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NEA News

Winning Streak

How NEA locals are defeating toxic, far-right school board candidates—and yours can too.
winning streak Jati Lindsey
Teachers Mike Mountz and Gina Grolemund teamed up with Samantha Schlundt, of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, to reclaim the school board in Central York County.
Published: April 19, 2024
This article originally appeared on

Community pride was on vivid display during the annual homecoming parade in Johnston, Iowa—a conservative-leaning suburb of Des Moines with a small-town vibe.

At the September event, Johnston High School athletes proudly wore their purple-and-black school colors as they tossed candy to youngsters from flatbed floats. The dance troupe performed to the beat of the marching band, and the mayor waved from the back of a convertible.

But many students, parents, and educators felt unsettled when a red Jeep festooned with Donald Trump flags rolled past. It followed a truck that was plastered with signs for four school board candidates endorsed by Moms 4 Liberty (M4L)—an ultra-conservative political group founded by three former school board members from Florida. Floats promoting presidential candidates are prohibited under parade guidelines. But M4L had become emboldened in Johnston after the group swept the 2021 school board election, taking three of the board’s seven seats.

“It was a huge wake-up call for our local,” says middle school band teacher Patrick Kearney, who is also president of the Johnston Education Association. “I’ve served alongside probably a hundred school board members— most of them, I couldn’t have told you what their political affiliations were. But that all changed in 2021.”

That’s when M4L targeted Johnston and several other communities across the country for school board takeovers. By 2023, M4L needed to win just one more seat to have a majority.

In Iowa, school boards vote on whether to negotiate a contract with the local educator unions. With an M4L majority, it’s likely that the Johnston Education Association’s contract would have been gutted.

The stakes last November could not have been higher.

The Real Moms 4 Liberty Agenda

In summer 2023, a speaker at the M4L conference in Philadelphia applauded the group’s school board “blitz strategy”— pushing a flurry of ultra-conservative policies at the same time so communities have little opportunity to resist.

M4L’s ultimate goal is to stamp out curricula, books, and discussions that examine gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity. Their chapters use tactics like banning books, grandstanding at school board meetings, and relentlessly targeting individual board members and educators with harassing and even threatening messages online.

Patrick Kearney
Patrick Kearney Credit: Jati Lindsey

Maurice Cunningham, a retired professor from the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, explains M4L’s unlikely “origin story,” which involves three moms around a kitchen table. The reality, he says, looks more like this: Well-connected billionaires funded and launched M4L and called upon the conservative media to elevate the group, seemingly overnight.

Who are these funders? “Wealthy, White oligarchs, the most right-wing and tax averse people who don’t want to spend their billions to give other people’s kids a fair chance,” Cunningham adds.

The professor’s years of research revealed that most of these groups are connected to one of two major operations that have long sought to privatize public education.

The first is the Koch network, headed by libertarian billionaire Charles Koch, famous for his efforts to eliminate government and privatize public services.

The other is the Council for National Policy, an umbrella group of far-right donors, evangelical advocacy groups, and organizations like Turning Point USA, which has promoted anti-LGBTQ+ conspiracy theories, and the National Rifle Association.

M4L is the latest attempt in the radical right’s decades-long quest to ripen communities for privatization. Their strategy? Pit small groups of parents against local public schools and educators.

In that effort, M4L employs such damaging rhetoric against educators, People of Color, LGBTQ+ people, and the government that they were labeled an “extremist” group by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 2022.

‘My World Would Just Crumble Into Chaos’

Last year, ninth-grade English teacher Bill Senavaitis had terrific mornings and nightmarish afternoons. “I was teaching one of my favorite groups of kids I’ve ever taught in my career. They were just goofy, smart, lovable kids, and I had such a good start to my day with them,” says Senavaitis, who has worked in the Central Bucks School District, in Pennsylvania, for his entire 21-year career. “Then, in the afternoon my world would just crumble into chaos.”

The M4L majority that had controlled the school board since 2021 seemed to be going down a checklist of culture war items—banning books and political statements, which M4L said included Pride flags.

Bill Senavaitis
Bill Senavaitis

“That really affected some of our educators deeply,” Senavaitis says.

As specific books were banned, teachers got nervous and pulled other similar titles. “I had one member who gave away her entire classroom library over the summer,” he recalls.

