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Candidates in the Leon School Board District 4 race say they support Moms for Liberty Leon

Three people seated at a dais with a WFSU Public Media background
Suzanne Smith
/
WFSU Public Media
From left to right: Cox, Hodges, and Stemle discuss local school issues and politics during a forum hosted at WFSU Public Media's studios

The race to replace DeeDee Rasmussen on the Leon County School board features two district veterans and a self-described “right-wing conservative." Two of the three candidates say they support the conservative group Moms for Liberty, which has become a political force for parental rights during the pandemic. The overall effort by Republicans to exert influence at the local level is working, as candidates weigh their messages carefully.

The candidates are vying to represent the northwest area of the Leon County School District. A recent forum for the race featured parents' rights backer and Moms for Liberty supporter Susan Hodges, Godby Assistant Principal Alex Stemle, and retired Leon teacher Laurie Cox.

“I stand with Moms for Liberty. I agree with everything they have fought for and yes, I would accept an endorsement from them," Hodges said when asked whether she had sought or would accept an endorsement from the group.

“They have reached out to me. We’ve had discussions," said Stemle, when asked the same question. "My concern is that the chair of that organization is actively supporting one of the candidates in the public forum. So I think it’s important that if we have organizations like that in our community they come from a place that is not biased.”  

His comment regarding the organization was directed at Cox, who said she has friends both in and outside the group and while she doesn't necessarily agree with everything Mom's for Liberty espouses, "to me, one of their main things is that parents are finding out what's going on in the classroom, and every parent has a right to know what's going on in the classroom, and I support that."

“I have not received their endorsement and anyone who agrees with my platform, I would welcome their endorsement," she said.

Throughout the pandemic, school leaders have faced calls to drop mandatory mask mandates, and—as the pandemic wore on, increasing attention turned to how schools were messaging around LGBTQ issues. The Leon school district got swept into the backlash after a parent sued the district for not disclosing that it allowed a child to change their pronouns. That was used for a new parental rights law that mandates districts inform parents about any changes in a child’s wellbeing or be sued.

"Does a rainbow flag ever have a place in our schools? If so, where?" asked forum moderator William Hatfield of the Tallahassee Democrat.

Both Cox and Hodges replied "no" while Stemle agreed, adding "and neither does a Trump flag, or Stemle for school board, or Black Lives Matter flag.”

School districts are also feeling the brunt of the aftermath of the social justice protests following the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. New laws in Florida target so-called “Woke” messaging by limiting discussions on race, and by extension—history through efforts to ban Critical Race Theory, from classrooms. CRT, as it's called, is a way to understand how laws can be biased and used to advance discrimination. It's often discussed in some higher education courses and not taught in K-12 public schools.

The candidates say teachers need to stick to the state standards, and nothing more or less.

“Stick to the facts, stick to the standards, we need to make sure the students have a chance to share their perspectives on things," said Stemle, "but we gotta get focused on the learning and content and standards presented by the department of education.”

“I agree," said Cox, "Open dialogue in the classroom. And I think a good teacher knows how to create good dialogue [with] students, but it shouldn’t be a teacher’s opinion that gets in there. To me, a classroom should never know where a teacher stands. They should be totally neutral.” 

“I also think we need to look at the curriculum taught to make sure it is factual and to make sure we are aware of where the race started—the race issues—and where that came from and have [a] curriculum that speaks the truth on that," said Hodges.

The "stick to the facts, stick to the state," mantra comes as some Florida teachers have started questioning the Florida Department of Education’s new civics standards and a training program it's holding this summer. The teachers worry the new civics guidelines are biased. One of the most contentious parts of the program is the idea that the Founding Fathers did not want a separation of church and state. The teachers say the program also downplays slavery.

Corrected: July 26, 2022 at 8:19 PM EDT
The original headline and story stated Moms for Liberty had made an endorsement in the Leon School Board District 4 race. The organization has NOT endorsed a candidate.
Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.