When Karen Yoho ran her first campaign for the Frederick County Board of Education four years ago, she checked public voting records from the previous election.
The information allowed the retired elementary school teacher to see the addresses of every county resident who voted in the school board race two years earlier. They were the most likely to vote again, she figured, so she’d knock on their doors — every one she could — and ask for their support.
She didn’t consider whether the residents were registered Democrat or Republican. It didn’t seem to matter.
But things have changed.
Sixteen candidates are vying for four seats on the school board in the July 19 primary. It’s the most crowded field Frederick County has seen, and candidates have raised and spent an unprecedented amount of money.
And though school board races in Maryland are officially nonpartisan, this year's field has broken into deeply divided factions, with platform differences closely resembling national fault lines.
“This is the most partisan ‘nonpartisan' race you will ever take part in,” candidate April Montgomery said.
For Yoho, that means using party registration data to seek Democrats and independents, who she thinks are more likely to be “friendly” to her and the other three candidates endorsed by the local school employees' unions. Those "apple ballot" candidates have prioritized issues like staff recruitment and supported curriculum and policy changes meant to support students of color and LGBTQ students.
For eight self-described conservative candidates in the race — two separate groups of four — it's meant appealing to parents' frustrations with school closures and mask mandates and arguing that school diversity efforts go too far.
The four candidates who haven't teamed up with others or received major endorsements have steered clear of alliances.
The field in Frederick County mirrors national trends, experts say.
Unlike in years past, Yoho said, candidates this year say they want to dramatically change the direction of the school board and the shape of public education.
"That either has people happy or scared," Yoho said.
Breaking down the field
The field of 16 breaks down into four distinct groups of four candidates each.
Only one group is formally registered as a slate, meaning candidates raise and spend money together. The Education Not Indoctrination slate is led by Cindy Rose, who is running her fourth campaign for the board and has long been an outspoken critic of Frederick County Public Schools.
Rose is joined on the slate by Nancy Allen, Olivia Angolia and Mark Joannides, all political newcomers. The group is committed to securing a conservative majority on the seven-member school board, which it argues has allowed FCPS to become “institutionalized training grounds for the progressive political activists of tomorrow.”
But the slate isn’t the only conservative group of four in the race.
Though their bank accounts aren’t tied together, Montgomery, Heather Fletcher, Ashley Nieves and Tiffany Noble are running aligned campaigns with platforms similar to the slate’s.
Both groups have opposed updates to the district's health curriculum, were vocal against COVID-19 mask mandates and have argued that FCPS abandoned core subjects like reading and math in favor of social-emotional learning.
At first, Rose said, she wanted eight people on her slate, so all could get through the primary, and voters would have no choice but to vote for Education Not Indoctrination in the general election.
But since only four seats are open on the board, and voters can only choose four candidates on their primary and general ballots, Rose said she decided that forming a group double that size was "probably not the wisest move."
The slate never grew larger than five people. The fifth candidate was Nieves, who broke from the group and launched her own campaign in October 2021.
The slate’s “mission kind of changed” over time, Nieves said, and “right-winged” until she was uncomfortable with some of their stances. She left to run an independent campaign, she said.
Rose said the split was due to personality conflicts.
After leaving the slate, Nieves didn't plan to join forces with other candidates. But she changed her mind a few months later when she met Fletcher, Montgomery and Noble. Like Nieves, they were fiercely opposed to proposed updates to FCPS' elementary health curriculum.
The slate and Nieves' new team acknowledge their similarities and broadly agree on their main differences.
Slate members accuse Nieves, Fletcher, Montgomery and Noble of being too flexible. Nieves' group, in turn, accuses the slate of being too rigid.
Nieves said her group is better at putting aside differences to work toward common ground. They would take a more measured approach to reforming FCPS, she said. And because Nieves' group is not a legal slate, they're more free to express individual opinions, she said.
Joannides said the slate is more committed to their platform and that efforts to find common ground would be futile.
"When you try to meet in the middle with issues like this, you're not meeting in the middle," Joannides said. "You're giving up a principle."
