Twelve candidates are vying for four open seats on the Eastern Carver County School Board this election season — and one group is running together in hopes of snagging them all.
In an unusual arrangement, Joe Scott, Dean Waymire, Svetlana Kolesnikova and Greg Petrie are running together — under the catchy name Four4112 — in hopes of capitalizing on the criticism school boards have faced in recent years over everything from mask mandates during the COVID pandemic to equity initiatives.
Backed by conservative organizations, their top priorities include giving parents more of a say at board meetings and reversing what they characterize as alarming signs of enrollment decline in the district.
Their campaign has drawn criticism from people who believe the school district is headed in the right direction and doesn't need to drastically change course. Still others, meanwhile, are concerned that the four would have the power to make deals outside of formal channels if they together held the majority of seats on the seven-person board.
Open meetings law
“If the four of them are reaching agreements, again, regarding matters of public concern, outside of public purview, if they’re operating as a block, how does it raise both the Open Meetings Law question and their basic duties to the public as opposed to one another?” asked David Schultz, a political science professor at Hamline University.
According to Schultz, the law “requires that meetings be open to the public, that public officials are not allowed to engage in discussions behind closed doors if they are getting to the point where they are leading to decisions being made.”
Schultz explained that if the Open Meetings Law is violated, guilty parties may incur fines or have to forfeit their positions after three violations. Violations could also lead to the overturning of decisions reached outside of the public purview, he said.
Another concern percolating on social media: Petrie and Kolesnikova are married. While that has not been disclosed on the Four4112 website, Facebook page or any other campaign-based platform, Petrie called it a “non-issue” when it comes to open meetings.
Schultz, however, asked: “How do you police that? How do you tell them that at the dinner table, you don’t discuss last night’s meeting or the upcoming agenda or something? How do you make sure that the discussions aren’t leading them to come to conclusions on decisions? I think it’s impossible.”
Kolesnikova and Petrie are not concerned with violating the Open Meetings Law should they be elected.
“We can talk about something, it’s going to happen — we’re human beings, we talk,” Petrie said. “Are we going to change each other’s minds? Probably not. But are we going to have a discussion? Most likely to some degree.”
The four have proposed holding 30-minute informal meetings before board meetings to listen and respond to the public’s concerns. Scott said the group is “very cognizant” of the law and the need to give the public and other board members proper notice of these proposed informal meetings.
“Some of the other board members may not be interested. That's okay. It's going to be optional,” Scott said.
One issue that comes to the forefront for the group is an alleged lack of parent voice in their students' education. The group said that over the past few years, the school board has stopped listening to parents and their concerns.
Waymire recalled a past school board meeting where it became clear to him that the board was not listening to parents. One of his children has asthma and struggled with wearing a mask, he said, adding that he wanted to attend the meeting to learn about the school’s plan and on what board members were basing their policies.
“There (were) a lot of parents who spoke up. There were doctors, scientists and other professionals who seemed like they had a lot of great information and knowledge to share,” Waymire said.
“It just was frustrating that the school board members didn't seem to listen," he added. "It made me decide that I wanted to get involved and be a part of it and see if we can change it up.”
Enrollment is another staple of the group’s platform. The group claims, according to its own data, that from 2010 to 2020 the number of school-age children living in the district increased by 59%. They allege that since the 2018-2019 school year, however, enrollment has decreased by 4.3%.
“If we don't get our act together as a school district and stop the enrollment declines, which causes financial issues, don’t be surprised if a private school ends up leasing one of our buildings,” Scott said. “That to me would be a huge tragedy for our school district and the reason why we're talking to people about this.”
The district disputes those figures, however. According to Celi Haga, director of Communications and Community Relations at ECCS, from 2010 to 2020 there has been a 6.8% increase in school-age residents and a 3.3% decrease in enrollment since 2018.
The group also sounds a common conservative appeal: that the district has gotten away from teaching the basics: math, reading, writing, science, history, computer skills and social studies. They would like to eliminate anything that takes away from those basics, such as “anything related politically,” Kolesnikova said.
“It doesn’t matter if you agree with this ideology or not, it doesn’t belong there,” Kolesnikova said. “Just like religion. You know, I’m a Christian and I don’t want anybody to teach Christianity at school. Some kids might not like that, they might disagree. It’s a belief system and ideology, and that’s why it shouldn’t be there.”
While debates over topics like gender identity and social justice have roiled school boards in recent years, other candidates believe schools can do both: teach the essentials and broaden the tent for marginalized students and unpopular views.
While the school board race is ostensibly nonpartisan, the four have been shared on the social media of the Conservative American PAC on multiple occasions and hold ideologies that align with a right-leaning way of thinking. The group has also been endorsed by the Minnesota Parent Alliance, a parent group affiliated with the Center for the American Experiment, a conservative think tank.
“Our platform, I would say, is probably more based on conservative values and teaching education and keeping politics out of school. That’s important to us,” Petrie said. “One might say that’s a conservative point of view. We don’t really look at it as a political position.”
Schultz said the candidates could very well break through with their unified message because "there is a very dedicated group of individuals who show up to vote who are pushing a conservative, Christian ideology about sexuality, about race, about a whole bunch of different issues.”
He added: "These are individuals who are well poised to have their voices and their influence heard.”