Mask mandates, recounts and an Ohio first: Takeaways from Tuesday's Ohio school board elections

Anna Staver
The Columbus Dispatch
Columbus City Schools Board member Dr. Tina Pierce on Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021 during a board meeting at the Columbus City Schools South Administration Building in Columbus, Ohio.

Suburban school board races, while technically nonpartisan, transformed into battlegrounds Tuesday night over mask mandates, anti-racist policies and whether the fight over education can become a touchstone for Republicans in the 2022 midterms. 

These races saw endorsements from statewide candidates like form GOP Chair Jane Timken and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown. Candidates received tens of thousands of dollars in donations. And they drew hundreds of first-time candidates into the political arena.

Here are four takeaways from Ohio's local races.

1. Ohio's suburbs are still purplish

The suburbs around Ohio's big cities are still a mix of conservative and liberal voters – at least according to the mixed outcomes of Tuesday night's school board races.

Voters in southwest Ohio chose the more conservative candidates. 

In Forest Hills, where protesters held multiple rallies against critical race theory (something the district says it isn't teaching), voters elected three newcomers to their school board. 

And in the Lakota Local School district, where Republican Senate Josh Mandel got kicked out, voters picked the woman who brought him to the meeting. 

Voters in central Ohio seemed more divided over what kind of board members they wanted. 

Two moms running together on a platform of parental rights in the Olentangy district lost. The Worthington mom who made national headlines for her effort to remove her school's resource officers kept her seat. But two of the three Hilliard school board candidates endorsed by Republican Senate candidate Jane Timken won. 

Up in Summit County, the Akron Beacon Journal reported an "overwhelming loss" for conservative school board candidates. 

But the big takeaway for Stephen Dyer, a lobbyist with the Ohio Education Association, wasn't how many individual candidates won or lost. It was how many school boards actually flipped. 

"The fact that only a couple districts actually saw these people take over boards is a big loss for that effort," Dyer said. "And overall, you're only seeing them win about 15 or so percent of the seats they ran for."

2. Transgender dad wins in Gahanna 

While some school districts debated transgender student-athletes, one central Ohio school board quietly made history Tuesday night when it elected Ohio's first openly transgender person into office.  

Voters in the Gahanna-Jefferson district east of Columbus chose Dion Manley for their local board of education. 

“While I am honored to be the first trans person elected to office in Ohio, I’m really a dad who happens to be trans,” Manley told The Columbus Dispatch. “My reasons for running for office are my daughter and her amazing teachers. I’ve never tried to hide who I am."

LGBTQ Victory Fund, a national group that helps candidates get elected, called it a "milestone" moment for Dion, Ohio and the nation. 

"His victory is especially significant given efforts by anti-trans activists across the nation to target trans students at school board meetings – emphasizing the need for more leaders like Dion to serve," Victory Fund President Annise Parker said in a statement. 

3. School funding has strong local support

Conservative school board candidates across Ohio ran on a platform of increasing transparency in their local schools – particularly when it comes to how they spend local tax dollars. 

But when it came time for voters to decide whether to give their own district more money, a majority of them said yes. 

Eighty of the 99 school tax issues on Ohio ballots passed on Tuesday night.

That's a passage rate of 81%. The Ohio School Boards Association says that represents a significant increase from November 2020 when 67% of all levy questions passed. 

The percentages also look similar when you break out the requests for more tax dollars. 

New tax issues had a passage rate of 52%, according to OSBA. In 2020, the percentage of new tax issue victories was 36%. 

4. Every vote still counts

And last, but not least, a handful of votes can still swing the outcome of local elections.

Case in point: Madison-Plains Local Schools, which may have narrowly passed its renewal levy. 

The earned income tax, which makes up about 15% of the district’s total operating budget, failed by 25 votes back in May. 

This time around, levy supporters are ahead by just 10 votes: 1,061 (50.2%) for to 1,051 (49.7%) against.

There will likely be a recount.

Anna Staver is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.