Political and advocacy groups have been increasingly injecting themselves into traditionally nonpartisan school board elections on Long Island, endorsing candidates, assisting in campaigns and inflaming divisions ahead of the May 17 voting.
The presence of these groups has shaken up the landscape in these generally low-key elections, creating battlegrounds in races in which incumbents often ran unopposed and issues centered on school budgets and tax rates. The board races often tend to draw low turnouts, occurring in May versus most other elections in November, and those elected are not paid for serving.
The new climate has driven some potential candidates to not run or seek reelection, including 12-year Sachem school board member Jim Kiernan.
"It's open season to be as nasty as you can be," said Kiernan, 74, of Holbrook. "Years ago, I couldn't tell you what political party people belonged to on the board. Political parties, they never got involved."
WHAT TO KNOW
- Political and advocacy groups are increasingly injecting themselves into traditionally nonpartisan school board elections on Long Island.
- The groups are endorsing candidates, assisting in campaigns and inflaming divisions ahead of the May 17 voting.
- The presence of these groups has shaken up the landscape in these generally low-key elections.
For many years, political parties stayed clear of these elections. But parental choice, mask mandates, gender issues and the teaching of diversity, equity and inclusion have increased people's interest in running for seats, said Jeffrey Segal, a SUNY distinguished professor of political science at Stony Brook University.
"Now we're getting into cultural issues such as critical race theory. Critical race theory obviously gets people's dander up, particularly if they don't like what school boards are doing about it," Segal said.
Board candidate numbers, as a result, have spiked, going from 386 in 2020 to 440 this year, a 14% increase, according to a Newsday analysis. The number of contested races grew from 72 to 81 in that period, a 12.5% increase, the analysis showed.
Some of the groups pushing candidates said they reflect conservative or progressive values. Others assert that those groups are trying to stifle classroom discussions about race and replace core academic issues with political ones.
The Nassau and Suffolk county chapters of Moms for Liberty, which say they align with conservative values, have endorsed about 30 candidates for school boards. Neither county group endorsed any last year.
Barbara Abboud, chairwoman of the group's Nassau chapter, said while some people see these issues as political, she sees them as legitimate matters involving the education of children.
'To us, it's not politics. It's our babies.'
-Barbara Abboud, chairwoman of Nassau chapter of Moms for Liberty
Credit: Reece T. Williams
"To us, it's not politics. It's our babies," Abboud said. "We're looking for leaders who stand up for our children. Moms for Liberty is working with districts across the Island to understand candidates and understand who are the real patriots."
Meanwhile, the Long Island Strong Schools Alliance has endorsed about 20 candidates, including several who are running against candidates supported by Moms for Liberty.
"Politics do not belong in our school boards," said Alliance president Amanda Cohen-Stein, 47, of Miller Place. "They don't want our children taught anything about diversity, equity and inclusion."
Cohen-Stein said she started the group last June after seeing several political and advocacy groups support board candidates. Moreover, she didn't see groups acting in response. She said her group, which has around 1,600 members, is nonpartisan and formed a PAC so it can raise and distribute money to candidates.
'The group was founded in response to radicals and extremists who are attacking our school districts.'
-Amanda Cohen-Stein (left), president of Long Island Strong School Alliance, with Vice President Aisha Wilson-Carter
Credit: Reece T. Williams
"The group was founded in response to radicals and extremists who are attacking our school districts," Cohen-Stein said. "Our nation and our communities on Long Island are so divided, and now that these groups are running candidates that are political, it has only caused more of a divide."
Brianna Richardson, chairwoman of the Suffolk chapter of Moms for Liberty, said she disagrees with those who say her group is extremist.
"We are not extremist or disruptive. … The truth of the matter is we are not disrupting anything. We're drawing attention to what's happening in the schools," said Richardson, 36, of Miller Place. Her group has endorsed about 15 candidates for boards, she said.
The group has strong objections, she said, regarding what it sees as the education around gender issues.
"In kindergarten and up, they're starting to talk about gender identity. Somebody in kindergarten doesn't need that," Richardson said.
Nassau Dems: Not endorsing
Long Island has 124 school districts, each with its own board of education, and it's unclear how many contests have candidates focusing on these issues with the help of groups. Some affected races include those in Smithtown, Rocky Point, Longwood, Connetquot, Lindenhurst, Sachem, Seaford and Bellmore.
The Suffolk County Republican Committee said it is supporting several candidates. But the head of the Democratic Committee in Nassau, who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party, said the groups have no plans to endorse candidates, asserting that politics has no place in school board elections. The Nassau County Republican Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
"The Democratic Party has never felt it's appropriate to politicize school board elections," said Jay Jacobs, chairman of the state and Nassau Democrats.
The increased role of politics also has spurred more contested board races nationally over the past two years, since school issues were swept into national political discourse, said Douglas Kronaizl, a staff writer with Ballotpedia, a nonpartisan group that follows American elections.
In Virginia, Glenn Youngkin rode to an upset victory in November's gubernatorial race by emphasizing parents' frustrations with controversial classroom subjects and lack of parental control. In Tennessee, the General Assembly last year passed a law allowing school board candidates to run along party lines. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month signed into law a bill that bans educators from teaching students critical race theory.
If the politicization of schools continues, Jacobs said Democrats may have to engage in these elections.
Suffolk County Democratic chairman Rich Schaffer said he agreed that Democrats might have to get more involved, if only because he doesn't want Republicans to seize an advantage.
"If this is going to happen, I wouldn't want us to unilaterally disarm," Schaffer said. "I'm hoping this [politicization] subsides and we get back to school issues."
