Earlier this month, Mathew Johnson, a candidate for the Kingdom East School District board, tuned into a school board meeting to express frustration with the district’s policies.

The district’s mask mandate was “blatant child abuse, in my opinion,” he said, while the 14-member board was responsible for “critical race theory that’s being pushed onto our kids daily.”

“Everything you guys are doing is following an agenda,” Johnson said. “And it ties right back into socialism.”

School board elections in Vermont’s small towns have often been quiet affairs. But ahead of Town Meeting Day next month, a wave of candidates — including Johnson, who did not reply to a Facebook message seeking an interview — is making a bid for board seats with the goal of changing racial equity policies and abolishing mask mandates.

“This is the first time I’ve had a contested election, and I’ve been on the school board for over 20 years,” Adrienne Raymond, the chair of the Mill River Unified Union School District Board, said in an interview. “Usually when you get off the school board, at least in small towns in Vermont, you personally go around and try and find a replacement.”

Over the past year, many parents have worried about critical race theory, or CRT, a specific academic concept that is taught in college courses or graduate school. But for many, the term denotes a broader, more nebulous philosophy of race — one that some parents fear demonizes white children or teaches them to feel guilty.

Now, as a conservative campaign seeks to root out critical race theory in schools across the nation, the movement appears to be galvanizing a grassroots wave of Vermont candidates for school board.

Raymond is facing a challenge from candidate Kristine Billings, who tuned into a school board meeting last month and told officials that the “essence” of critical race theory was being “matriculated into the classroom.” Billings, who did not respond to a Facebook message requesting an interview, is a first-time candidate whose children are homeschooled, according to the Rutland Herald.

Another Mill River candidate, Ingrid Lepley, is linked to a now-shuttered Etsy site that sold, among other things, jewelry that incorporated themes of the right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon.

Lepley did not respond to a Facebook message, but she described herself on the social media site as a parent of students in the district and longtime volunteer.

As a recent Seven Days report described, Mill River schools have, alongside others in Vermont, become flash points in the national culture wars. Over the past two years, Mill River’s school board has seen heated debates over its decision to fly the Black Lives Matter flag and fears of critical race theory in the classroom.

But CRT “just isn’t” being taught at the supervisory union’s five schools, Raymond said. She attributed the controversy partially to the Covid-19 pandemic, which she believes has generally shortened tempers.

“People were angry that we were talking about the Black Lives Matter flag,” she said. “They were angry that we’ve been talking about equity within our system. And then when the pandemic hit, they were just angry, period.”

The Mill River challengers have found a backer in Vermont Rep. Arthur Peterson, R-Clarendon, who has long campaigned against critical race theory. Peterson has pushed the Mill River school board to forbid the concept — even going so far as to draft a letter for board members to send teachers after a ban.

“This is all about making it easier for you because it will give administration leverage if and when a complaint is made about classroom instruction containing racist CRT language,” Peterson wrote to the board in November, after they declined to pursue a ban.

Sue Ceglowski, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said in an email that it was “encouraging to see increased interest in the work of school boards.”

Ceglowski said that she was unaware of critical race theory being taught in Vermont schools. But she underlined the organization’s support for equity initiatives in schools.

“Unfortunately, the spread of misinformation has only served to divide and polarize communities as evidenced by intensifying actions seen at school board meetings and in school board races,” she said. “We must continue to create more welcoming, equitable, and inclusive school communities, while remaining steadfast in our advocacy for equity-focused initiatives on behalf of each and every student in Vermont.”

Mia Schultz, the education justice organizer for statewide advocacy group Rights & Democracy, sees the anti-CRT movement as a backlash to what she called the “racial reckoning” after the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Schultz, who is also the president of the Rutland-Area NAACP, said she understands that, even though critical race theory is not technically being taught in schools, discussions about race can be uncomfortable. But that discomfort is not the end goal, she said.

“Advancing equity will benefit us all, because it’ll strengthen our neighborhoods and our cities and our states,” she said.

Rights & Democracy has endorsed a slate of school board candidates across the state, including some defending their seats against anti-CRT challengers. If those candidates gain control over school boards, she said, Schultz fears that it could “alter the way that our kids experience their education and understand the real truth.”

“We need to have honest and courageous conversations about this so that we can achieve the promise of real racial equity,” she said.

