By Mallory Simon, CNN
When Nikki Hudson drove to a local strip mall in Worthington, Ohio, to collect a corsage for her daughter’s homecoming, she was met with two billboards plastered with her name.
One declared her a failure. The other said she should put kids before her political agenda.
“It’s like nothing you would ever imagine in a local race,” Hudson told CNN.
She’s talking about her race for reelection to the Worthington School Board.
Four years ago she remembers going door to door in the well-off suburbs of Columbus, trying to drum up interest in her platform of tackling the ageing school infrastructure. She came top of the ballot with more than 7,000 votes in what felt like a traditional local contest.
But this year, the fractured national political climate has been replicated in heated school board meetings over issues like mask mandates and race equity.
That passion is now being reflected in contentious elections in Ohio and across the country, many with a new, negative undercurrent in the traditionally low-interest polls.
In Worthington, the billboards, yard signs, negative mailers and door hangers are more reminiscent of a divisive presidential or hotly contested congressional race than what would be expected for an off-year vote in the grass roots of American democracy.
Hudson and other board members say they have received threats from members of the community in email, texts and mail.
One mailed letter said, “We are coming after you,” and that board members should be tried for treason, in part for “poisoning the minds of children” because of the belief the board is mandating critical race theory. Hudson said that’s not the case.
“We want to be a part of selecting the curriculum for our children. We will protest in front of your homes, day and night,” the letter said.
The letter was postmarked in Columbus, and said it was from a member of a group called Citizens to Remove CRT From America. CNN could not find a record of the group.
“You have become our enemies and you will be removed, one way or the other. Have a miserable, miserable day for the rest of your life you filthy traitor,” the letter said.
Hudson said she expected to be challenged on her decisions, which have been far from universally popular, particularly a board vote to end a contract with police to provide school resource officers that triggered debates about race and law enforcement.
Worthington voters will get their democratic say on whether Hudson deserves another term, but she did not expect the vitriol facing her from billboards and yard signs across the neighborhood.
“They are putting tens of thousands of dollars into targeting me and smearing me,” said Hudson.
She doesn’t even know who is funding some of the opposition For instance, the billboards are cloaked behind an organization called “Save Worthington Schools,” which became an LLC in August 2021. CNN has been unable to contact any people associated with the group despite emails and phone calls.
“It is essentially dark money,” Hudson said about the lack of transparency. “As a school board member, when you have someone in your community that is upset about an issue or a decision, the first thing that you do is engage and you have conversations so that you can better understand their viewpoint and what’s going on. This structure allows zero opportunity to engage.”
The negative attacks and the mailed threats have made her more hesitant, even though she said she is ready to have passionate discussions around schools.
“I just am very just very cautious knocking on doors,” she said. “I still do it, but it definitely has a different feeling right now.”
‘Never seen anything like that’
Hudson’s fellow school board member Charlie Wilson, who’s lived in the mostly White, upper-middle-class town for 40 years, said he’s experienced strong objections to some of his stances, but not personal attacks.
“These so-called outsider groups are sending out scurrilous, untrue, highly defamatory attacks on a school board member who is running for reelection,” said Wilson, whose position is not up for vote this year. “And we’ve certainly never seen anything like that.”
Wilson, a past president of the National School Boards Association, said he’s been aware of intense votes in big cities but this year the pressure is widespread and particularly charged.
Coupled with the anti-Hudson billboards, are yard signs on tidy front lawns around Worthington, that seem innocent enough. They promote a slate of three school board candidates, — Jennifer Best, Kelli Davis and Brian Steel — to fill the three positions up for election.
But Davis said she has nothing to do with the other candidates and condemns the use of her name alongside others. Steel said he wasn’t consulted. Board incumbent Best told CNN she also didn’t know about the signs before they were made and is focused on running her own campaign.
Davis said the arrival of the signs provoked such tension, she released a statement condemning them, despite the promotion of her candidacy.
“I tried to kindly and respectfully make things clear, but as things got more and more negative and more and more name calling, I felt that it was really important for people to understand that I have no part in that,” said Davis.
The signs come from a group called OneWorthington, which seems to have a singular goal of unseating Hudson. Its website has a litany of criticism of Hudson, with clips from board meetings, text exchanges among people in town, and other details in a blog format.
The group does not publicize its leadership or membership, but in an email exchange with CNN, claimed to be comprised of “dozens” of local residents with “hundreds of other local parents cheering us on.”
It declined to offer more details about its donors, stating it keeps “much of what we do to ourselves” to stop Hudson and others from targeting them.
But the group did email a statement from Christine Scott, a Worthington parent and member of OneWorthington.
