FARGO — More than a month into an effort to recall four members of the Fargo School Board, the group behind the push says it's gathered nearly half of the signatures needed to force a special election.
The recall group's efforts have recently met resistance from another organization called Decline to Sign, which has launched a campaign to educate the public on the costs of a special election, among other issues.
The Recall Fargo School Board group, which emerged from the Facebook group called ND Parents Against Distance Learning, has until Aug. 25 to find the 16,576 signatures (4,144 signatures per board member) needed to recall members Seth Holden, Tracie Newman, Nikkie Gullickson and Jim Johnson.
About 40 people have been collecting signatures, visiting events such as Happy Harry’s RibFest and the Downtown Fargo Street Fair. "We got 300 signatures within two hours at the Red River Valley Fair. It's just a matter of us getting out there and getting people to sign these petitions," said Allie Ollenburger, a Recall Fargo School Board organizer.
At the forefront of the group’s complaints is the belief that some board members are pushing a controversial concept called critical race theory into schools.
Johnson, one of the board members being targeted for a recall, said he's seen no movement in local school districts or the North Dakota Legislature toward incorporating critical race theory into public school curricula.
"And in the long run I would be surprised if they think this is a winning political issue," he said. "It’s unfortunate when people want to politicize school boards. We have a very nonpartisan role and that’s to educate all the kids no matter what political affiliation their parents belong to."
Holden and Gullickson declined to comment for this story. Phone and email messages left for Newman were not returned.
Proponents of critical race theory, a decades-old concept, say it seeks to illuminate that racism is a social construct built into the American way of life. They want a more inclusive and holistic approach to teaching history, and see the theory as a challenge to those who believe racism hasn't been a significant issue in the U.S. since the era of the civil rights movement.
Some opponents call the theory inherently racist and say it inflames resentment as it interprets society as being made up of groups of oppressors and the oppressed. Some critics say the theory poses a threat to democracy itself, arguing that its emphasis on victimization and group identity could harm the civic bonds and trust necessary for the system to function.
Legislation banning critical race theory, or any curriculum that identifies people or institutions as oppressed or privileged, has been passed in some states, including Idaho, Arkansas and Tennessee. Proponents of critical race theory have called the legislation unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, efforts to recall school board members are reportedly surging around the country. This year’s campaigns are focused on critical race theory and in-school mask requirements, which were two of the initial complaints when the Fargo group announced its intentions in early June.
Local tensions reached a boiling point June 15 when a fight broke out at a critical race theory conference in Moorhead organized by the Center of the American Experiment. The scuffle erupted and police responded after attendees challenged speakers during lectures against instituting the theory in public schools.
AnnMarie Campbell, a Fargo Public Schools spokeswoman, rejects the notion that critical race theory is being or ever will be incorporated into the district's curriculum.
"Critical race theory is not part of the ND K-12 Education Content Standards nor is it built into the Fargo Public Schools curriculum. Critical race theory is being confused with diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in communities and specifically within school settings,” Campbell said.
If enough signatures are obtained for a recall, then a special election will be held, according to guidelines from the North Dakota Secretary of State's Office. The names of any board members to be recalled will be automatically placed on the ballot, along with the names of any challengers.
Fargo School Board President Rebecca Knutson said the law requires the district to pay for a special election, which would cost thousands of dollars. “That amount could be in the neighborhood of $30,000. The reality is $30,000 will have an impact on the district’s budget somewhere, and whoever is serving on the board will need to wrestle with that,” Knutson said.
Amy Jacobson, executive director of Fargo-based Prairie Action ND, a nonprofit group that aims to hold elected officials accountable, is organizing the Decline to Sign counter-effort against the recall.
"The cost of this recall, there are so many issues with it, but it is ultimately very costly. The projected timeline for a recall election would be just six months ahead of our standard election cycle. Their timing is hapless, irresponsible, and unnecessary. This recall effort is misled and disruptive, and does nothing to help our schools, our students, or our teachers," Jacobson said.