Members called him in tears. He attended at least a dozen disciplinary hearings, including one for a librarian who had displayed a quote from Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

By then, Senavaitis felt unsafe attending board meetings—ever since a man armed with a gun and knife had started showing up. The situation was reported to the school board president, who did nothing.

“We used to have such a sense of pride about working in Central Bucks,” says Cara Alderfer, who took over from Senavaitis as Central Bucks Education Association president this year. “But last year, when I told people where I worked, they were like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear what you have been going through.’”

Reclaiming the School Boards

Diana Leygerman, a former teacher and the parent of two school-age children, saw what was happening. Leygerman, who lost a bid for school board in 2021, had helped found Central Bucks Neighbors United (CB Neighbors), a political action committee (PAC) that raises funds for pro-public education candidates.

“I decided that my job in the year and a half leading up to the 2023 school board elections was to make sure that as many people in the community as possible heard what was really going on with the school board and all the money that was being wasted,” she says, referring to the board’s decision to give the superintendent an $85,000 raise followed by a $700,000 separation agreement when he resigned.

CB Neighbors recruited five candidates to run on a pro-public education platform. They also signed up volunteers to knock on doors and make phone calls.

Diana Leygerman
Diana Leygerman

“I knew we could win because we did not run on fear,” she says. “We did not run on anger and smear campaigns. … We ran on making our schools better and overturning the extremist policies.” Still, she cried “happy tears” on election night, after all of their candidates triumphed.

Election night was cause for celebration back in Johnston, Iowa, too. There, the pro-public education candidates backed by the local and the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) shut out all four M4L candidates. ISEA had joined forces with Alliance for a Better Iowa and other local allies to inform voters through mail, text messages, and digital campaigns about what was at stake.

“We clearly identified for voters the differences between those two slates of candidates on every issue, from book banning to supporting our LGBTQ kids,” Kearney says. “The results weren’t even that close.”

Across Iowa, more than 90 percent of school board candidates recommended by ISEA beat M4L candidates.

Nationwide, nearly 80 percent of school board candidates recommended by NEA affiliates won their races in 2023.

Quote byStephanie Bernholz Leuschner , Maryland teacher (Click below to travel along with Stephanie and get some points about face-to-face advocacy)

Being willing is really the biggest special skill you have, just being willing to talk to people.
—Stephanie Bernholz Leuschner , Maryland teacher (Click below to travel along with Stephanie and get some points about face-to-face advocacy)