“We’re a group of many different Worthington parents who care about our kids. We want them to get a good education and we want to bring common sense back to our schools,” Scott wrote. “Nikki Hudson has been a divisive leader on the board, uninterested in listening to the community and building consensus, and unsupportive of our administrators and teachers.”
The statement went on to say the group was not part of any candidate’s campaign, but selected whom they favored to promote on the yard signs.
“We act independently and make our own independent judgments. We have broad support in this community, and we expect you to include that fact in your story.”
Hudson, who said she has the support of the local teachers’ union, accused OneWorthington of attacking her personally while hiding behind anonymity.
She also said OneWorthington has “pushed misinformation and orchestrated personal attacks against me, even though most board decisions have had unanimous board support.”
Local races gain new importance
This year’s attention on school board races, including from outside groups, perhaps shows a growing understanding of how much these positions can impact lives.
The pandemic and questions over school openings and masks made more people care, Hudson’s school board colleague Wilson said.
“Normally it really doesn’t matter that much, because normally every kid’s in school all the time,” he said. “But when you get into a pandemic situation, we really do have quite a bit of authority on things that really matter. Especially for parents, when it’s your kid … there’s nothing more important to you when you think that some public official is not doing what’s best for your kid.”
About 10 miles from Worthington, in Westerville, Ohio, feelings about whether masking has been right for kids have been the center of conversation for its school board. The school district adopted a masking policy, angering many in town who protested in favor of parental choice.
Rick Vilardo, who has served two terms for a total of eight years, was set to run for reelection. But he changed his mind when the atmosphere became so poisonous during the mask debate that the school board could not reach its usual consensus on the way forward.
He grows emotional when talking about his decision to not run again.
“In this community, and many communities across the country, we’re developing a divide that people don’t seem to want to bridge,” said Vilardo. “And to me, I’m trying to build bridges.”
He wishes the town would realize they agree, as he puts it, on 80 to 90% of issues, but the 10% of thornier issues is keeping anything from getting done.
Cash coming in from hundreds of miles away
Where Vilardo saw no way forward, others see an opening.
Ryan Girdusky is highly engaged in school board contests this year, including some in Ohio though not Hudson’s race, even though he has no children in the schools — or any children at all.
From his home in Queens, New York, he launched the 1776 Project PAC, which he describes as the first national super PAC for school board elections. It supports candidates opposed to critical race theory in education and who favor a “more patriotic curriculum” as well as continuing initiatives like the controversial gifted and talented program that was just dismantled in New York City.
Girdusky said the PAC has raised $250,000, and is spending $125,000 supporting 50 candidates in 29 school districts across seven states in this upcoming cycle. His efforts primarily go towards slates of candidates, with a hope of gaining a majority to control school board votes.
Girdusky believes he can have an impact, noting some races are decided by just a few votes.
“The money is going to primarily mailers, digital ads, text messaging, stuff like that,” Girdusky said. “A little money can impact a lot of people.”
Girdusky said he was motivated by family and friends frustrated by what they are seeing in their schools. Previously, he was part of local GOP efforts in Queens, and eventually became a consultant, contributor and writer for various right-leaning media sites like the Washington Examiner, Daily Caller and has appeared on OANN.
He bats away assertions that large political action committees have no role in the local decision-making of school board elections, pointing out that teachers’ unions have long been involved.
He said he is aware of the pressure incumbent school board candidates are feeling around the country, and welcomes it.
“Good,” he said. “They are not physically threatened. Their incumbency is threatened.”
Other rare and bold efforts to flip school boards are playing out across the country. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican who has championed giving parents more choice in schools, is getting involved in this year’s nonpartisan board elections, going so far as to endorse one candidate. In Pennsylvania, one man has given $500,000 to be split among 50 local PACs to help boost certain conservative candidates, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The campaign takes its toll
In the week since Hudson first talked to CNN about how school board races are changing, she’s learned two more billboards against her are going up. Door hangers and mailers declaring her a “controversial board member” and the board’s “bad apple” are being distributed by paid canvassers, she said.
She continues to push back on what she said are unfair or untrue characterizations, but she has decided to admit the impact on her mental health — something she’s resisted before, not wanting to give her attackers any satisfaction.
“I’m not OK,” she told CNN, describing a constant tightness in her chest. “It’s incredibly challenging. It’s day in and day out, 24/7.”
She grew emotional as she talked. “While I want our children to recognize that you don’t back down to bullies, I also want them to know it’s OK to say when they’re not OK.”
She worries about all the others facing similar battles and for the future of school boards and the work they do.
Even with early voting already underway, her own race is sometimes not even top of mind.
“Whether I lose or I win, something has to change,” she said.
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CNN’s Bonney Kapp and Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed reporting to this story.