Meanwhile, Yoho’s group — the “apple ballot” candidates endorsed by the Frederick County Teachers Association, the Frederick Association of School Support Employees and the Frederick County Administrative and Supervisory Association — are running more traditional campaigns.
Yoho, Ysela Bravo, Rae Gallagher and Dean Rose have secured the support of established local figures, including County Executive Jan Gardner and former FCPS Superintendent Jack Dale. Their talking points tend to hit on issues like class size and teacher pay, and they tout their experience in education and nonprofit management.
But the group has also sought to make sure people know they support systemwide diversity efforts, Yoho said, like including LGBTQ representation in family life lessons and seeking out teachers of color, so FCPS staff demographics more closely align with the community's.
"We don't have one solid message," Yoho said, "other than all of us absolutely agree that we need to do what we can to make sure all of our students feel accepted, welcome and safe."
The remaining four candidates are each running independent campaigns. One is Liz Barrett, an incumbent seeking her third term.
Barrett received the unions' endorsement when she first ran in 2014, but not when she campaigned again in 2018.
This year, she didn’t seek out the endorsement, in part because she viewed it as a conflict of interest, she said. Barrett and her colleagues on the board were negotiating contracts with the teachers' union at the same time the union was choosing candidates to endorse. The two processes had not overlapped before, but did this year because of a lengthy impasse that delayed negotiations.
Barrett, the most outspoken member on the current board, said she's used to being in an independent position.
“I’m pretty comfy there,” Barrett said. “I've gotten so much good feedback from teachers and staff over the years that I'm not concerned that I'm gonna lose votes there just because I'm not on the apple ballot.”
Candidates David Brooks, Rayna Remondini and Justi Thomas, meanwhile, have each made comments distancing themselves from the rest of the field and appealing to voters disillusioned with the higher-profile candidates.
"This race has brought a large number of politically minded candidates — from both sides — who seem very concerned with pushing an agenda," Thomas said at a recent candidates' forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Frederick County. "When you vote for me, you are voting for a moderate mom."
'It started with the masks'
Similar fights are playing out in school board races — which have traditionally been ignored by huge swaths of the voting public — across the country, said Thomas Toch, an education policy expert at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.
The coronavirus pandemic and the shift to virtual learning gave parents an opportunity to scrutinize children's day-to-day learning in a way they never had before. That, coupled with frustrations about mask mandates, school closures and many schools' focus on equity after massive protests against racism and police brutality in the summer of 2020, has given rise to a new wave of parent activism, Toch said.
"We've seen a polarization of the local conversations on education," Toch said.
The election-tracking website Ballotpedia analyzed more than 1,000 races in the country's largest school districts. The average number of candidates vying for open board of education seats increased 17% in 2022, Ballotpedia found.
Ballotpedia also identified a surge in efforts to recall sitting school board members in 2021. It tracked 91 recall attempts against 235 members nationwide that year, compared to an average of about 30 attempts per year since 2009.
Multiple conservative candidates in the Frederick County school board race said they were inspired to run by the same factors that Toch identified as galvanizing candidates across the country.
"It started with the masks," Noble told The Frederick News-Post in May.
Pandemic closures encouraged Montgomery to conduct more research on education policy than she ever had before, she said.
“It was kind of like a rabbit hole,” Montgomery said.
The tipping point came when she listened in on her middle-school daughter's virtual health class, which Montgomery said was using "over-sexualized material."
Joannides, who home-schooled his four children, highlighted his "disgust" with Black Lives Matter protests when asked why he was running.
The slate's website appeals to voters who "recognize something is terribly wrong in America." A video on the site shows images of burning buildings and toppled statues overlaid with serious music.
"When you learn during a pandemic your local schools are teaching men can have babies, secrets are kept from parents, all white people are born racists, healthy young people are forced to hide their faces behind masks and special interest groups have taken control of your classrooms," the video says, "what do you do?"
Political intensity in once-tame school board races isn't likely to go away soon, Toch said.
"We’re in a tough moment in our nation’s history," Toch said. "We’re really divided among a number of lines.
"And, certainly, the culture wars are raging."