Jessie Garcia, chairman of the Suffolk Republican Committee, said he sees parents responding to "far left progressive ideas that have filtered down to school boards. … We want our children to be educated, not indoctrinated."
That has led to tension in some board races, including in Connetquot. Jaclyn Napolitano-Furno, an incumbent board member, said she has been a vocal supporter of more parental choice while opposing school mask mandates and teaching on diversity, equity and inclusion, which she believes reflects critical race theory.
Critical race theory promotes the belief that racism is inherent in American institutions such as the legal system. Long Island educators said the theory is not taught in public schools, but some political and advocacy groups said they believe the theory is conveyed in the teaching on diversity, equity and inclusion.
'We don't want a curriculum that is divisive, anti-American and anti-police.'
-Jaclyn Napolitano-Furno, Connetquot school board member
Credit: Barry Sloan
"Everyone wants diversity, everyone wants equity, everyone wants inclusion. But we don't want a curriculum that is divisive, anti-American and anti-police," said Napolitano-Furno, 44, of Ronkonkoma, who has a son in sixth grade and a daughter in ninth.
Napolitano-Furno, an Oyster Bay Cove police officer, said she has endorsements that include the Suffolk County Moms for Liberty and the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association, which has helped her knock on doors and hand out flyers and campaign signs. The groups have not donated money to her campaign, she said.
Her opponent is Sarah Smith, 22, a social worker whose endorsements include the Long Island Strong Schools Alliance and Run for Something, a national group that says it reflects progressive views. The Alliance has given her $1,000. But Smith said the endorsement by Run for Something has spurred a backlash against her.
It's created some broad assumptions about me, that I'm an extremist ... It's created some online harassment.
-Sarah Smith, a Connetquot school board candidate
"It's created some broad assumptions about me, that I'm an extremist," said Smith, who has a sister in Connetquot schools. "It's created some online harassment. It's hard to say I'm anti-American when I work with veterans every day."
Smith said she disagrees with those who say the local school system blocks transparency, though she said it could use some streamlining of communication. She also disagrees with those that say the teaching on diversity, equity and inclusion is anti-American.
"I think our educators are accessible. There's open school nights, and teachers are ready and willing to answer questions," Smith said. As for the diversity teaching, "I definitely don't think it's making white kids feel guilty. People have different experiences. It should be celebrated and not be hidden."
Stoked by mask mandates
Support from political and advocacy groups can greatly influence board elections because they tend to draw far fewer voters than general elections, said Craig Burnett, a Hofstra University associate professor of political science.
Burnett said people's emotions were stoked by their opposition to mask mandates in schools, which played out in parents complaining during numerous board meetings on Long Island and across the nation. School boards did not have the power to change the mandate, which was controlled by the state. But parents' frustration has translated into support for more parental control over their children's education, he said.
Political and advocacy groups saw they could not effect change on the federal level due to a largely deadlocked Congress, so they have turned to a hyperlocal approach to getting voters energized, he said. But larger forces are also at work.
"Some people say, 'I feel my culture is changing and I don't like it. We like our history the way it was,' " Burnett said.
Burnett said he believes some groups care more about winning political support than policy changes.
"It's not so much about the outcome; it's about getting political juice out of this," Burnett said. "It's about winning."
While these issues have drawn more attention to school operations, some groups have raised concerns about the changing landscape.
The Long Island Loud Majority, a local group that has held rallies for former President Donald Trump, has rolled out support for seven school board candidates, co-founder Shawn Farash said. The group is being monitored by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremist hate and anti-government groups. The center has listed the group as an "anti-government extremist organization," said Rachel Carroll Rivas, a senior research analyst.
"They have been pushing conspiracies that government is tyrannical, from the school boards to the federal level," Rivas said, adding that the group has questioned the legitimacy of elections. "They question the process because they don't like the outcomes."
In recent months, Rivas said the Long Island Loud Majority also has "leaned in on LGBTQ issues and their rights. … A lot of community members are not feeling safe on Long Island because of the Long Island Loud Majority."
Farash has mused about the "tyranny" of mask mandates and made repeated false claims that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.” In recent weeks, he has tweeted about the "gender hoax," calling several prominent transgender women "still men."
Farash of West Babylon said the law center’s description of his organization is inaccurate. "The claim of anti-government is not to be taken seriously, as our organization is actively working to get its members involved in every level of government each and every day," he said.
Farash said politics long have been a part of school board races, if only because of the support for candidates from teacher unions, which he believes lean to the political left.
Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers, said his group endorses candidates based on who the group thinks will make a positive impact on public education and the students, not their party affiliation.
“This is simple: NYSUT and its local unions are big-tent organizations with members of all political stripes," Pallotta said. "If others want to inject politics into nonpartisan school board races, they’re free to do so. But it’s time to put the divisiveness in check.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center also is concerned about the Moms for Liberty, the national group, as well as the ones in Suffolk and Nassau, Rivas said.
"We have not listed them yet, but we're looking at them and the negative effect they've been having," Rivas said.
Kiernan, the Sachem board member, said he worries that if a political party or group endorsed him, "They would expect me to do something for them."
"Once you have school boards endeared to a political philosophy, you're putting pressure to move the district in a direction that's good for the political party, not good for education," he added.
How much these groups impact board elections remains to be seen. Last year at this time, some Island parents were pushing back against mask mandates in schools. Those mandates have been lifted, diminishing the energy around the issue, Burnett said.
"We don't have a big new issue," Burnett said about the school board races. Still, he said he believes the groups will make a difference. "Most of these candidates are separated by hundreds if not tens of votes. … It's so small that a very vocal constituency can make a difference."
With Nicholas Spangler and Michael R. Ebert