But the anti-CRT movement is not confined to Mill River schools. At an August school board meeting in Springfield, two candidates, Katie Parent and Michael Jasinski, spoke against critical race theory instruction in the district’s four schools.

Parent said she had enrolled her children in home study and would not let them return to school until officials could guarantee “that children aren’t taught that they’re racist because their skin color is white.”

At the same meeting, Jasinski expressed fear that schools were neglecting traditional instruction in favor of “social engineering.” Both Parent and Jasinski declined interview requests.

In Orleans County, Ben Morley, a candidate for the Lake Region Union High School board, has organized anti-CRT events and been outspoken in his opposition to school equity programs. Becky Dion, another candidate for the same board, shared an anti-CRT letter written by Morley on social media, saying, “If you are interested in what the schools have been working on to teach your children in the Orleans county school district, please read the attached.”

Morley declined a request for an interview. Dion did not respond to a Facebook message.

Morley, Dion and Parent are all listed as local administrators of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), a national organization that seeks to combat what it sees as divisive lessons on racial justice across the country.

In Milton, a slate of three candidates for the Milton Town School District board — Nichole Delong, Scott O’Brien and Brock Rouse — circulated a document of “shared beliefs,” outlining their opposition to mask and Covid-19 vaccine mandates in schools and critical race theory, which they called “divisive not unifying.”

The document, which was obtained by VTDigger, also states that the candidates believe in “Americanism not Marxism,” “Capitalism not Socialism,” “the Nuclear Family” and “One Nation Under God,” among other points.

VTDigger emailed the three candidates requesting comment, but only Rouse replied, copying the other two on his email and asking a reporter to provide written questions. None of the candidates answered questions sent in a subsequent email.

Rick Dooley, the Milton school board chair, is defending his seat against Delong. This year’s race, Dooley said, is the most politicized he has seen in his four year-long tenure on the board.

Dooley said he sees the “shared beliefs” document as a political statement that does not have a place in the town’s school board race. Instead, he feels the candidates should be focusing on more tangible changes they want to make within the district.

“Most of the things on there don’t have anything to do with the actual roles and responsibilities of the school board,” Dooley said.

In St. Albans, Keith Longmore, a candidate for school board in the Maple Run Unified School District, has criticized the city’s new Belonging, Equity and Inclusion Committee — of which he is a member — as the “unnecessary” result of a “wokeness brigade.”

Longmore does not appear to have discussed his campaign publicly. He did not attend a candidate forum Feb. 10, and did not respond to multiple interview requests from the St. Albans Messenger.

But on Gettr, a right-wing social media site, an account sharing Longmore’s name has been active. That account, which posts frequently about Vermont politics, has called masks useless “face diapers” and accused the state teachers union of being “corrupt” and “self-serving.”

The account has also reposted a series of offensive memes and far-right conspiracy theories, including one claiming that the Covid-19 pandemic was pre-planned and another accusing Democrats of “(letting) boys in girl’s (sic) locker rooms” and “(accepting) barbarity in the form of Islam.”

Reached by phone Thursday, Longmore declined to discuss his candidacy with VTDigger, saying, “I don’t work with untruthful organizations,” before hanging up.

Reier Erickson, who is running against Longmore, said several people have asked him for his stance on critical race theory — even though there is no evidence it’s being taught in Maple Run schools.

“It’s definitely been something that’s been a driving force for a lot of people,” he said of CRT, “in terms of what their issues are and what their concerns are.”

In Arlington, Luke Hall, a former Vermont State Police trooper who resigned after posting a message on Facebook in support of Jan. 6 rioters, is also making a bid for school board.

Hall, the only candidate who agreed to an interview, said he is concerned that the district is on “the wrong trajectory.” He called for school officials to explore a withdrawal from the Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union and to rescind its mask mandate.

“Parents should choose whether or not to send their child to school with a mask or not,” he said. “I am pro-mask for parents that choose to send their kid with a mask. I am pro-vaccine for parents that choose to get their children vaccinated.”

As for critical race theory, Hall said he wasn’t sure it was being taught in Arlington schools. But, he said, “I fear that many of the ideas within critical race theory are promoting the continuance of division in our society. And that worries me.”

Dooley, the Milton school board chair, said he worries about division from another source: the national politics that have trickled down into local races.

“I think my biggest fear in the politicization of the school board,” he said, “is that the focus becomes less on the students, and more on personal ideology.”

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