SOMERVILLE, Tenn. — Debates over masks, vaccines and remote learning have equated to more interest in local school boards in recent years.
In most cases, school board elections have remained non-partisan. Only 94 of the country's 1,000 largest districts have school board candidates tied to political parties.
When thinking of school, what comes to mind? The alphabet? Math?
Politics probably do not, but it has no doubt intensified in many local school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic. School board meetings have been interrupted by debates, and rallies have erupted outside many schools.
But for those who thought the next phase of the pandemic would result in fewer politics in schools, going to Fayette County, Tennessee, provides some perspective.
For years, school board candidates in Fayette County were required to run as independents, which is the case in most places. But a new state law now allows counties to choose to have partisan school board races with candidates running as a Democrat or a Republican.
This year, Fayette County chose to make school board elections partisan for the first time. However, parents and political leaders here have mixed opinions.
"It should be more nonpartisan," said Pamela Crutchfield, a parent in Somerville. "It's our kids. It shouldn't be political."
Crutchfield is worried politics will make education more divisive. But Kevin Powers, who runs the local GOP, disagrees.
"I feel the best thing you can do for the voters is give them as much information as possible," Powers said.
Powers believes allowing candidates to identify as their preferred party better informs voters and tells parents how they might vote regarding issues like masks.
Powers argues school board elections have already been political nationwide, and people need to stop pretending they are not.
"There is already partisanship," Powers said. "If it's non-partisan, you don't know where they stand."
HAPPENING AROUND COUNTRY
What's happening in Fayette County is happening in other parts of the country, too.
Missouri is holding a debate on this issue this week. Florida had a bill introduced this year as well.
The issue was brought up in Arizona this year too. But while state lawmakers rejected it over a fear of costly taxpayer-funded primaries — which currently don't happen because when every candidate is non-partisan — one election is all that's needed.
Back in Tennessee, the true impact of politicizing school board elections won't be felt until the fall.
Powers admits the new system may make things more divisive and include more advertising and TV commercials.
"I could see it happening," Powers said.
Crutchfield just hopes kids are put first.
"As long as they do what they need to do for our kids," Crutchfield said.