Campaign commotion: School board candidate flyers prompt questions
Campaign literature endorsing candidates in the Brainerd School Board race has garnered questions and concerns throughout the community.
BRAINERD — In the weeks before an election, handouts, mailers and other campaign materials with candidate names and faces abound. But unless those materials come directly from a candidate, it’s likely the candidate does not know about them before they go out.
Under Minnesota statute, candidates cannot coordinate with political committees on campaign materials. This year, a few Brainerd lakes area candidates have a front row seat to the impact that rule can have on an election.
Two recent pieces of campaign materials, each endorsing five different candidates for the Brainerd School Board, drew questions and concerns from community members about the origins of the materials, their affiliation with those they endorse and whether they did more harm than good in a race where voters have 16 choices to fill the five open seats.
The first was a mailer that came from Support Our Teachers and included a disclaimer stating it was not paid for by any candidate, read “Dangerous political extremists are running to inject their beliefs into your kid’s education." It continued on to accuse those “extremists” of believing some students should be left behind and outsiders should have veto power over curriculum, along with bringing national culture wars into Brainerd classrooms.
Down below, the mailer advised voters to protect students by voting only for five candidates deemed “progressive education champions.”
Those listed — John Ward, Michelle Brekken, Charles Black Lance, Elisa Korentayer and Sarah Speer — did not have positive thoughts on the mailer and said they did not know anything about the Support Our Teachers group.
“I think it’s regrettable that if I haven’t met somebody that that would be my first introduction — that that would be the way that we meet because I don’t know how representative that is,” Speer said during a phone interview Friday, Oct. 28.
“I really struggle with somebody putting words in my mouth and not talking to me first about what my positions are,” Brekken said, echoing Speer’s thoughts.
Brekken said she also felt violated by someone taking a photo from her personal Facebook page to use in the mailing.While Black Lance said he is not surprised nor upset with someone using his name and photo because he is in the public domain as a current board member and a candidate, he said it’s unfortunate groups are throwing money at this type of misleading information.
“I would just rather focus on students and hear from all candidates, myself included, in terms of how we intend to support students and support our teachers and administrators,” Black Lance said.
In a post on her campaign Facebook page, Korentayer called the mailer “tone-deaf” and “fear-mongering.”
“The oversized postcard gives the impression that I am part of some “progressive” cabal intent on ramming some political agenda through the Brainerd School Board,” Korentayer wrote. “To be clear, I am not part of any progressive cabal, and I don’t intend to ram any political agenda through the Brainerd School Board.”
Ward — who was not sure if he had seen the mailer in question — said the language on it does not fit his campaign style. He said he operates by letting constituents know what he intends to do in office.
“When is civility going to return to the campaign and political process?” Ward said.
His sentiment was in line with other candidates who felt the mailer was a divisive political move out of step with the culture of the community, serving to build animosity, drive hate and take the focus off the students and the real goals candidates have.
Support Our Teachers is an out-of-state independent expenditure committee that was first registered with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board Sept. 29, whose representatives said they were approached by in-state residents about the Brainerd School Board Race.
“We're focused on supporting pro-public education candidates who can stand up to radical extremists running to take over Brainerd's schools. Our campaign is entirely funded by local residents,” Support Our Teachers Chair Matt Smart wrote in an email statement Monday, Oct. 31.
According to state statute, independent expenditure political groups can campaign for or against candidates but cannot make contributions to or approved expenditures on behalf of candidates.
"Independent expenditure" is defined as an expenditure expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate if the expenditure is made without consent or authorization of the candidate.
The other campaign material drumming up conversation was one handed out to attendees of a recent Brainerd High School football game. One side of the handout contained bullet points about declining graduation numbers and proficiency rates in the district, along with assertions of the district overstepping parental rights and lowering expectations of success. It also references apparent state level pushes to include “Marxist principles” such as critical race theory and fluid sexual identity into public schools.
The other side of the handout states “Don’t divide the vote!” “Teach our children how to think, not what to think!” and “Education not indoctrination.” The handout urges voters to vote for DJ Dondelinger, Lowell Smith, Randy Heidmann, Trevor Mulholland and Anthony Bonsante. It did not state a person or group from which it came, posing questions about its origin from some in the community.
The candidates said they did not know about the handout ahead of time, but Bonsante said it came from a group called Constitutional Conservative Christians. He noted the material did not say anything negative about any of the other candidates.
Dondelinger, Heidmann and Mulholland all said they did not have an issue with the handout either, even if they did not know about it beforehand.
“Am I against it? Not really. I think it had some great call outs on it,” Mulholland said.
Dondelinger said he didn’t read every bullet point but didn’t think his beliefs were far off from those stated on the handout.
Heidmann said he believed there was some good information on the handout and it just served to articulate the goals of the five candidates. He and others agreed, however, the School Board race has become too politicized.
“It is turning into politics, and hopefully here in the local district we can stay away from politics and just focus on academic excellence for our children,” Heidmann said.
Smith, the fifth candidate listed, said he did not agree with everything in the handout. Unless the information referenced ideas like increasing parental support, removing divisive politics from the classroom, promoting transparency or focusing on academic success, he said it is not the platform on which he is running.
“Special interest groups can back any candidate, and we have no control over that,” Smith said. “... Special interest groups will put messaging of who they’re supporting and how they want to do it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a liberal or conervative side. I would have not had my name attached. That’s not my messaging.”
There are three full four-year terms open on the Brainerd School Board, along with two special two-year seats.
Incumbents Black Lance and Speer are running alongside Dondelinger, Heidman, Korentayer, Smith and Derek Owen for the four-year seats. Voters can choose up to three candidates on the ballot.
Bonsante, Brekken, Mulholland and Ward are running for the two-year seats alongside Tris Cluever, Jessica Forsberg, Mike Stanek, David Stimac and Brent Yaunick. Voters can choose up to two candidates.