If school board elections are transcending their normal position as an afterthought on the ballot, it has a lot to do with what happened in Randolph.
The school board in this affluent “purple” town in the heart of Morris County galvanized the region a few months ago when it voted to strip the school calendar of Columbus Day.
It then compounded the problem by taking all holidays off the calendar. The fourth Thursday of November was to be labeled merely as a day off.
The outcry was passionate and loud.
The board eventually returned Columbus Day – and all other holidays – to the calendar during a stormy meeting in June.
That meeting lives on in the campaign of Republican Jack Ciattarelli.
He mentions the Randolph episode in his stump speech and portrays the whole thing as evidence that the public school system has become too “woke” or liberal.
This is one of the “lanes” (his word) of his campaign and something, most naturally, that he blames on Phil Murphy. Governors have nothing to do with how school boards work, but, hey, there’s a campaign going on.
Local Republicans publicly responded to the outrage with recruitment calls for school board candidates.
Whether they answered that particular call or not, a three-person slate of opponents in Randolph quickly formed.
They are Tom Duffy, Mike LoCascio and Peggy Kurtz.
Their opponents are two incumbents, Allison Manfred and Yong Wang, and newcomer Michael Giordano.
If social media posts are any guide, this has become a nasty campaign. And in a traditional touch, there also have been reports of campaign signs being stolen. Imagine that.
The political fault lines popped up just about immediately at a virtual debate Monday night.
Duffy mentioned the Columbus Day dustup in his opening statement and Kurtz said she was concerned that students are not being taught “love of country.”
When the candidates were asked about the holiday, Duffy warned darkly that there’s more to this than meets the eye.
He spoke of a “false and destructive” idea spreading across the land that America is racist. Duffy said he saw the Columbus Day move as an attempt to erase the nation’s heritage.
Giordano wasn’t buying it.
He said diversity is not a code word for anything and that it should be supported.
These views, of course, mirror the national debate.
Looking at the issue four months after it surfaced, Giordano said the important thing is that the decision was changed.
“People make mistakes,” he said.
Incumbents Manfred and Wang said basically the same thing. Wang, in fact, asked for “forgiveness” if the board makes mistakes.
Manfred acknowledged the unhappiness in the community over the Columbus Day decision and stressed her willingness to reverse her action.
Keep in mind that the original move to strip Columbus Day from the calendar passed unanimously.
Columbus Day, of course, is only one small part of the culture wars enveloping public education today.
A bigger part of this picture is Critical Race Theory.
Supporters say it offers students an honest and frank assessment of bigotry in the United States.
Opponents, like Duffy’s aforementioned remarks indicate, see the concept as besmirching the nation’s history.
This is a national issue, but oddly, the candidates were not asked about it.
School board elections are officially non-partisan, but that line is often blurred, especially this year.
Still, all six candidates took turns saying partisan politics should not influence a board of education race.
What a nice thought.