Dallas Center-Grimes parents worry about school board candidate’s right-wing ties

Google Maps screenshot of Dallas Center-Grimes High School in Grimes.

By Ty Rushing

November 1, 2023

When Sean Cully launched a Facebook page for his Dallas Center-Grimes (DCG) School Board campaign, his intro stated that he wanted to “protect students, parents and educators from wokeism!”

Shortly afterward, Cully scrapped that language. In the new intro, Cully said he wanted “To champion students with my 20+ years of experience in leading and educating the next generation,” a less divisive and more generic message that remains on the page.

Dallas Center-Grimes parents worry about school board candidate’s right-wing ties

submitted screenshot

Cully’s original introduction, some of his past remarks on public schools, and ties to right-wing churches and groups like Moms for Liberty worry some DCG parents and teachers, who question what his goals would be as a board member.

“He was really active back when legislation was going through for a number of the bills that I would consider a bit far-right, like the book bans, abortion [ban], even the vouchers, he was there for all of it,” said Cindy Bishop, a Grimes resident and public school teacher.

Starting Line left Cully a voicemail on Wednesday morning. We will update the story with his remarks if he responds.

There are four open DCG board seats that will be decided in the Nov. 7 election.

Cully, a Dallas Center resident, is going head-to-head with fellow Dallas Center resident Meg Dickinson for the DCG School Board District 4 seat. While school board elections are technically nonpartisan, lines in the sand have been drawn.

Cully, Matthew Moran, and Kimberly Praska (incumbent) were endorsed by the Dallas County Republicans and their campaigns have been tied together. It’s a similar story for Ryan Carpenter (incumbent), Nancy Baker Curtis (incumbent), Dickinson, and Shaylee Vander Velden all of whom were endorsed by the Dallas County Democrats. (Carpenter is an independent and did not seek the endorsement.)

While the DCG parents who spoke to Starting Line have long-term worries about the outcome of this school board election and the effect it would have on the district, the immediate concerns have revolved around Cully.

Denise Perez, the parent of a DCG High School junior, is a regular school board meeting attendee. She worries about the groups supporting Cully and the other conservative candidates and how that will impact board meetings going forward if they win.

“The affiliation with Moms for Liberty, that’s a huge red flag. Also, the connection with Eternity Church, which has connections to Hillsong,” she said, referring to the Australian-based evangelical megachurch that has come under fire amid a number of recent scandals.

“I am really concerned about transparency with these candidates,” Perez continued. “I don’t know if they will be transparent with what’s going on with the school board and the district. I don’t know that they have the best interest of the district in mind.”

‘Excited about this bill’

Earlier this year, Cully gave a full-throated endorsement of Gov. Kim Reynolds’ private school voucher bill, which is set to shift hundreds of millions of dollars from public schools to private schools.

“I am very excited about this bill,” Cully wrote. “To allow every family the opportunity to take their hard earned dollars to a private school is a great idea. I would prefer my kids stay in public schools, but with the continual attack we keep seeing against the nuclear family from the Marxist left, we may have no choice but to leave and this helps us so much. Thank you!”

Dallas Center-Grimes parents worry about school board candidate’s right-wing ties

Cully’s three children are still enrolled in DCG schools, but some residents question if that will remain the case if he is elected. Conservative DCG School Board member Brandon McNace, who was elected in 2021, recently enrolled one of his children into a private school.

Debbie Kastain, a former DCG employee and mother of three DCG High School graduates, said she asked Sean Cully if he would keep his kids in DCG schools when he knocked on her door while campaigning. Kastain said Cully told her that every parent has the right to educate their children in the way they see fit—a point she agrees with—but she said he didn’t answer the question.

After Kastain found out about Cully’s previous remarks on the voucher bill, she said she followed up with him in a private message. According to Kastain, Cully responded by saying how he and his wife decide to educate their children isn’t the public’s concern and that he will no longer discuss anything about his family.

