Voters in Iowa’s large school districts overwhelmingly picked progressive candidates over conservatives on November 7. In many urban and suburban districts, candidates backed by local Democrats, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA), and/or the LGBTQ advocacy group One Iowa Action ran the table, while candidates backed by activists on the religious right fell short.
The results are a rebuke to Governor Kim Reynolds and Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature, which enacted new laws in 2023 that undermined public schools and LGBTQ students, and restricted school library books and inclusive curriculum materials.
They also show the enduring strength of the state’s largest teachers union. For many years, Iowans elected school boards in September and city councils and mayors in November. The GOP trifecta changed state law so that beginning in 2019, school board and city elections would occur on the same day. The idea was to increase local election turnout and thereby diminish the ISEA’s influence over school boards. Nevertheless, candidates backed by public educators prevailed in many of this year’s most competitive races.
One city election also underscored how unpopular book banning is with Iowans. In the notoriously conservative town of Pella, voters rejected by 2,041 votes to 1,954 (51.1 percent to 48.9 percent) a ballot measure that would have empowered the city council to overrule the public library board.
CENTRAL IOWA RACES
The Iowa Secretary of State’s website posted unofficial results from all city and school elections.
Conservatives weren’t seriously contesting any seats in the Des Moines Independent Community Schools, which is Iowa’s largest public school district by far. Unofficial results show the winners were Patrick Dix (65.2 percent of the vote for the at-large seat), Kim Martorano (unopposed in Ward 1), and Anna Maria Campos (58.6 percent in Ward 3). None had supported the Reynolds/GOP agenda for public schools.
Republicans or conservative groups fielded candidates in all of central Iowa’s suburban school districts. Most were shut out. Going in descending order, starting with the largest student enrollment after Des Moines:
Waukee Community School District
Five candidates competed for three at-large seats. ISEA backed all the winners: Wendy Marsh (23.4 percent), Michael Trettin (23.2 percent), and Kate Boonstra (22.7 percent). One Iowa Action backed Marsh and Boonstra.
In a repeat from 2021, conservative candidates failed to win any Waukee school board seats.
Ankeny Community School District
Eight candidates competed for four at-large seats, and two competed to serve out the remainder of a term in another at-large race.
Republican-backed candidates won all the Ankeny school board races two years ago, but just one this time. Stephanie Gott was endorsed by the ISEA as well as local conservatives; she received 14.4 percent of the vote.
Democrats and progressives backed the others who won full terms: Katie Claeys (15.9 percent), Shelly Northway (15.6 percent), and Amber Romans (13.9 percent), as well as Amy Tagliareni, who won the race to fill a school board vacancy. One Iowa Action endorsed Northway.
West Des Moines Community School District
Eight candidates competed for four at-large seats. The winners were all endorsed by ISEA: Elizabeth Larson (18.4 percent), Jill Caton Johnson (17.4 percent), Michael Andreski (15.9 percent), and Jeff Hicks (15.4 percent).
One Iowa Action backed Larson and Andreski. Moms for Liberty backed one of the losing candidates, Teri Patrick (8.9 percent).
Southeast Polk Community School District
Six candidates were running for four at-large seats. Yet again, the ISEA supported all the winners: Brett Handy (21.0 percent), Chad Crabb (18.6 percent), Lori Slings (18.0 percent), and Kelly Simmons (14.8 percent).
Johnston Community School District
This outcome was a huge loss for conservatives, who had swept the Johnston school board races in 2021.
Eight candidates were seeking four at-large seats. The Christian conservative group The FAMiLY Leader made its first school board endorsements ever, urging supporters to elect Michelle Veach, Charles Steele, Lori Stiles, and Josh Nelson. Moms for Liberty endorsed Steele and Veach.
All of them finished more than 1,000 votes behind the ISEA-backed winners: Lya Williams (14.5 percent), Jason Arnold (14.5 percent), Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher (14.4 percent), and Jennifer Chamberlain (14.2 percent). One Iowa Action endorsed Mangra-Dutcher, Arnold, and Williams.
Urbandale Community School District
Political winds have shifted dramatically in this suburb on the northwest side of Des Moines. Only four years ago, Republican men held all five Urbandale city council seats; yet the GOP didn’t contest any of this year’s city council races.
Conservatives did field two of the six candidates running for Urbandale school board. But area Democrats backed all four winners: Carissa Williams (19.3 percent), Margaret Young (19.1 percent), Josh Van Ryswyk (18.8 percent), and Katherine Howsare (15.0 percent). One Iowa Action endorsed Van Ryswyk and Young.
OTHER NOTABLE IOWA SCHOOL BOARD RESULTS
Here are results for larger districts where competitors had different philosophies or ideologies about schools.
Linn-Mar Community School District
I have to start with Linn-Mar, because Republican politicians have demonized that district’s inclusive policies for years. Reynolds and U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson (whose own children attend Linn-Mar schools) have led the charge, scoring political points by punching down on vulnerable kids. Former Vice President Mike Pence regularly bashed Linn-Mar in his campaign appearances and misrepresented the district’s former policy in a televised debate.
