Columbus’ Suburban School Board Campaigns Go Negative

Anger, dark money and a burst of energy dominated 2021’s elections

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
A billboard on North High Street targeted Worthington Board of Education member Nikki Hudson

A pair of billboards proclaiming a local school board member a “failure” with a “political agenda.” Harshly worded campaign mailers from a Washington, D.C., PAC. Dark money, a threatening letter, a shadowy LLC and complaints of malfeasance. 

Welcome to last year’s Central Ohio school board races. 

The past two years presented public schools and their governing bodies with unique challenges. In a political moment fraught with heightened rhetoric, districts faced not only questions about how to deal with a global pandemic, but also public brouhahas over gender-neutral bathrooms, critical race theory and police officers in schools. Their decisions triggered ire. 

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In Worthington, school board president Nikki Hudson received a letter in the mail signed by a purported member of a group called “Citizens to Remove CRT from America” that began, “We are coming after you and all the members on the Worthington BoE” and ended by calling the mother of two a “filthy traitor.” Her colleague Charlie Wilson, a 16-year veteran of the board and a former president of the Ohio School Board Association, says someone threw a rock at his door with a note attached, warning him to end mask mandates, “or else.” 

“If I had young kids at home, I’m not sure if I’d have stayed on the board,” Wilson says. 

Things got even more heated as an unusual number of candidates emerged. In Upper Arlington, Worthington, Dublin, Gahanna-Jefferson, Bexley, Pickerington and Hilliard, a total of 46 candidates ran for 20 school board seats. Of those, 35 were newcomers. Six incumbents were voted out of office. 

“This year was different,” says Jerry Rampelt, the founder of Support Ohio Schools, a nonprofit that helps cities and towns pass levies. Rampelt, who keeps a close eye on school board races, says the number of candidates, the amount of money spent and the number of outside groups that got involved in 2021 were all unusually high. 

In Upper Arlington, newcomer Lou Sauter raised $73,947, according to campaign finance disclosures. Nidhi Satiani, also a challenger, raised $44,693. By comparison, in 2019 the top fundraiser among those elected to the UA school board took in $26,635. 

At least one outside group also played a role. Satiani was targeted by a negative mailer funded by Hometown Freedom Action Network, a D.C.-based Republican super PAC. Both Sauter and Satiani were elected, defeating two incumbents and a third challenger. 

In Worthington, incumbent Nikki Hudson prevailed, despite the negative billboards (sponsored by an LLC called Save Worthington Schools) and negative mailers paid for by OneWorthington, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization. OneWorthington fueled additional controversy by promoting three candidates, one of whom, Kelli Davis, renounced the group’s endorsement. Davis, a newcomer, was elected, along with incumbent Jennifer Best, while challenger Brian Steel, also endorsed by the group, was defeated. At press time, the Ohio Board of Elections was preparing to hear a complaint that OneWorthington had violated the rules of its incorporation by supporting specific candidates. 

Hudson says she learned in a recent Zoom meeting sponsored by a Democratic group that other races around the state were similarly brutal, and she found it “strangely comforting.” Indeed, a recent report by the New York Times podcast The Daily indicated the trend is national. 

Hang on for 2022.

This story is from the January 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.