(UPDATED, 10:31 a.m. Friday, to reflect that Jeremy Cutler has withdrawn from the West Ada election.)
The COVID-19 pandemic and culture wars have transformed school board elections — across the nation, and perhaps forever.
This is happening in Idaho, in spots. But not everywhere.
Even in some of the state’s biggest school districts, Nov. 7’s trustee elections remain a mixed bag — a mishmash of spendy races and sleepy races, often within the same district.
Three of Idaho’s largest and fastest growing school districts — West Ada, Kuna and Caldwell — illustrate the effect money is having, and isn’t having, on races for volunteer trustee seats.
Tom Moore doesn’t think his campaign strategy is a big deal. He didn’t have time for traditional fundraising, he said in an interview last week, and he didn’t want donors to think he owed them something. To save time, he made one loan to his war chest.
“50 seemed like a good number.”
As in thousand. An almost unheard-of amount in an Idaho school board race.
Who’s running in West Ada, and how much money they have raised so far:
Zone 2: Lucas Baclayon, incumbent ($0); Susie Schuetz ($1,232).
Zone 4: David Binetti, incumbent ($5,000); Miguel Deluna ($6,165); Mari Gates ($725).
Zone 5: Tom Moore ($50,784); René Ozuna, incumbent ($9,061). Jeremy Cutler has withdrawn from the race.
A commercial real estate broker and retired Navy aviator, Moore moved to Meridian in 2014 and has no children or grandchildren in West Ada schools. But he is blunt about his run. The administrators in the “puzzle palace” at district headquarters don’t understand what is going on in the classrooms, he said. And in a district with 40,000 students, an 87% graduation rate is unacceptable.
“When I see 5,000 kids that this district has failed, that makes me angry,” he said. “I got tired of this crap. Of this constant failing.”
Not surprisingly, Moore’s high-priced, self-funded campaign has caught the attention of his incumbent opponent.
“(It’s) super concerning to me,” said René Ozuna. “I’m not sure why anybody would put that kind of money into that.”
Four years ago, Ozuna ran unopposed and raised no money. This time around, she has raised much of her money from the development community, and she makes no apologies for it. “Strong schools are important to the community and to our property values.”
Moore sees it differently, and notes that one of Ozuna’s donors, Engineered Structures Inc., is a contractor with West Ada. “I don’t like being indebted, or thought to be indebted, to developers or contractors.”
The most prominent evidence of Moore’s money can be found along thoroughfares in the suburban district: large campaign signs touting Moore and his ally, Miguel Deluna. Moore won’t say whether he plans to spend his entire $50,000 on the campaign.
A third candidate, Jeremy Cutler, has withdrawn from the election, and now supports Ozuna.
The race between Moore and Ozuna could turn out to be the most expensive school board race in Idaho this fall — and even an outlier within West Ada, the state’s largest school district.
Deluna’s largest single donor is Moore, who gave his running mate a maximum $1,000 donation. “He’s not wealthy like I am, so he can’t self-fund,” said Moore, who added that he wants to have an ally on the five-member board, in order to make changes in the district.
Like Ozuna, incumbent Dave Binetti is closely watching the flow of money in his race. Appointed in 2022 after spending months pushing back against West Ada’s pandemic-era facemask requirements, Binetti is also taking a self-funding approach to his campaign. Website development, direct mail and signs for doorknobs will likely come from his own pocket: “I’ll spend what is necessary to retain this seat.”
Meanwhile, West Ada’s third trustee race involves two candidates who would just as soon not raise money at all.
Incumbent Lucas Baclayon only began fundraising last week, setting a modest $3,200 goal on a GoFundMe page. He says he’ll put the money into social media. “Hopefully I didn’t get started too late, but we’ll make this last push and see what happens,” said Baclayon, appointed in 2022.
Susie Schuetz said she was planning to campaign largely by going door-to-door, until she broke an ankle. She quickly loaned her campaign $330 to cover postage for some mailers, and has taken a “phone-a-friend” approach to last-minute fundraising.
It’s as low-key a race as it is a low-budget race. Baclayon says she and Schuetz share the same goals. Schuetz says she’s running for the seat, not to oust an incumbent.
“I feel like that our race is the way it should be, other than I hope no one breaks their ankle,” she said.
Some big-money campaign donors have unclear connections to this Ada County bedroom community.
Tyler and Constance Youngkin of San Ysidro, Calif., have poured $6,000 in the Kuna races. Both have given maximum $1,000 donations to three upstart candidates: Hillary Lowe, Kristi Hardy and Michael Thornton. Lowe and Hardy have also received $1,000 apiece from Quincy Youngkin, who lists a Kuna address.
Who’s running in Kuna, and how much money they have raised so far:
Zone 1: Hillary Lowe ($14,159); Joy Thomas, incumbent ($7,455).
Zone 2: James Grant ($1,500); Kristi Hardy ($15,954).
Zone 5: Russell Johnson, incumbent ($0); Michael Thornton ($3,995).
Hardy and Thornton did not respond to interview requests. But in a telephone interview, Lowe said she knew nothing about the Youngkins.
“I don’t personally know them,” she said. “They haven’t told me of an agenda that they have. … They brought me checks, and I said, ‘Thank you.’”