“Now if he was running for dog catcher, I might agree that his family’s decisions are not relevant, but he is running for school board for the Dallas Center-Grimes School District,” Kastain said.

“I want to know why he wants to be on our board to govern our district, our teachers, our budget if he’s going to take his tax dollars out of that budget and take it elsewhere. He is not being forthcoming.”

‘Lead people to hell’


Sean Cully is a staff member and pastor at Eternity Church in Clive—where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis launched his now-flailing presidential campaign—which is led by right-wing evangelical pastor Jesse Newman, whom Cully referred to as his boss and “best friend.”

Originally from Australia, Newman has a history of homophobic remarks. He once said that “rainbow affirming churches and pastors are false prophets who have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and the ideologies they teach will lead people to hell.”

The parent of a DCG student, who requested anonymity, said she was alarmed by the church connection. She referred to herself as an “ex-vangelical”—a term for people who left the evangelical church—and worries about Cully and the church’s influence being integrated into the school system.

“I’ve listened to some of their sermons. Jesse Newman flat out says ‘I’m a Christian nationalist’ and encourages his congregation to have more babies,” to increase their power, she said, referring to Newman’s “World Domination, Walking Thru Genesis Ch. 10-11 sermon.

In that sermon, Newman said, “God wants you to have kids, alright. You are not destroying the planet, have more kids; let’s outbreed the unbelievers.”

Moms for Liberty

Cully also has support from the Dallas County Moms for Liberty chapter. Moms for Liberty was one of the most active groups at the capitol this past session and lobbied for book bans, vouchers, and bills that target LGBTQ students.

On his campaign page, Cully shared a video of him doorknocking with local Moms for Liberty members.

Dallas Center-Grimes parents worry about school board candidate’s right-wing ties

Submitted screenshots

He also shared another photo of them at an event together:

Dallas Center-Grimes parents worry about school board candidate’s right-wing ties

In a private message to Cully’s campaign page, Bishop asked Cully why he was working with Moms for Liberty. She told him that the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) declared Moms for Liberty a hate group and that their agenda results in “underfunding public education with private school vouchers, banning books, and further marginalizing LGBTQ students and students of color.”

In screenshots of the exchange shared with Starting Line, Cully told Bishop “There’s a lot in that line of questioning” before turning the question back to her.

“I don’t like to take the word of an organization that I don’t know much about,” Cully wrote, referencing the SPLC. “So I’ll simply ask, do you think that Moms for Liberty is a hate group? If so, what are the reasons you believe that?”

“He wouldn’t answer me,” Bishop told Starting Line.

Another DCG parent who requested anonymity has two children who are part of the LGBTQ community. She worries if more people like Cully are on the board, there could be more discrimination against queer kids and a loss of funding because of lawsuits if board members decide to pick and choose what laws they want to follow.

“I’m very concerned about the politicization of [school board],” she said. “Kids deserve to have people who champion them, not discriminate against them [because] of their gender identity or sexual preferences.”

‘I want school boards to be boring again’

As election day nears, DCG parents say they just want school board members who they think have the district’s best interest at heart rather than candidates who they think have ulterior motives.

Kastain, the former DCG employee, worries about books being removed from school libraries and teachers not sticking around.

“I’m really concerned about what they are going to do with our budget, we are losing money,” she said. “We lost a lot of students—a lot of kids did take the voucher program situation—we don’t have the budget dollars that we did. We had 40 teachers leave last year, I’m just really concerned that they are going to make decisions to keep the teachers paid and the teachers supported.”

Bishop just wants a board that is interested in doing the required duties of a school board without letting outside noise dictate how they do their job.

“I want school boards to be boring again,” she said. “I want them to pass policy, I want them to pass budgets, I want them to do the things they are supposed to do and hire the best superintendent. That is their job.”

 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story said Cindy Bishop was a Dallas Center resident and that there were three open seats and not four. We regret the errors.

  • 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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