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Conway High School Ronny Willhite, Creative Commons

CONWAY —  Arkansas school board races, once considered nonpartisan events, have joined judicial races in becoming increasingly political without anyone publicly declaring themselves to be Republicans or Democrats.

In the Conway School District, for instance, three of the six board candidates have found another way to signal their political leanings: the term “conservative.” Not surprisingly, you won’t find any of the candidates in the Republican-dominated area calling themselves “liberal” or “moderate.”

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All three “conservative” candidates have called for removing politics from the school system, though these races are by far the most political school board races in recent memory.

“It’s pretty easy in rhetoric to accuse others of the very thing that you’re doing,” said Janine A. Parry, a political science professor and Arkansas poll director at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

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Thanks to state legislation approved in 2017, school board races in Arkansas now must take place either at the same time as general or preferential primary elections, or, in nonelection years, on one of those equivalent dates. In the past, they were in September and had generally had low voter turnouts.

Further, this year’s board races follow two years of the coronavirus pandemic that left Arkansans and many others in the nation at odds over protective masks, school closings, and the Jan. 6, 2020, Capitol insurrection protesting the election of Joe Biden over Donald Trump.

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“When you’re putting your politics on a campaign sign in a nonpartisan race, you’re bringing politics into it,” said board member Diane Robinson, who is seeking re-election. “We all come in with our own perspective. The thing about public school that we have to keep front and center is that we educate every kid that walks in the door, whether they’re conservative or liberal, Christian or Jewish … or whatever” religion.

In Zone 1, businessman Jason Sandefer is challenging incumbent and former teacher Amy Ferdowsian.

In Zone 2, Dr. David Naylor Jr., who has a family medical practice, is opposing former teacher Carrie Tinsley, now an academic adviser at the University of Central Arkansas, for an open board seat.

In Zone 3, Linda Hargis, a former teacher and administrator and self declared “patriot,” is challenging Robinson, a senior court research associate who has worked as a child advocate. As a former state director for Court Appointed Special Advocates, Robinson helped establish local CASA programs around the state.

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Hargis, Sandefer and Naylor are running as a team, much like a political party in that some of their posters have pictures of all three candidates and label them “Strong Conservative Voices.” The other three candidates appear to be running more traditionally — as individual candidates rather than a team.

An online campaign flyer

Naylor was among 13 Conway physicians who signed a letter in January urging the school board to allow protective masks to be optional, rather than mandatory, during the pandemic.

The board instead voted 6-1 to require masks, in line with a recommendation from a group of other physicians and Matt Troup, president and chief executive officer of Conway Regional Health System. The mask mandate has since ended.

In his campaign announcement published earlier this month in Conway’s The Log Cabin Democrat, Naylor chose to bring up the pandemic, though he did not mention masks. “I believe, after the last 2 years of a pandemic, it would be beneficial to have a physician on the school board,” he wrote.

Naylor did not return a phone message seeking an interview for this article.

Sandefer declined to do a phone interview. He instead asked what the questions would be and then turned the sample issues a reporter mentioned into part of a Q-and-A on his website.

Hargis did a brief phone interview but became angry after she, not the reporter, raised issues of gay pride and Black Lives Matter being represented in classrooms. She said she thought teachers should be teaching subject content and character. She complained of school bulletin boards that she said have gay pride and Black Lives Matter information on them.

“And I believe every person has a right to live the life he wants to live … but I do not believe that has a place in a classroom or a public education system,” Hargis said.

“I believe the race issue should be handled by parents. I believe the social issue should be handled by parents, not teachers,” Hargis said.

Asked if teaching students to respect all races should be part of teaching character, she paused and said, “Rather than putting any kind of decor in the classroom about race or social agendas. … You could even throw Christianity in there. You should have a teacher in a classroom who’s wise enough to know how to welcome, validate and make students comfortable in their classroom without anything on the wall. If you want to put something, then put things that every child can identify with. Be kind, help someone today, pay it forward, put a smile on your face. That is character.”

Asked if her opponent was also a “patriot,” Hargis said, “I can’t answer” that question.

