Stakes are high in Johnston School Board elections

Stakes are high in Johnston School Board elections

By Nikoel Hytrek

October 17, 2023

With four of its seven seats up for election, this year’s Nov. 7 school board race in Johnston will determine the balance of the board and the district’s overall priorities until 2025. Most importantly, it will decide whether a group of right-wing officials establish full control of the district and continue the culture war push that has been injected into local schools.

School board races in Johnston were considered nonpartisan until 2021 (although they technically remain nonpartisan). In that 2021 race, three conservative candidatesDeb Davis, Clint Evans, and Derek Tidballbanded together and won three seats, tilting the balance of the board and kicking off two years of controversies within the schools, from book bans to Donald Trump-themed homecoming floats to the superintendent’s resignation and more.

Those three members were connected to groups like Moms for Liberty, and they all signed the 1776 Pledge, which drew criticism for suggesting schools are indoctrinating students and downplaying the effects of inequality and the history of racism.

Davis, Evans, and Tidball are the only three candidates who aren’t up for reelection this year and only need one more member who agrees with them to establish a strong, consistent majority on the board. Four right-wing candidates are running—Michele Veach, Josh Nelson, Charles Steele, and Lori Stiles. Veach is a member of the Polk County Moms for Liberty and pushed for book bans in the Johnston district.

Four progressive-leaning candidates, including two current incumbents, are running as well—Jason Arnold, Lya Williams, Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher (incumbent) and Jennifer Chamberland (incumbent). If all four of them win, the balance of the board will flip back.

The torrent of culture war battles in Johnston have taken their toll on the local teachers. A survey taken earlier this year showed only 36% of Johnston staff felt “optimistic about the future of this district,” a sharp drop-off from the 64% of staff who said so back in the 2018-2019 school year.

Johnston is also actively seeking a new superintendent after the previous one was pushed out by the new board, which came soon after a lawsuit was filed over a student being suspended for not removing a T-shirt with an image of a rifle on it. Hiring will be up to the school board. Superintendents manage the administration and staff at different schools and put into motion the goals and policies laid out by the school board. The school board ultimately hires whoever they think will support their policies.

Additional conservative members getting elected this year may well lead to more book bans. If they’d had more support before, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexei would have been removed from Johnston schools in 2021. Davis, Evans, and Tidball all voted against reinstating it after a challenge, despite the review committee’s recommendation.

Tidball and Evans also voted against a Johnston resolution opposing school vouchers in February 2022. Davis abstained from the vote.

When the board was considering approving a Johnston chapter of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump organization, Davis and Evans were spotted and photographed at one of the local meetings before the student chapter was approved.

Other Trump-related controversies have impacted the district, directly from the four conservative candidates running. Student organizers were frustrated when the group of candidates reserved a float entry for their school board candidacies, then included extra cars and trucks with Trump signs—the parade wasn’t intended for state or national political candidates.

Evans and Tidball, meanwhile, are listed as chairs for Iowa Parents Never Back Down, a coalition connected to Never Back Down, the political action committee supporting presidential candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

On the school policy front, a rightward shift in the board would likely put a stop to or slow the district’s steps to achieve parts of its strategic plan laid out for 2020-2025.

The district has stated one of its goals to ensure “equitable access to resources and opportunities.” To do that, the plan calls for the district to do an equity audit, a broad assessment of how students are performing academically and how they feel about school, and highlight where improvements need to be made.

Equity issues can include classroom instruction but also how the district responds to bullying, all of which impact the school environment students are in.

For years, data for the district has shown that students of color and other minorities underperform compared to their peers. However, Tidball, Davis, and Evans have slowed down the process to address those gaps by criticizing any focus on race and denying race might make a difference for students at school.


Nikoel Hytrek

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  • Nikoel Hytrek

    Nikoel Hytrek is Iowa Starting Line’s longest-serving reporter. She covers LGBTQ issues, abortion rights and all topics of interest to Iowans. Her biggest goal is to help connect the dots between policy and people’s real lives. If you have story ideas or tips, send them over to [email protected].

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