OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — For years, school boards meetings have often been sleepy affairs with little attention from the public, but political, polarizing issues have recently been brought to boards and many metro school districts are seeing more candidates than they have for a long time.
A seemingly unprecedented number of candidates are running across Nebraska and in the metro for local school board seats.
Districts like Omaha, Elkhorn, Bennington, Bellevue, Gretna, Papillion-La Vista, and the State Board of Education all have more candidates running in 2022 than any races over the last ten years.
Some races have more than double the number of candidates than an average year.
“Finally people are waking up to the importance of education,” said John Sieler, candidate for State Board of Education.
Sieler, who was on the Nebraska State Board of Education from 2011 to 2014, is running again in response to the health education standards some members of the board attempted to pass last year.
Those standards, which outlined various types of sex and health education as well as topics like homosexuality and gender identity, aggravated many conservatives across Nebraska including Sieler.
“They’re teaching gender things to first graders — things they shouldn’t be learning about and that they're not pushing the academics. We need to be reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Sieler.
Other conservatives like Lance Molina are looking to shake up school boards in a different way.
“The people are wanting to see a change and they’re not happy with what’s going on in our school boards and elected positions,” said Molina.
Molina — who’s seeking a spot on Gretna's Board — is running on transparency and school spending, saying the school’s priorities are not always straight. He questions the salary of the superintendent, when he believes school support staff doesn't make enough.
Ron Johns, a former Gretna School Board member who's running again, tells 3 News Now that the board cannot control the pay of staff, just the salary of the superintendent.
Johns also says Gretna pays their superintendent a similar amount to what comparable school districts pay their superintendent.
Not all are running on conservative issues. Saleh Qulagi is running for Elkhorn School Board and says he’s pushing a student and teacher perspective, teaching classes on human rights and on racial diversity and acceptability.
Plus, he wants to give teachers more help.
“As time goes by, I have a plan to get into touch with the school district teachers to see what they’re lacking, what they’re expecting from the school,” said Qulagi.
He also says he can handle board meetings with lots of different opinions.
“But I am a very people person. I’m very interactive. I like to have interaction with people, to see how I can help as a community member,” said Qulagi.
Sarah Centineo has been on Bellevue's School Board for six years.
“I think the last two years have been the hardest since I’ve been on the school board,” said Centineo.
She says the health standards, critical race theory and mask mandates have brought out a flow of candidates, as controversy typically leads to involvement.
She says one member with an agenda may not be able to effect change, but they can disrupt how a board functions.
“If you come in with this idea that you’re going to get rid of CRT (Critical Race Theory) in our schools, it’s impossible and it takes away from the other work you have to do and that just makes it harder for everybody,” said Centineo.
Many of these school districts have not even had a primary election in a while so, as a refresher, six will advance to the general election and from there the top three will get the school board seats.