“I’m going to stop this interview right here and do not print” any of this, she said. “If you print one single thing” from what she had just said, Hargis said she would turn the matter over to one of her sons, whom she said is a lawyer.

Hargis also has had a couple run-ins with people on her campaign Facebook page.

In one case, she wrote a post about the importance of school board races — a post lifted largely, though not entirely, from a website called myfaithvotes.org, which contains, among other things, a lengthy article politicizing the national baby-formula shortage.

Hargis’ opponent, Robinson, said she is concerned about students’ social and emotional well-being in addition to traditional school offerings. While most children will be fine, others lack the emotional and sometimes financial support they need at home to be OK. She said the Black Lives Matter and gay pride materials “contribute to the well-being of some of our most vulnerable students.”

“I would add that LGBTQ young people have higher suicide risk, but that risk is cut by nearly half when they have supportive places in school,” Robinson said.

On racial matters, Robinson said, “Our Black students are regularly seeing incidents of people being killed because they’re Black, as happened in Buffalo this week. This is a source of great stress for some of our students, and it helps them for teachers to acknowledge this.”

Tinsley, who’s running against Naylor, said that while opponents say they want to take politics out of the schools, “It sounds like they just want to take politics they disagree with out of schools.”

She said she “feels like the issue of how to handle our LGBQ … community is a bit of a sticking point between our two campaigns,” though she noted that Naylor “hasn’t really said much about that publicly.”

“I’ve spoken publicly in support of diversity and equity and inclusion and belonging,” she said. “I really believe that education is not a one size fits all.”

Nationally “a lot of fear … has been stirred up” in school board races, Tinsley noted.

Indeed, there’s even been talk of “furries” in the nation’s schools. Not one Conway candidate who talked with the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network favored furries in schools.

Some believe that rumor spread to Conway because of a Facebook post Hargis made and apparently later deleted or changed the privacy settings on.

A photo taken of that post shows that she wrote to someone named Will:

“Will, I love you dearly, but it is going on all over this nation. There are absolutely schools allowing students to meow and bark. I can’t speak for Conway because I have not confirmed it, but I have been told it is happening. I don’t care what anyone identifies as or what their school orientation is. … To each his or her own! I do not want our classrooms filled with social agendas or politics. We need to teach subject matter, character, life skills, etc. parents need to handle the rest of it.”

The furry debate led to a resident’s letter to the editor in the Log Cabin Democrat criticizing the false rumor.

“I’ve heard people say they fear litter boxes in school bathrooms, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Tinsley said. The false rumors are “not taking common sense into account.”

Because students and teachers are also humans, Tinsley, sounding amused, said, “Going to the bathrooms as we always have is probably the best choice.”

Sandefer said online that he would offer a “strong and thoughtful conservative voice for all Conway students.”

On what he believes needs correcting in the Conway schools, Sandefer said, “I keep hearing lack of discipline is an issue in our schools, especially the junior high.”

Further, he said, “Bullying isn’t acceptable, period.”

Sandefer also said he has talked “to several teachers in our schools who feel they are unable to share their opinions without getting in trouble.” He did not say what those opinions were.

Sandefer, who’s challenging Ferdowsian, said, “I’ve heard we have kids choosing to leave the district.”

If elected, Sandefer said, “I want to get to the source of these issues and find the why.”

On his religion, Sandefer said, “So while I won’t carry my religious beliefs to the school board, I will carry my core values with me. These core values will go a long way to showing compassion towards all students and staff.”

Ferdowsian said she recalls “reading a comment of someone saying people were more upset about masks than whether students were learning or not.”

“I wish parents would be as concerned about the education their children are receiving” and school funding and resources, she said.

Ferdowsian said schools have a wide “variety of students, and it’s our responsibility to include every single student, no matter their differences,” whether those are race, sexual orientation, religion, physical or mental disability, or economic.

Parry, the political science professor, said the problem of politics in school board races “is happening all over the country.”

“It’s a reflection of the intensity of some of our debates,” she said.

This story is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.