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For the first time since 2015, ISD 197 has a a hotly contested school board election. Ten candidates initially filed, and while one has dropped out but will still appear on the ballot (Elena Villarreal), the remaining nine are all spending money, putting up signs, and attending events.
It makes for some complicated math as the nine candidates are running for only three seats. See our voter’s guide for details on the candidates, but today we’re going to look at the dynamics of this election.
Context From Current Issues
Nationwide, school board races have become a flash point for cultural battles over COVID-19 response, racism, and LGBTQ rights. While viral videos haven’t surfaced from ISD 197 school board meetings, there have been anti-mask rants during public comments. Three candidates—Stephanie Auran, Mark Grondahl, and Robert Reese—are opposed to mask mandates. Auran took it a step further, telling Patch that making kids wear masks is “dangerous to their health” (they’re not). The remaining six candidates all support mask mandates (see our candidate chart).
While racism and LGBTQ rights haven’t been contested issues in the district, two candidates (Auran and Reese) have specifically highlighted LGBTQ issues as “politics” that need to be removed from the district. Grondahl has spoken more generally about removing politics but not listed specific issues.
These hot-button issues set up a clear divide with the three anti-mask mandate candidates and the remaining six. Since the remaining six candidates are all actively campaigning, that creates some complicated math with only three seats up for grabs.
Context From Previous Races
It’s hard to look at previous elections and see clear trends for the current election. But we do it anyway.
ISD 197 has had very few elections with this many candidates. Previous years with more than two candidates running for each open seat include 2015, 2009, and 1999 (it happened more in the 1990s, but those years are complicated as the election terms transitioned to their current alignment). In 2015, the margin of the lowest vote-getting winner vs. the next closest challenger was about 4% (or 233 votes).
Elections with multiple candidates are likely to split the vote and result in very close election results. That hasn’t appeared to happen in ISD 197 yet, though this could be the year. If we look at the 2020 election results as a model, the ISD 197 precincts voted 63% for Joe Biden and 34% for Donald Trump. Those results are relatively consistent for DFL vs. GOP across the races, giving ISD 197 a roughly 63% DFL lean. Of course school board races are nonpartisan. But if the three anti-mask mandate candidates were able to capture the same level of GOP support, and the remaining six candidates split the DFL vote evenly, the three anti-mask mandate candidates would have a good chance of winning. Of course an even split among the six candidates is unlikely.
But turnout changes everything. ISD 197 had 86% turnout in the 2020 presidential election, which is pretty good. But turnout for off-year school board election is abysmal. How bad? The last contested school board election in 2015 had a turnout of about 5%. That was about 1,443 voters. (For the uncontested race in 2019, turnout dropped to 2.45%.) But with more civic engagement, anger over the name change, and the levy renewal, turnout could be up this year.
The closest recent elections in ISD 197 feature John Chandler (who’s running this year). In 2011 he lost by 2.35% and in 2013 he won by 1.85%.
Closest margin in ISD 197 history is just seven votes (at least back to 1988): Kitty Haight lost to Susan Maher in 1991, 893 to 900.
The sheer number of candidates is complicating the math and makes it possible that someone could win with only 11% of the vote.
How do we fix that? The school board could institute a primary. They would need to do so by April 15 of a school board election year, and then a primary would happen that August only if there are more than twice as many candidates as open seats. This would likely require rolling the filing period back to May/June instead of July/August.
Of course with turnout for the off-year general election at 5%, how much worse would turnout be for an off-year primary election? Ranked-choice voting would be a solution that could ensure winning candidates get more support while also not requiring a primary election. Unfortunately, state law prohibits school districts from using ranked-choice voting.
What About the Levy?
It’s likely the levy renewal will get enough support to pass, given levy margins in the last decade. The current levy originally passed in 2011 with 62% of the vote. Though levies have lost in the past. In 2007, two levy questions appeared on the ballot, one replacing and raising a previous levy and a second adding a new levy. That new levy lost by 58 votes.
At any rate, get out there and vote. See our voter’s guide for all the details, including polling locations and how to vote.
By the way, as of October 19, 131 votes are already in thanks to absentee voting.
Oct. 20, 2021 Update: Mask Mandate Clarity
We updated the above story to reflect that Mark Grondahl is not “anti-mask.” He is opposed to mask mandates, so we’ve clarified that in several places above. You can find all candidate positions on COVID-19 response in one of our earlier posts.
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