Two other big-dollar donors — William Brownlee, listing a Peoria, Ariz., address; and W. Scott Schirmer, listing a Phoenix address — have each given $1,000 apiece to Hardy and Lowe. Again, Lowe said she didn’t know the donors, their occupation or their connection with Kuna.
However, a quick internet search connects some dots. Brownlee and Schirmer are partners in M3 Companies, an Idaho- and Arizona-based development company working on several planned communities in the Treasure Valley, including one in Kuna. Brownlee and Schirmer did not respond to requests for comment.
The two incumbents say they are wary about developers’ interest in the election. Districts cannot impose impact fees on new growth; the idea has been a nonstarter at the Statehouse for years. Instead, Kuna has made some headway working with city officials and the development community, negotiating some voluntary mitigation fees.
Now, the incumbents worry that this work is in jeopardy.
“The developers aren’t the enemy to me,” said trustee Russ Johnson. “I haven’t declared war on developers.”
Johnson hasn’t raised any money for his re-election campaign, and he says he doesn’t plan to. He will do some outreach on social media, and put out some yard signs he purchased in 2019 — when he wound up running unopposed. “I never even put the signs out,” Johnson said of his election four years ago.
This time around, Johnson has an opponent. So far, Thornton has raised $3,955 — including maximum donations from Constance and Tyler Youngkin; $995 from Hardy; and $750 of his own money.
The spendiest and most contentious race pits Lowe against eight-year incumbent Joy Thomas. In October, a report first surfaced that Thomas was arrested in 2010 on seven felony counts of injury to a child. Thomas later pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors, the Idaho Statesman reported. Thomas has posted links to stories about the case on social media sites, and says the issue has not come up as she campaigns door-to-door.
Not surprisingly, Lowe and Thomas have different takes on fundraising.
Lowe says donations have helped her run a campaign that is hamstrung by the seasonal nature of her job; her family owns Lowe Family Farmstead, a corn maze and pumpkin patch that gets most of its visitors in the fall. She believes her donors are looking to support a “conservative voice,” and notes that Thomas has received much of her backing from Democratic donors.
The minority chief of staff at the Idaho House of Representatives, Thomas has drawn support from a long list of prominent Boise-area Democrats, including former gubernatorial candidate and Boise school trustee A J Balukoff; House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel; Senate Education Committee members Janie Ward-Engelking and Carrie Semmelroth; and House Education Committee members Steve Berch and Soñia Galaviz. Thomas said every one of her donors “is a fierce supporter of education, and particularly public education.” Lowe’s claims that she knows nothing about her own big-money donors strike Thomas as, at best, odd.
“I would be calling to see what in the heck they were giving me money for.”
Earlier this year, Caldwell became a flashpoint in an emotional statewide debate over school bathrooms.
At a January meeting, state Sen. Chris Trakel, R-Caldwell, berated trustees over a policy that would have allowed students to use facilities aligned with their gender identity. The board abruptly adjourned this meeting, and later put the proposal on hold during a tense February meeting. Within weeks, Idaho passed a law requiring students to use facilities aligned with their gender assigned at birth — overriding Caldwell’s proposed policy.
Who’s running in Caldwell:
Zone 2: Manuel Godina, incumbent ($575); Ray Horrell ($0).
Zone 3: Travis Manning, incumbent ($9,240); Nicole Trakel ($1,658).
Zone 4: Andrew Butler, incumbent ($1,025); Nicole Hyland ($1,347).
Still, that battle serves as a prologue to Caldwell’s trustee elections, which are rife with partisan overtones.
Trakel’s wife, Nicole Trakel, is running for a board seat — and her donors include a hardline GOP senator, Cindy Carlson of Riggins, and Kent Marmon, a former Caldwell school trustee who plans to oppose House Education Committee Chairwoman Julie Yamamoto in the May GOP primary.
Nicole Hyland is also seeking a board seat, challenging incumbent Andrew Butler. Hyland has financial support from both Chris and Nicole Trakel and Marmon.
Trakel’s opponent, two-term incumbent Travis Manning, is a former Democratic legislative candidate. Several of his donations came from Democrats, including a maximum $1,000 donation from Balukoff. In a recent interview, Manning said he considers Balukoff a mentor.
Trakel did not respond to interview requests. And Hyland and Manning seemed to try to downplay their donations.
Asked if the Trakel and Marmon donations are indicative of her political base of support, Hyland wrote, “I’m not exactly sure if I understand your question here.” (Hyland requested her written responses printed in full; click on them here.)
Manning says school policy should not be politicized, and he notes that his donor list includes two former Republican lawmakers from Canyon County, David Kerrick and Dorothy Reynolds.
The Caldwell elections are not as expensive as other trustee races around the state; Manning has raised $9,240, by far the most of the six candidates for three board seats.
But even in Caldwell, the politics of trustee elections is changing.
“All three incumbents have challengers and that does drive up the cost for each race,” said Hyland, who has raised $1,347 to date. “So, for a race like (the Caldwell School District’s), I do consider fundraising and/or donations to be very much important.”
Manning says he didn’t have to raise as much money for his first election in 2015, and then he was unopposed in 2019. This year, he is using money for what he calls “campaigning 101,” identifying voters and getting them out to vote. He is paying some college students to work phone banks and distribute campaign literature.
In Caldwell — overlapping with a legislative district with the state’s lowest percentage of registered voters — getting the word out is crucial. “It’s a bit of an information desert out here.”
Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.