SARASOTA, Fla.—People from all stages of life—with and without children in public schools—are filling workshops across the country designed to prepare them to challenge local school boards on issues and help school board candidates they support to get elected.
In January, it was a mostly conservative crowd that attended activist training in Sarasota, Florida, offered by the Leadership Institute, hopeful they’d learn how to right a lopsided, left-leaning school board. The Arlington, Virginia-based institute’s instructors have mentored people of a variety of beliefs on how to become effectively involved in politics, although the officially nonpartisan organization unabashedly aims to give conservatives an edge.
That’s an advantage some Sarasota residents say they desperately need. The beach community, about midway down the western edge of the peninsula of Florida, is home to 349,049 voters, according to the county’s supervisor of elections. Of those, about 43 percent are registered Republicans, and 30 percent are registered as Democrats. The rest are listed as having a different political party affiliation.
Despite the community’s conservative majority, the five-member school board—also officially nonpartisan—leans decidedly left, with a 3–2 split favoring liberals, residents attending the workshop said. So they were eager to become effective school board activists.
Most of those who paid $15 to attend the three-hour training seemed to have one goal in mind: putting conservatives in the two seats currently held by retiring liberal incumbents.
The election is Aug. 23, a voting day that has historically drawn far fewer voters than November elections. So the party that rallies more voters is likely to see success, instructors said.
Conservative residents in Sarasota have clashed with their elected school board members regularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, mostly to challenge required mask-wearing for students and to object to teaching materials that promote politically charged social issues, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
In response, the school board began limiting time allocated for members of the community to speak at meetings, which has only further enraged parents and others concerned about school issues.
It’s a scenario that’s playing out in communities across the nation.
“Public outrage surrounding progressive indoctrination and dogmatic policy reached a fever pitch in summer 2020,” said Leadership Institute spokesman Matthew Hurtt.
The group “knew parents and concerned citizens would seek out ways to make an impact in the schools, so we launched our school board training at the height of parental concern and unrest,” he said.
Workshops focused on influencing sitting school board members and electing candidates represent just a small part of how the Leadership Institute provides educational opportunities for people hoping to effect change.
The organization has been coaching activists and political hopefuls since 1979. It now offers 47 types of training courses and seminars online and in-person around the country.
When he was a political hopeful, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas) became one of the organization’s more than 243,000 graduates.
Late last year, the organization started holding training to outline how to be an effective school board activist and how to run an effective campaign for school board. Since the August launch, more than 1,600 people—conservatives and liberals—have participated in online or in-person sessions on school board activism, Hurtt said.
And though the first classes were held just weeks before last year’s elections, at least three participants won their races and claimed seats on their local school boards, Hurtt said.
The training in Sarasota left mom-of-three Tanya Parus feeling inspired. As part of her efforts with her local chapter of Moms for America, she encourages women to run for political office. She left the training feeling ready to make a run for office, but not for school board, she said. She declined to hint at specifics.
Now is the time for people to get involved, she said, because “our government is taking our liberties away.”
And at first she felt disgusted by that and hopeless.
“Then I realized I’m not getting any younger,” the 44-year-old said. “And I can run locally and make a national impact.”
At 76, John Alexander attended a school board activist session thinking he might decide to run for school board. He spent 27 years practicing law in Cleveland, and has worked in real estate since moving to Florida.
“I don’t like CRT [critical race theory] and left-wing-everything in the schools,” he said.
He remembers with fondness how male teachers, when he was a youth, sent the message that they meant business, starting with their professional attire that always seemed to include a white button-down shirt and tie.
“And we got a great public school education,” he said. “We need to educate, not just entertain” students today.
After the meeting, Alexander and his wife found they were most enthusiastic about helping someone else get elected.
“It was good to know that we weren’t the only ones concerned about schools,” he said. “And it was especially good to learn that there really is something we can do. So we will get involved, go ring doorbells, and pound the pavement” helping on a school board candidate’s campaign.
Alexis Spiegelman got involved with her local Moms for Liberty chapter when she realized that teaching materials encouraged what she considered far too much focus on race. As the parent of a daughter adopted from Guatemala, she was furious.
“She doesn’t look like we’re her family,” she said, speaking of her daughter. “So the idea that you’re going to teach children that there’s something different about us because we don’t look alike really bothered me. It made me feel concern for how she was interpreting that.
“We’ve always just taught her that [skin color] doesn’t determine what kind of person you become. It’s not a central focus of our world. We’re just family.”
Members of her group now review curriculum and pore over books in school libraries looking for materials they feel indoctrinate children with harmful values, including those that focus on skin color rather than character. And they’re carefully interviewing school board candidates so they can issue endorsements and rally behind them, working on their campaigns.
Now that she’s seen how much power school boards wield, she has vowed to stay vigilant in her group’s push to hold school officials accountable.
Clashes between parents and school boards have drawn national attention like never before over the past two years. Sleepy meetings that used to be mostly devoid of onlookers have started drawing energetic crowds. Speakers at school board meetings now often represent well-organized groups. They unleash passionate tirades objecting to forced mask-wearing, materials that teach critical race theory, the lack of proper discipline for students, and gender policies that allow boys who identify as girls, for example, to use girls’ restrooms.
At least one Virginia girl was sexually assaulted in a girls’ bathroom by a biological boy dressed in a skirt. He was recently found guilty, but only after the girl’s father was arrested while angrily complaining during a school board meeting that the matter had been hidden by school officials.
Many school boards, including Sarasota County’s, have dramatically shortened the time allotted for members of the public to speak at meetings. And that has provoked even more angry outbursts from frustrated parents desperate to be heard.
Late last year, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) wrote a letter to the White House asking for federal law enforcement to start investigating parents for being aggressive or threatening to school board members, suggesting it was “domestic terrorism.” In the ensuing uproar, state school board associations started backing away from the organization, withdrawing their affiliation from the national group.
Later, it was widely reported that email correspondence revealed through a records request by a conservative parents group suggested that the NSBA had sent the troublesome letter at the request of the White House. The White House and the NSBA have said that isn’t true.
The Epoch Times reached out to the National School Boards Association for comment, but didn’t receive a response.
Conservatives aren’t alone in seeking activism training. Progressives can learn tactics in community organizing from Momentum, Midwest Academy, and re:power. Those groups don’t focus specifically on school board efforts, but rather on developing grassroots movements.
Calling parents terrorists is just an attempt to bully conservatives into silence, Spiegelman said. Being eyed as a potential criminal because she speaks up at school board meetings isn’t pleasant, but it’s not enough to make her and other moms in her group back away from making their voices heard, she said.
“No, we’re not going to go away,” Spiegelman said. “When you cross a line and start to affect people’s children, I don’t think that it really matters what someone tries to do to intimidate you. A parent is not going to go away.”