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School board races in Florida are bolstered by national conservative groups

Man and woman holding campaign signs
Bridget Ziegler-School Board Member Facebook page
The New York based 1776 Project PAC paid for advertisments and sent out mailers for its endorsed candidates in Sarasota County.

Political action committees with backing from GOP donors contributed money to local school board races in several states, including Florida.

An education writer with the news organization Politico recently reported that national conservative groups have been pouring money into local school board races across the country, including in Florida.

WUSF's Cathy Carter spoke with reporter Andrew Atterbury about his findings.

Andrew, how did you come to report on this particular topic?

What really caught my interest in this is — on election night — I saw that one of these groups, the 1776 Project PAC, had a really big presence on social media. They were claiming that they were helping dozens of people get successful elections in their primaries. So I wanted to know more about them, because I'd already done some research and some stories in the past about what kind of funding was going to school board candidates. So here's another cash flow of money being sent towards local school board races. And I really just wanted to know, where did this money come from? Where did it go? And how was it used?

The group you mentioned, the 1776 Project PAC, is based in New York. What more can you tell us about them?

They've endorsed 100 candidates in states across the U.S. — Texas, Pennsylvania, dozens in Florida as well. Their main thing is, this is a group that is against critical race theory, that is like their bread and butter. You go to their website, there's like a little pop up and it says, 'hey, if you see critical race theory, or CRT in your school, report it to us and then we'll get the word out' kind of thing. They're all about endorsing conservatives who oppose critical race theory in schools.

You spoke with the founder of this particular PAC. What did he tell you?

He said that their main thing was getting the vote out and getting conservatives to vote in these midterm elections in Florida because a lot of people were worried that turnout was going to be lower, especially for Republicans in August.

Andrew Atterbury is a Florida based education reporter for Politico.
Andrew Atterbury is a Florida based education reporter for Politico.

Andrew, you say that the 1776 PAC endorsed 49 candidates in Florida, including several in Sarasota County. Do you think that had an impact on that race?

What's interesting for me is, I wanted to know — was turnout bolstered during this school board election cycle versus previous years because education has been pushed to the forefront as such a major issue? And what I found is that not in a lot of areas, but in Sarasota, the turnout for the school board races were up 30%, almost 40% in some cases. So you can't say exactly what did that. But you've got to think mailers, those kinds of things, advertisements, it's pretty possible that the 1776 PAC — with as much money as they put into advertisements — that they could have had a role in getting the turnout up in Sarasota specifically.

But that particular group wasn't the only one without geographical ties to Florida pouring money into the state. Tell us about the American Principles Project.

They're based in Arlington, Virginia, outside of Washington D.C. So they're definitely a federal PAC that got more interested in congressional races, which is why I was so interested to see that they were popping up in a school board race and they did do advertisements.

All credit goes to the local Lakeland Ledger in Polk County who first reported the ad. That's where I saw it. I was like, well, let me look into this.

And oddly enough, this is the first time they've ever invested in a school board race. They told me it was some kind of a test case, just to see how does this all work, how can you have some sort of influence on these local school board races? They're also against critical race theory in schools. They're also against what they call teaching trans ideology. So a lot of the same things that Governor DeSantis would consider, you know "woke teachings" that go on in schools. So they're all pretty aligned in what they believe.

So what should Floridians make of all this outside money being poured into local school board races?

Well, I hope it makes people realize that school board races are important. I think for many years, school board races kind of went under the rug — turnout hasn't really been great. Local school board elections are typically thought of below, you know, city council races, county commission races, people don't even really know their school board members. And what people need to realize is that you should learn who these people are in your local communities because people in Washington, people in New York, they're paying attention. If they're going to spend money and try to influence what's going on locally, people should probably pay attention to that and realize that maybe they need to have more focus on what's going on in their neck of the woods as well.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.