IFAS | Freedom Writer | January/February 1997 | school.html

Taking back school boards

By Jon Paone

Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed has long claimed that it is more important for his organization "who sits in the principal's office, not the oval office." Judging by recent school board elections in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and previously in Lake County, Florida, Reed may soon have neither.

On May 14, 1996, in the largest turnout for a school board election in the history of the city, the citizens of Merrimack voted decisively to end the divisive reign of the Christian Coalition. Rosemarie Rung, running for an open school board seat, soundly defeated religious right candidate Ginny Cadarette by an astounding 2-1 margin just two years after religious political extremists had gained a 3-2 majority. Rung's victory ensured Interfaith Alliance member Ken Coleman the chairmanship of the school board.

Cadarette ran on a platform that supported the board majority's efforts to initiate school prayer, mandate the teaching of "scientific" creationism, prevent access to the Internet, remove guidance and psychological counseling services from the public schools, and implement an anti-gay policy. Rung's campaign rejected the Christian Coalition's agenda of peripheral "hot button issues" and voiced her determination to return to the "real business of operating our schools wisely and efficiently."

This is not the first time that a concerned community, caught flat-footed by the stealth tactics of religious political extremists, has responded with a successful grassroots campaign. In the name of family values, the Lake County, Florida school board had returned Head Start money to the federal government unspent, attempted to ban the books of children's author Shel Silverstein, mandated the teaching of creationism in science classes, and altered the curriculum to reflect their view that all other countries and cultures are inferior to those of America.

Interfaith Alliance member Randy Wiseman, backed by an energized coalition of teachers, administrators, and parents, ran on a platform of real improvements in the quality of education. He won the four-way primary with 42% of the vote, while the Christian Coalition candidate earned a spot in the runoff with 28 percent. In the runoff Wiseman prevailed in a landslide as he garnered 70 percent of the vote.

Following Wiseman's 1994 success, which swung back control of the board to mainstream members, 1996's elections left the once-dominant Lake County Christian Coalition with zero school board members. One of their candidates did not attempt to run for reelection, while the other only managed to garner 16 percent of the vote on November 5.

The pattern that seems to be developing in these and other communities is that the Christian Coalition initially thrives in low-turnout elections and then, upon seizing power, creates a political backlash that leads to its candidates' demise. These low-turnout atmospheres are usually found in school board and local races, where its candidates never speak of their allegiance to the national political agenda of the Christian Coalition.

In the fall of 1995, the Washington State Interfaith Alliance attempted to counter these deceptive and biblically-suspect stealth tactics by publicly challenging all local candidates to sign a pledge of "fair campaign practices," promising not to accept support from groups that appeal to prejudice or discrimination. The Alliance then distributed to voters the results of who signed the pledge and who refused. The candidates who refused to sign this pledge lost the election.

Given the success of such an approach in Washington state, the Iowa Interfaith Alliance also issued a pledge to school board candidates this year. This effort came on the heels of a 1995 school board election in Des Moines that received national media attention for the ultimately successful and always divisive campaign by national organizations such as the Christian Coalition and The Report to defeat 12-year gay school board member Jonathan Wilson.

In this year's Des Moines school board elections, the three winning candidates all signed the pledge, while the distant fourth-place loser Marty Mauk generated much local media attention this summer from his refusal to sign the Interfaith Alliance's pledge.

Following her election in Merrimack, Rosemarie Rung issued this warning to communities around the country: "In Merrimack it took just two elections for them to gain control by stealth tactics. We then suffered through two years of furious attacks on our schools, and complete inattention to education. Never allow the merchants of fear and hate to infiltrate your town."

Jon Paone is research director at the Interfaith Alliance.

© 1998 Institute for First Amendment Studies, Inc.