Members of the Regional School Unit 22 board sit masked and socially distanced on a school bus in August 2020. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Colleen Jolley has focused her school board campaign this fall on issues such as teacher retention, class sizes and budgets in Hampden-based Regional School Unit 22. But the bulk of questions she’s received have been from people asking for her stance on critical race theory.

“I answer them, and then they’re like, ‘Oh,’ and then I ask, ‘Do you have any other questions or anything else you want to talk about?’ and they never respond to me,” said Jolley, one of eight candidates running for four openings representing Hampden on the RSU 22 board.

RSU 22 serves Hampden, Winterport, Newburgh and Frankfort.

Critical race theory has become a dominant subject in school board races across the U.S. this year, and an issue Republicans are using to generate enthusiasm among conservative voters. In RSU 22, which saw a contentious debate this summer over school masking requirements, accusations that educators are teaching the academic concept in the district’s classrooms have now taken center stage.

Even Maine’s newly designated Teacher of the Year, who teaches at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden, hasn’t been immune from them.

Critical race theory is a 40-year-old graduate- and undergraduate-level academic concept that teaches that racism is not an individual bias or prejudice, but instead something that is embedded in legal systems and policies. Education experts have  repeatedly  said that it is not taught in elementary or secondary schools.

But two activists who have been urging conservatives to focus their attention on school board races and school policies spoke to the district’s board at a meeting last week, accusing the district’s teachers of indoctrinating students and teaching critical race theory.

Larry Lockman, a former Maine House representative from Bradley who runs the activist group Maine First Project, told board members that Reeds Brook students were underperforming on state standardized tests, and attributed it to a lack of focus on “teaching the basics” in favor of “immersing students in discredited Marxist ideology.”

The most recent standardized test data for the school, from the 2018-19 school year, show that Reeds Brook students outperformed the state as a whole in math, language arts and science.

Shawn McBreairty, president of Maine’s chapter of the national organization No Left Turn in Education, voiced concerns that Kelsey Stoyanova, the 2022 Maine Teacher of the Year who teaches language arts at Reeds Brook, was teaching critical race theory, based on a reading list she had compiled for the district that promoted books by LGBTQ authors and authors of color.

He cited several books that he said had references to “pedophilia,” “incest,” “denying the need for fathers” and “breaking down the moral framework for traditional families.” The books included Pulitzer Prize winner Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Leslea Newman’s “Heather Has Two Mommies,” a picture book that has been praised for its depiction of LGBTQ families.

Lockman’s and McBreairty’s organizations have been collaborating on “activist trainings” across the state, including one planned for the Bangor area on Saturday, specifically about how to file public records requests.

“Part of the training is around K-12 indoctrination in Maine’s K-12 public schools,” Lockman said in a text message.

McBreairty did not respond to a request for comment.

Students said that Stoyanova is a caring teacher who has worked hard to promote an inclusive environment that allowed them to learn about controversial topics without judgment. Stoyanova did not respond to a request for comment.

McBreairty clashed with the school board in Cumberland-based School Administrative District 51, where his children attended school, over similar issues last year. He told Fox News in May that he had been banned from his twin daughters’ graduation ceremony due to a criminal trespass order barring him from SAD 51 property without the superintendent’s permission. He later attended the graduation, he told the Portland Press Herald.

McBreairty, who has since moved to Hampden, pleaded guilty to improperly influencing a public official, a Class D crime, last Friday in Cumberland County court, according to court documents. He had threatened to release a recording of the deceased father of SAD 51 board chair Tyler McGinley, if McGinley didn’t resign, NBC News reported.  

McBreairty received a deferred disposition of six months, according to court documents. Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck declined to comment due to the pending status of the case. 

McBreairty must complete 30 hours of community service by Feb. 22, participate in a restorative justice program with McGinley, and have no contact with McGinley outside of that setting. If he fails to comply with those terms, the maximum sentence for a Class D crime is 364 days in jail and a $2,000 fine.

Lester French, a current RSU 22 board member who is also running for reelection, said that he wasn’t aware of any critical race theory curriculum available for kindergarten through 12th graders, nor had he seen any instance of its use in RSU 22.

French said he heard from his neighbor while collecting signatures for his campaign who was concerned about its use, after which French explained that it wasn’t taught in RSU 22 schools.

“He seemed pretty satisfied,” French said.

“My understanding of CRT is that it’s a college-level class,” said Anthony Liberatore, a current RSU 22 board member who’s running for reelection.

RSU 22 recently  conducted an audit to show areas for improvement in ensuring that it was encouraging representation and perspectives from a variety of backgrounds, which two other candidates applauded.

“Staff needs to be supported in their efforts providing a diverse, equitable and inclusive curriculum,” Jessica Barnes, an RSU 22 board candidate, said. “And that can be an intimidating process.”

Jillian Sarnacki-Wood, another RSU 22 board member who is running for a two-year term, said that she applauded the efforts of educators like Stoyanova to “promote a balanced, equitable and inclusive curriculum” that empowered “students to be free thinking and kind human beings.”

“There is absolutely no room for hate in Hampden,” she said.

RSU 22 Superintendent Regan Nickels said she began receiving a higher volume of emails from parents at the end of August concerning a “variety of subjects.”

“I can’t say that CRT has more questions than some other subjects,” Nickels said. “What I feel is important though, is that people are reaching out to ask the questions.”

BDN writer Nick Schroeder contributed to this report.

Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to LRussell@bangordailynews.com.