In the recent off-off-year elections, the national media was understandably focused on the gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey and the mayoral contest in New York City. But, although it has received almost no national attention, a school board election in a suburban community in Ohio may have as many implications as those more prominent elections.
Warren County, Ohio, is located in extreme southwestern Ohio, just northeast of Hamilton County, which includes the city of Cincinnati. Formerly a largely rural county, Warren County has become increasingly suburban. In just the decade between the 2000 and 2010 censuses, its population increased from 158,000 to 212,000.
About 94% of the county’s population is White, and only about 4% of its residents are impoverished. Not surprisingly, given those demographics and their impact on the voting patterns in counties across Ohio and in many other states, Warren County has been staunchly Republican. Most notably in terms of recent history, in the 2008 presidential election, the county produced the highest vote for John McCain of any county in Ohio.
Warren County includes 16 school districts, 11 of which extend into adjacent counties. One of those districts, Springboro, extends somewhat into southern Montgomery County. Located in the small city of Springboro, which has a population of about 18,000, the single high school in the district enrolls about 1,900 students, and in line with the county’s population growth, the enrollment at the high school has been increasing by an average of 100 students per year since 2000. Academically, the school is ranked excellent with distinction by the Ohio Department of Education, the highest ranking that the state awards.
In the last half decade, the Springboro School Board has been dominated by three self-identified Tea-Party Republicans: Kelly Kohls, the President of the Board, as well as David Petroni and Jim Rigoni.
In 2010, Governor Kasich first biennial budget included about 18% reductions in state funding for K-12 education—cuts necessitated more by the desire to erode the membership of the OEA and OFT than by any fiscal necessity. For the budget also included large tax reductions for Ohio corporations and for the most affluent Ohioans, including the elimination of state estate taxes that would have covered the funding reductions to the state’s school districts. Not surprisingly, the Tea Party-dominated Springboro School Board refused to accept any proposals for local levies that would cover any of the nearly $1 million per year in state subsidy that the district had lost.
The School Board rescinded the Springboro School District’s membership in the Ohio School Board Association because it was considered fiscally irresponsible. And Kelly Kohls began to insert herself into the business of school districts across the state—by promoting Tea Party candidates running for positions on those boards, by proselytizing for fiscal austerity, or by attacking school board members or school officials who challenged her positions.
Riding a sense of empowerment, Kohls began to insert herself into the curricular decisions in the Springboro District, advocating for Creationism to be taught in the science classes and for Christian Nationalism to be taught in the history classes. The latter was justified as something mandated by the GOP-dominated Ohio legislature, which in the previous year had passed a law requiring that social studies instruction include attention to the nation’s “founding documents.”
At this point, Kohls seems to have overreached her base of support.
When the introduction of Christian Nationalism into the history classes was being discussed at a Board meeting, Sonny Thomas, the head of the Springboro Tea Party, showed up to testify in support of the measure. With a Confederate flag draped across his shoulders, Thomas asked that Michael Peroutka’s Institute on the Constitution be invited to provide instructors who would present a course on the U.S. Constitution. The Southern Poverty Law Center has described Peroutka as ““active white supremacist and secessionist sympathizer” who is an “active member of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate, secessionist organization” and an “explicitly racist hate group.”
At about this same time, it became known that Kohls, who had frequently described fiscal austerity as a corollary to personal financial responsibility, had filed for bankruptcy, with unmet personal debts approaching $1 million.
Although Kohls had decided not to run for re-election, she was actively supporting two Tea-Party candidates committed to continuing her stances on the district’s financing and curriculum. But, between Thomas’ radicalism and Kohls’ hypocrisy, the residents of the district finally seem to have had enough. When Far-Right political ideology came into conflict with the maintenance of the high standards that they had come to expect in the education of their children and grandchildren, the residents of the district began to look for alternatives to the Tea-Party members of the Board.
When the ballots were counted, the Tea-Party candidates for the school board had lost by what was described in the local media as a “landslide.”