Moms for Liberty made a big play here, endorsing three of the eight candidates for four at-large seats. But again, the union-backed contenders were victorious: Barry Buchholz (15.2 percent), Katie Lowe Lancaster (15.1 percent), Justin Foss (14.9 percent), and Brittania Morey (14.0 percent). One Iowa Action was supporting Morey.
No one on the Moms for Liberty slate received more than 11 percent of the vote.
I wonder how Reynolds and Hinson will explain away this one.
Looking at other school board races, in descending order by district size:
Cedar Rapids Community School District
Five candidates sought two at-large positions in Iowa’s second-largest public school district, and the winners were union-backed candidates Cindy Garlock (30.3 percent) and Jennifer Neumann (28.3 percent). Moms for Liberty supported Barclay Woerner and Richard David, who had previously spread conspiracy theories about school district policies. They each received a little more than 14 percent.
Two other incumbents backed by the ISEA had different fates. David Tominsky won his race in district 1 with 52.9 percent of the vote, but Dexter Merschbrock (also endorsed by One Iowa Action) lost with 46.2 percent of the vote. His opponent was not a conservative; the Cedar Rapids Gazette’s coverage noted that Merschbrock had “vehemently opposed a $220 million school bond referendum that failed” in the November 7 election.
Sioux City Community School District
Nine candidates were running for four at-large seats. Three of the four ISEA-endorsed candidates were successful: Treyla Lee (16.8 percent), Earl Miller (14.7 percent), and Lance Ehmcke (13.8 percent). The fourth winner was John Meyers (13.3 percent), who had previously served on the board. Union-backed challenger Semehar Ghebrekidan fell short against incumbent Dan Greenwell in the race to fill a vacancy for a different at-large seat.
Iowa City Community School District
In the district that covers Iowa’s bluest metro area, seven candidates ran for four at-large seats. It wasn’t close, with ISEA’s endorsed candidates easily winning: Molly Abraham (23.3 percent), Lisa Williams (22.6 percent), Mitch Lingo (20.8 percent), and Charlie Eastham (20.8 percent).
Davenport Community School District
Six candidates were seeking four full terms for at-large seats, and another candidate was unopposed to fill a vacancy. The four candidates with the ISEA’s backing finished well ahead of the other contenders: Kent Paustian (18.3 percent), Linda Hayes (17.7 percent), Karen Kline-Jerome (16.9 percent), and Daniel Gosa (16.7 percent).
Dubuque Community School District
Five candidates were running for four at-large seats, and it was the same old story. The ISEA had endorsed the winners: Kate Parks (22.4 percent), Sarah Jacobitz-Kizzier (20.6 percent), Lisa Ann Wittman (20.2 percent), and Dirk Hamel (18.8 percent).
Bettendorf Community School District
Nine candidates campaigned for four at-large seats. In a rare example of conservative success this year, the four who won ran as a bloc called the “Clean Sweep Team”: Ryan McGivern (16.8 percent), Paul Castro (16.4 percent), Kevin Freking (15.6 percent), and Patrick Larkin (15.3 percent). The one ISEA-endorsed candidate, Erin Bannerman, finished fifth with 9.7 percent.
Mason City Community School District
Aside from the usual culture war issues that have affected school boards large and small across Iowa, Mason City had a unique controversy. Shortly after the 2021 elections, the school board voted unanimously to drop the name “Mohawks” from the district’s athletic teams. Some area residents were enraged, but the school board moved forward, selecting “Riverhawks” as the new mascot.
The eight candidates for four at-large seats this year sorted themselves into two blocs. The four backed by labor unions and area progressives carried the day on November 7: Katherine Koehler (16.9 percent), Jennifer Dorsey-Lee (16.4 percent), Madison Nelson (16.4 percent), and Megan Markos (14.9 percent). The other candidates were well behind; Tom Stalker, who had led the effort to save the Mohawk name, received 10.1 percent.
As for Iowa’s many smaller school districts, it’s hard to generalize about the November 7 results. Moms for Liberty contender Nathan Gibson won a seat in the rural I-35 district, where Governor Reynolds went to high school. But conservative candidates were shut out in many places, such as Carroll and Dallas Center-Grimes.
What’s clear is that in school districts that serve hundreds of thousands of K-12 students, voters rejected candidates aligned with the Republican vision for public education in Iowa.
UPDATE: Readers have called my attention to other school board races where conservative candidates lost badly. In Pleasant Valley (Scott County), a political action committee funded a slate of conservative candidates who lost. In Mount Vernon (Linn County), ISEA-backed candidates swept all four seats, while two candidates aligned with Moms for Liberty finished well behind. Keep those tips coming.
LATER UPDATE: Candidates backed by area progressives were also successful in the Council Bluffs Community School District, which has more than 8,700 enrolled students. Eight candidates were seeking four seats. (One of those eight withdrew from the race, but not in time to remove her name from the ballot.) The winners were Dave Coziahr (16.0 percent), Teresa Hardiman (16.0 percent), Angela Griner (14.9 percent), and Tracy Ozzello (13.1 percent).