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Sound effort: Door knocking Unidentified woman: Hi there… Stephanie Bernholz Leuschner: I’m Stephanie, I’m with TAAC. I was wondering if I could talk to [fade] Sound effort: Ring door tone Unidentified woman: Hi! Stephanie: Hi there! How are you? I’m Stephanie, I’m one of [fade} Sound effect: Door knocking, door opening. Mary Ellen Flannery: Hi! I’m Mary Ellen Flannery and I’m with NEA Today — and, if you haven’t already guessed, this is an audio story about union members knocking on doors and talking to voters about union-recommended candidates. You just heard Stephanie Bernholz Leuschner doing exactly that. Stephanie is a special educator in Maryland and a member of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, known around here as TAAC. This spring, Steph’s union asked her to talk with other TAAC members about a really supportive school board member who is running for re-election. And Steph said SURE! I’ll do that! And she let me come along. Stephanie: I know the board of ed elections are going to be a hard fight. I wanted to put the work in to make sure our board is pro-educator. It’s kind of an interesting thought that they would not be… Sound effort: Door knocking. Stephanie: I’m Stephanie. I’m a member of TAAC. I was wondering if I could speak to…[fade] Mary Ellen: Some people call this door knocking. Others canvassing. The experts call it voter outreach — and they agree it really does work. Studies show that door-to-door, face-to-face canvassing is way more effective than postcards or emails at convincing voters to actually vote. In a close race, it can make the difference between electing a candidate who supports public schools—and one who doesn’t. Stephanie: ….board of education and we just want to make sure you know she’s endorsed by us… Sound effort: Phone ring tone. Clay Hale: Hello? Mary Ellen: Hi Clay! It’s Mary Ellen from NEA. Clay: Hi! How’s it going? Mary Ellen: Going well! How are you? Clay: Doing well. Mary Ellen: Clay Hale is a high school social studies teacher in San Jose, California, who recently won a seat on his local community college board. I called him because Clay knows a lot about door knocking. Mary Ellen: Tell me how you feel about door knocking! Clay: It’s a great way to know your neighbors. One asset that we have as teachers is that your neighbors love to hear from the local teacher in your community. Mary Ellen: So that’s the why on door knocking. It gets people to the polls and helps inform them about pro-public school candidates. Now let’s talk about the HOW. Stephanie and Clay have a lot of advice. First, go in groups or pairs, like Stephanie and me.Second, keep your conversations outside — and stand far enough back from the door so that people can open it safely. Third, and this is key — dress for comfort. Stephanie: To canvas, I just wore my jeans, my TAAC shirt, so people would have no doubts about who I am, and then some sensible walking shoes. Mary Ellen: Sunscreen? Stephanie: Yeah, I got some sunscreen. Mary Ellen: Number four, use the tools your union gives you. Stephanie and I got a script from her union and we used their phone app to keep track of who we talked to. And finally, make it clear you’re an educator. Clay: I wore my local union t-shirt. I had some various school shirts I wore every now and then… lanyards that identified me as a teacher. Mary Ellen: When people know you’re an educator, they’re more inclined to be respectful. In fact, everybody Stephanie and I met was very nice. Even the dogs were friendly! Sound effect: Dog howling. Clay: I could probably count on one hand all the negative encounters I had. But I think it really goes back to like when teachers knock on doors, there’s a respect that teachers have in a community and I feel that dissuades any negative encounters that you might have. ME: Both Stephanie and Clay say educators already have the skills it takes to knock on doors. Stephanie: Being willing is [laugh] really the biggest special skill you have, just being willing to talk to people. Sound effort: Door knock. Door knock. [Fade]
Photo of Stephanie Bernholz Leuschner

If They Can Do It ...

When Pennsylvania’s Central York Education Association (CYEA) set out to elect pro-public education candidates to their school board, they had to face a tough fact: According to the data, they could not win.

Voters in their district had favored Donald Trump in 2016 by more than 25 percentage points. But then-CYEA Vice President Gina Grolemund wasn’t cowed by the data.

“We were tired of having no voice in the school district,” she says, recalling a string of harmful moves by the board, including their refusal to reverse a failed instructional program and their attempt to shutter summer meals programs at three schools.

Grolemund was determined to help good candidates run, but lacked campaign experience. By chance, she met fellow Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) member Mike Mountz, a high school social studies teacher who—incredibly—had spent a decade running congressional, state, and local campaigns as his second job.

Mountz works in the York Suburban School District, but lives in neighboring Central York. After politely declining Grolemund’s invitation to run for school board, Mountz agreed to help with the race. He later founded the bipartisan Citizens for Central York School District PAC.

Grolemund and Mountz organized a cadre of members, parents, and other community volunteers who did everything from signature gathering to data entry to phone banking and canvassing.

With the help of PSEA data guru Samantha Schlundt, they curated precise lists of voters likely to connect with their messages.

Door knockers focused conversations on the damage the current school board was inflicting on students—including an infamous book ban that blocked more than 300 titles. They spelled out how electing pro-public education candidates would make things better.

“When I explained to volunteers that it’s really going door-to-door to educate voters, not to convince them to change their mind, they were much more comfortable,” Grolemund says.

Today, after winning seats in 2021 and 2023, the Central York school board is pro-public education and includes two PSEA members. It is also more diverse. There are now two Black board members and another who identifies as gender non-conforming. “[That’s] in a district that previously banned the biographies of Martin Luther King Jr., and Harvey Milk,” Mountz notes.

The Central York school board wins may sound like a small miracle, but they were achieved through smart strategy and hard work.

“I want other locals to know that you don’t need a book ban or a huge protest or $100,000 or CNN coverage to win tough school board races,” Mountz says. “It’s about talking to the right voters. Any other local could do this, too.”


Keeping the Promise of Public Education

ESEA is the largest ESP local in the United States and is a full-service employee association which is an affiliate of the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) and the National Education Association (NEA), the largest national association representing education employees in the United States.