metzger (incumbent), Sue Wilson (incumbent)

Why this race stands out: Indianola School Board Candidate Patty Alexander is a torchbearer for Moms for Liberty—she even wore a Moms for Liberty T-shirt during a photo op with former President Donald Trump—and testified at numerous hearings during the 2023 Iowa Legislative Session.

During a Jan. 17 hearing on the school voucher bill, Alexander testified in favor of the bill that will allocate public school funds to private school tuition and called public schools a “monopoly.”

“Public education has become socially disruptive, ruled by selfish elitists that do not care about our family values or society’s in general,” she said.

This was not the only hearing Alexander spoke at and her husband, David, also spoke at hearings. During one February hearing, he said “Democrats hate children” and “like the ARL they want to send them up the street to get spayed and neutered.”

Six districts where right-wing candidates are bringing culture war to school board

District: Waukee

Conservative candidates: Amy Jepsen, Tami Rubino

Other candidates: Kate Boonstra, Wendy Marsh (incumbent), Michael Trettin (incumbent)

Why this race stands out: The 2021 school board election was a referendum on four conservative school board candidates who ran on an anti-CRT platform and lost, but it’s not over yet.

Tami Rubino’s husband, Jeff, was one of those losing candidates. Tami Rubio ran the Warrior & Wolves United political action committee that supported her husband and other conservative candidates and that accused Waukee officials of trying to indoctrinate students into Marxist beliefs.

Interestingly enough, Rubino’s 2023 platform is totally different from the 2021 platform she championed with Warriors & Wolves United.

Rubino has also endorsed Amy Jepsen, who was a regular at Waukee School Board meetings. Jepsen spoke passionately in favor of private school voucher legislation at a Feb. 14, 2022 meeting and said the program would be the “best option for students and our community taxpayers.”

 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this identified Michelle Veach as policy chair of the Polk County Moms For Liberty, but she is only a member and has no title. We regret the error.

 

by Ty Rushing
10/16/23

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  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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