CAMAS, Wash. (KOIN) — There’s a trend among school board candidates in Clark County. Several topics, including critical race theory, politics in the classroom and COVID-19-related mandates, are making appearances in voters’ pamphlet statements.
In Camas, two school board challengers, Ernie Geigenmiller and Jeremiah Chevrolet Stephen, both say they want politics removed from classrooms.
In Battle Ground, Chloe Seppala says she’s concerned about critical race theory and comprehensive sex education.
In Ridgefield, Chantel Nash believes the education system should “not be forced to wear masks or cohersed (sic) into getting an experimental gene therapy in the name of ‘vaccine.’”
After looking at the voters’ pamphlet, Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver, said he believes these candidates are focusing on issues that have been talked about in the conservative media lately. He thinks they’re trying to tap into the conservative voter base in Clark County and convince them to vote.
“This is an off year. We’re not even in a midterm year, and so, it’s going to be pretty low turnout comparatively. So, anything that candidates can do to get people to the polls is a good thing,” he said.
One phrase Stephan said motivates parents he has spoken with is that children should be taught “how to think critically, instead of what to think.”
“We want them to think critically. It’s used in a particular way to suggest that maybe the opponent in the race or others are in fact trying to do that in this particular school district. And so, that creates a sense of fear or alarm potentially in voters,” he explained.
Jeremiah Chevrolet Stephen, who’s running for the District No. 2 position in Camas, used that exact phrase in his voters’ pamphlet statement. He said he wants parents to leave their politics at the door.
“Teach these kids who are sponges and figure out how to communicate and how to connect with them so they’re gonna take what you’re teaching them out into the real world and get a view of their own,” he said. “When you’re giving your view to them, that’s not really giving them the best opportunity.”
Ernie Geigenmiller, the challenger for the District No. 1 position in Camas, expressed similar views in his voters’ pamphlet statement. The slogan on his campaign sign says, “No politics, just great education!”
Geigenmiller is the owner of Lacamas Magazine. He said since he’s a journalist, people have come to him with videos of teachers saying things that are political in nature. He said it’s become more common in the last few years.
“I hear over and over again from parents that ‘My kids aren’t comfortable going to school anymore because they’re going into these environments where they feel like their beliefs are being minimized or or ridiculed even by some teachers,’” he said.
He said most teachers don’t interject their beliefs, but thinks the school environment is changing.
Several school board candidates running in Clark County, including Geigenmiller and Chevrolet Stephen, mentioned “decisions made behind closed doors” in their voters’ pamphlet statement. However, when KOIN 6 News asked Geigenmiller and Chevrolet Stephen what those decisions were, neither of them had a response.
Geigenmiller did say he’d like to see more transparency and communication between the school board and parents.
His opponent, school board incumbent Erika Cox, agrees it’s important to listen to parents.
“We really value hearing what is happening with their students in their school,” she said. “It’s important for us to hear those stories. It’s important for us to hear what’s happening in a classroom, if it has to do with funding what could be funded better?”
Unlike Geigenmiller and Chevrolet Stephen, Cox left politics and other hot topics out of her voters’ pamphlet statement. She said she doesn’t know what politics they’re referring to in the education system.
When asked why she didn’t mention topics such as critical race theory or wearing masks, Cox said she isn’t sure if these things will still be talked about two years from now. Since a school board member serves for four years, she wanted to make sure she was bringing up points that would resonate with the community for the next several years.
She instead focused on things like mental health, physical health and equitable opportunities for students.
“After Election Day, we’re still neighbors and we’re still parents of campus students, and we need to be looking forward together,” she said.
Corey McEnry, who’s the incumbent running for District No. 1 against Geigenmiller, also avoided hot topics in his voter’s pamphlet statement and instead focused on the experience he brings to the board as a current teacher in the Hockinson School District and a third-generation Camas High School graduate.
Like Cox, McEnry said he hasn’t heard of politics being an issue in Camas classrooms. However, he agrees with Chevrolet Stephen and Geigenmiller that students must be critical thinkers and learn to see things from different perspectives.
“I think if there’s one thing that our society has lost lately… we don’t know how to have tough conversations,” he said. “I think that we learn when we are uncomfortable and see things from a different perspective.”
He said he knows critical race theory is a buzzword that has a lot of people talking, but he said it’s currently not being taught in Camas schools. He also said that while some candidates might want to push back against mask mandates, it’s not something the school board has a lot of say in because the mandate is coming from state lawmakers. If the district breaks the mandate, it could lose its state funding.
All four candidates share many goals when it comes to improving Camas schools. They all want to make sure kids are prepared for their future after they graduate. They all want open communication between the school board and the community and they all want to help the district rebound after the pandemic.
Stephan, from WSU Vancouver, said sharing values like this isn’t uncommon among candidates.
“The differences don’t have to be huge between candidates for there to be enough people that will show up at the polls and vote,” he said.
In Battle Ground, school board candidate Chloe Seppala did not respond to KOIN 6 News’ multiple requests for an interview. However, in her voters’ pamphlet statement, she hits on multiple hot topics.
She states, “I have concerns about the political agendas, like critical race theory and comprehensive sex education, that are being adopted into curriculum causing parents to withdraw children from public schools in droves.”
Critical race theory, which according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund is “an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society,” is also something Seppala’s opponent Mary Snitily does not think should be taught in Battle Ground schools.
However, she does think historical racism should be taught.
“Each individual person needs to learn about racism and the danger of racism. I think we need to talk about history in context. And I think this is where we get into trouble when we talk about history and try to put it in today’s context,” she said.
Jackie Maddux is also running for the Battle Ground School Board and does not think critical race theory should be taught in local schools.
Maddux and Snitily are both current members on the school board and are running to hold their positions. They both agree that families should decide if their kids are required to wear masks in schools. Maddux said she’s not against wearing masks, but feels it is a choice parents should make, not the state.
“I’m not political. I didn’t come to the board with an agenda,” Maddux said. “We need to remember that the focus is the kids. It’s all about the kids and it always has been. So, making sure that they’re taken care of is, I guess, my agenda.”
In the November 2020 election, the majority of Clark County voters supported Democratic candidate Joe Biden over Republican Donald Trump. However, they favored Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler over Democrat Carolyn Long in the U.S. congressional race. The county is split and Stephan from WSU Vancouver said whether or not the buzzwords appeal to conservative voters could depend on where the race is being held.
Clark County school board elections will take place on Nov. 2, 2021. For a list of Clark County ballot deposit locations, visit the county elections website.