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This Palm Beach County School Board race shows how education politics has changed since COVID

Marcia Andrews
Wilfredo Lee
File photo - Palm Beach County School Board Member Marcia Andrews speaks at an Honor Roll ceremony at Crossroads Academy, in 2014.

Last cycle, Palm Beach County School Board Member Marcia Andrews didn’t have to run for re-election — no one opposed her. That’s not the case this year — the longtime board member and retired educator is facing off against a parental rights activist who claims teachers are indoctrinating students.

A key thing to know about School Board Member Marcia Andrews is she’s a fierce advocate for the Glades — the rural, western part of Palm Beach County that’s home to farmworkers and laborers, many of them poor people of color.

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“We don't want any child to not know that they can have greatness,” Andrews told WLRN during an interview at a park in the city of Belle Glade, where about 40% of people live in poverty.

Andrews’ challenger this cycle is Jen Showalter, a mom whose kids have attended the district’s schools. She has given voice to the frustration of some parents during the pandemic era.

A staunch opponent of mask mandates in schools, Showalter says she felt disrespected by the board’s decision to require face coverings during COVID surges. And she’s advocated for restricting how issues like race and identity can be taught in public schools.

“I'm here to bring about the facts that are going on in our schools every single day,” Showalter told WLRN. “To make sure that we get somebody in there who's going to respect the rule of law, respect individual rights, respect the parents and the teachers, and make sure that we're focused on actual academics.”

Andrews says she knows the Glades communities intimately. The small towns surrounded by acres of sugarcane on the banks of Lake Okeechobee couldn’t feel farther from the gilded extravagance of Palm Beach — 40 miles and a world away.

Kate Payne / WLRN
Campaign signs carpet the grass outside the public library in Belle Glade, FL on Oct. 27, 2022.

Plumes of smoke rise on the horizon, evidence of the rudimentary and hazardous practice of burning the cane fields during harvests, wafting an acrid smoke that fills the lungs of schoolchildren and their families.

Andrews knows the challenges these communities face, but says kids here deserve the same chances as those in Boca Raton.

“Whether you live in a trailer park or the projects or anywhere else, you can be the president. You could be the next school board member, superintendent, whatever you want to be,” she said. “We want to make sure we teach you and give you those opportunities.”

Since first being elected to the Palm Beach County School Board in 2010, Andrews says that’s been her focus: bringing more resources to her district to help support some of the neediest children in the county.

Steve Wilson, the mayor of Belle Glade, credits Andrews with the district’s decision to build three new schools in the region, replacing aging, substandard facilities.

“We got three brand new schools — Gove Elementary, Glade View Elementary and Rosenwald Elementary — all within a heartbeat,” Wilson said. “Talk about a person who’s committed to the Glades community and the Palm Beach County School District.”

Before running for the District 6 seat, Andrews spent her career in the school district — as a teacher, a principal, a recruiter and ultimately the head of Human Resources. And she’s a product of Palm Beach public schools and a proud graduate of Roosevelt High, which was the district’s historic Black high school before desegregation.

As Andrews gears up for what she hopes will be another four year term, she says she’s focused on school safety, mental health and unfinished learning. But she acknowledges that this cycle she’s really had to work to keep her seat.

Back in 2018, she ran unopposed so her race didn’t even appear on the ballot. Not this year. She drew five challengers in the primary and came just two points shy of winning an outright majority. Now she’s in a runoff with Jen Showalter, a parental rights activist.

“I think it came from the pandemic when they felt like the school board was not listening,” Andrews said. “Some people didn’t want their children to wear the masks. And they felt like nobody listened.”

Kate Payne / WLRN
Jen Showalter talks to potential voters at a gun show at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach. She's a parental rights activist who began attending school board meetings during the pandemic.

The District 6 race underscores just how much has changed in school board politics in recent years —and could be a test of the parental rights movement in Palm Beach County.

Over the past two years, Showalter has become a familiar face at school board meetings, where she speaks out against masks and what she claims is "indoctrination" in public schools.

“I'm here to bring about the facts that are going on in our schools every single day,” Showalter told WLRN. “To make sure that we get somebody in there who's going to respect the rule of law, respect individual rights, respect the parents and the teachers, and make sure that we're focused on actual academics.”

Showalter is also known for campaigning at gun shows, where she hands out fliers and chats up potential voters as they peruse the tables of rifles, ammo and body armor.

“I go where the people are,” Showalter said. “These are law-abiding citizens exercising their First and Second Amendment rights to assemble. And I'm meeting people where they're at.”

The day WLRN visited Showalter at the South Florida Fairgrounds, other candidates and conservative activists had set up tables there as well, including Roger Stone, a political advisor to former President Donald Trump who advocated for the use of violence to help Trump cling to power despite losing the 2020 election.

After speaking briefly with WLRN at the gun show, Showalter canceled a previously scheduled sit-down interview and has not responded to subsequent requests.

Kate Payne / WLRN
A display of handguns at a gun show at the South Florida Fairgrounds in West Palm Beach on Oct. 8, 2022. Palm Beach County School Board candidate Jen Showalter has made a practice of campaigning at the events.

Showalter is a mother of three children who have all attended Palm Beach County public schools, though she said she recently began homeschooling her youngest child.

She describes herself as a special needs advocate and has spoken about her own frustrations trying to navigate her kids’ IEPs. But it was the pandemic that really got Showalter involved.

“I've been at the school board meetings for about two years. And I would ask questions and I would listen to what they said and what they did. And for me, the fact that they were so disrespectful to the constituents [showed me] it was time that somebody stand up and bring common sense back to the school board.”

Showalter has also used militant language to describe what she alleges is the political and social indoctrination of public school students, which she calls “the war on our nation”.

In a series of videos posted on her campaign website, Showalter claims that “Marxism invaded America through our school system” and encourages her supporters to look for books in their kids’ classrooms that feature LGBTQ issues and to monitor whether public schools fly rainbow pride flags.

Andrews says in her four-decade long career in the district, she knows of no instances of indoctrination — but says she welcomes the scrutiny of parents, who she says are vital to their kids’ education.

“We have PTAs and PTOs, school advisory councils…the schools are open for parents to come,” Andrews said. “To say that ‘I don't have rights’...where have you been?”

Kate Payne is WLRN's education reporter