Education

School board races are technically nonpartisan in the greater Louisville area. But across the region, candidates ousted incumbents by campaigning on highly-charged partisan issues.

National right-wing talking points around race and gender have fueled vitriol at school board meetings across the country. Yesterday, those talking points brought electoral success to candidates in some parts of Southern Indiana and Oldham County.

Oldham County anti-trans ‘bathroom’ candidates oust 2 incumbents

Challengers defeated two Oldham County Board of Education incumbents with promises to bar transgender students from bathrooms that match their gender identity.

In a questionnaire with the Oldham County Era earlier this month, presumed District 4 winner Joe Dennis said his first priority would be to implement a new bathroom policy. Dennis’ online campaign materials say he supports “same sex” or “biological sex restrooms” with single-occupancy restrooms available. Dennis, a former school resource officer for the district, beat out incumbent Andrea Neikirk by 5 percentage points.

On his website, Dennis promises that if he is elected, he will retire from his current position as an on-call police officer with the Oldham County Police Department.

In District 5, Dennis’ new colleague, presumed board member-elect Carly Clem also made anti-trans bathroom policies a plank of her platform. She defeated incumbent Patrick Kehoe and a second challenger by a wide margin.

Both Dennis and Clem call for “parent rights,” a phrase often used by opponents of mask mandates and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in schools.

Suzanne Hundley, in District 2, was the only Oldham County Board of Education incumbent to withstand a challenge. 

Chris Hartman, with the LGBTQ rights advocacy group Fairness Campaign, said the conservative winners have used “deadly and dangerous rhetoric.”

“It’s a shame that these candidates ran on an outdated trope to target, attack and erase trans kids from school,” Hartman told WFPL News.

Kentucky lawmakers put forward one of the first anti-trans “bathroom bills” in the country in 2015. Though it never made it through the full legislature, the measure inspired a wave of similar proposals in other states. 

A federal appeals court later struck down Virginia’s anti-trans bathroom bill as a violation of federal protections on the basis of sex. In 2021, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up an appeal from proponents of the measure.

“The reality is that if they attempt to implement some policy like this in Oldham County Schools, they will be sued immediately,” Hartman said. “This is a crystal-clear violation of Title IX.”

Nonetheless, anti-trans bathroom proposals are making a comeback in Kentucky. In addition to this issue’s prominence in the Oldham County school board races, the Courier Journal reported Republican state Rep. Bill Wesley, of Ravenna, is planning to revive the 2015 proposal to bar transgender students from restrooms that match their gender identity.

In NAFCS, ‘anti-CRT’ candidates sweep up 3 of 4 contested seats

In Louisville, right-wing platforms failed to sway enough voters to flip any seats on the Jefferson County Board of Education. But across the river in New Albany Floyd County Schools (NAFCS), culture war campaigns were successful.

In an eight-way contest, right-wing candidates took both at-large seats on the ballot with campaigns that called inclusive school curriculum a political ideology.

“I believe diversity and inclusion, as the terms are used today, are a distraction from the business of teaching and learning,” presumptive at-large winner Thad Neafus wrote in response to a questionnaire from the NAFC Educator. Neafus won an at-large seat with 20% of the vote.

Diversity and inclusion are part of SEL [social-emotional learning], which I am against,” wrote Connie Baugh, who won the second contested at-large seat with 16% of the vote.  

Baugh frequently posts to social media blasting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. Like many conservatives these days, Baugh calls such efforts “critical race theory” or CRT.

Baugh and Neafus ousted incumbent Elaine Murphy, the current board president and a retired elementary school principal.

In NAFCS District 2, Melanie Stumler Northup won on a “back-to-basics” platform, a phrase often used by conservatives who are opposed to the discussion of racism and other social issues in the classroom.

My hope is to hire a superintendent whose focus is getting back to the basics with education to reduce distractions from political/social issues in our classrooms,” Northup told the NAFC Educator.

NAFCS leadership has been in turmoil in recent years. Tension between the board and central office prompted the last two superintendents to leave their posts. The new board will be in charge of finding a replacement for former NAFCS superintendent Brad Snyder, who retired suddenly in July after struggling to work with board members.

In JCPS, right-wing candidates lost, but they came close in some districts

Conservative school board candidates faced an uphill battle in left-leaning Jefferson County. Incumbents, who tended to be more progressive or centrist than their challengers, swept all four races. Most incumbents won handily — except in District 3, where challenger Steve Ullum came about a thousand votes short of unseating James Craig. 

Ullum was part of a slate of four candidates backed by groups who oppose mask mandates and curriculum that centers Black and LGBTQ voices. They also had backing from Kentucky Tomorrow, a conservative PAC that spent more than $63,000 supporting them.

According to preliminary vote tallies, the right-wing slate picked up 35% of votes cast in Jefferson County Board of Education races. Incumbents took 52% of the vote.

Incumbents also benefited from nearly $800,000 in political advertising paid for by the local teacher’s union PAC, Better Schools Kentucky. 

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.