In the most closely watched school elections in some time, school board candidates who questioned districts' focus on diversity and equity initiatives in schools generally came up short across the Lower Hudson Valley, with some notable exceptions.
Many school districts reported unusually high voter turnout Tuesday in contests that drew extensive social media buzz about politically charged races. Some elections drew a slew of candidate endorsements by both private groups and teachers unions.
In Lakeland, Clarkstown and Yorktown — districts that have seen extensive conflict over "diversity, equity and inclusion" initiatives in schools — candidates that openly questioned these anti-racism policies were defeated.
Among other candidates rejected by voters were a Save Our Schools leader who ran in Nyack, a conservative intellectual who railed against the "new anti-racism" and ran in Blind Brook, and a local radio host who called DEI an "existential threat" and ran in New Rochelle.
But in some districts, school boards may shift to the right. In Eastchester, a slate of four candidates that pushed "parental choice" and district transparency defeated a progressive slate, including two incumbents.
In South Orangetown, two candidates who questioned DEI efforts – one complaining at a school board meeting about "equity this, equity that" – defeated incumbents.
'Culture wars': School boards turned into political battlegrounds
A statement from the winning Eastchester slate, Eagles Upward, said the candidates were successful because "our message resonated with the entire community, that being: improving curriculum with an emphasis on authentic learning, supporting all students and teachers, ensuring the safety of students and staff, pledging to keep taxes and the budget in check, and to open additional polling locations to make it easier for the entire community to participate and have a voice."
Tom Watson, a political consultant from Mount Vernon, tweeted: "The radical right slate swept the Eastchester school board race, and some ugly words were part of this race, particularly regarding gender identity, race, books and immigration. New Yorkers should pay close attention to what happens next with Eastchester schools."
Budget defeats rise
Five districts in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties saw their budget proposals rejected by voters, the highest number in several years. School boards in Mount Vernon, East Ramapo, Mahopac, Hastings-on-Hudson and Garrison will have to decide whether to hold second votes on June 10.
Last year, Carmel was the only district in the region to have its budget defeated.
In 2020, East Ramapo had the only defeat. The district, which has a majority of its students attending private yeshivas, has seen more budget defeats than any other in the state in the last decade.
Only seven budgets were defeated in the 673 districts in New York state that held public votes Tuesday, according to the New York State School Boards Association.
Robert Schneider, executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said one reason for the 99% approval rate was that a second year of large state aid increases for many districts was "enormously helpful as schools cope with inflation and the ongoing consequences of the pandemic."
Garrison, a one-school district for about 200 students in grades K-8, was one of only 16 districts in New York that was seeking to exceed its property tax levy cap. The district needed a 60% supermajority but wound up with a 314-314 tie. Officials said they made the move because of rising costs, including to pay out-of-district high school tuition for its students.
Voters supported budgets in 48 districts across the Lower Hudson Valley, as well as at least 40 other ballot prepositions.
Remaining incumbents hold on
As school board meetings grew contentious in many communities the past two years — largely over DEI plans, COVID policies and, more recently, sex and gender education — many have wondered whether incumbents would be thrown out of office.
It mostly didn't work that way in Westchester, Rockland and Putnam. Of incumbents who ran for re-election Tuesday in contested races, 40 were reelected and 11 were defeated.
At the same time, a bunch of incumbents stepped aside. No incumbents ran for re-election in an unusually large number of districts, including Bedford, Bronxville, Elmsford, Mamaroneck, Pelham, Tarrytowns and Pearl River.
Statewide, about a third of incumbents did not run for re-election this year, according to a survey of districts by the state School Boards Association. In more than 500 districts that responded, 47% of candidates were incumbents and 53% challengers.
"We can speculate about why more incumbents are choosing not to run," spokesperson David Albert said. "There's been a lot going on in regard to remote learning, masks, learning loss. We could see a fair amount of turnover on school boards over time."
Will board races stay hot?
School board elections got a new level of attention this spring.
Four Westchester women founded Teach the Truth to support progressive candidates across the county. The Putnam County chapter of Moms for Liberty endorsed candidates in three races. And teachers unions endorsed candidates in large numbers.
Will this level of engagement continue?
Teach the Truth said it was pleased by candidate wins in at least 13 districts and by the defeat of extreme candidates, "which sends a strong message that Westchester voters are rejecting the fear-mongering agenda seen elsewhere in the country."
Even in Eastchester, the group said, turnout was up 10% and the race was more competitive than last year.
Teach the Truth pledged to expand for 2023.
"Our next steps in places like Eastchester and Lakeland are to hold elected trustees accountable," the group said in a statement. "In Eastchester, we will hold them to their promise to listen to all families, which means listening to the 1,400 residents who did not vote for them, and the 10,000 who did not vote at all."
In Lakeland, three current board members held off challenges from progressive and conservative slates.
The board has faced sharp criticism over its consideration of DEI policies and other matters. In February, board President Adam Kaufman sought to have three people removed from a board meeting for shouting. Racial epithets were also directed at administrators.
Kaufman, who was reelected, said that he and Marianne Kolesar, an appointed board member who was also elected, ran a campaign "predicated on the notion that politics should not play a role in a school board’s work."
"This election brought forth many of the varied beliefs within our community, and we will consider the various viewpoints expressed as we continue to move forward for our students," he said.
This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: Equity critics fail to gain in most Lower Hudson school board votes