Little Sis, a service dog, waits for her owner Michael Wedge to cast his vote at the Skehan Recreation Center in Hampden on Tuesday afternoon. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

School board candidates emphasizing more conventional priorities like improving transparency and community relations won their races Tuesday in a handful of Maine school districts where questions about critical race theory and mask mandates became high-profile issues.

Those victories came amid a national backdrop of conservatives parlaying concerns about masking and critical race theory into electoral wins. Glenn Youngkin rode to gubernatorial victory in Virginia after capitalizing on parents’ fears about social justice issues overshadowing traditional education in public schools. 

In Hampden, Ellsworth and Windham, candidates who either ran on similar platforms or received support from activists who loudly opposed mask mandates or teaching critical race theory all lost their races, according to unofficial results. The head of the state’s largest teachers’ union said such candidates were part of a “loud minority.”

In Ellsworth, two candidates lost their school board bids after running on platforms advocating for optional masking and respecting “parental choice.” One of them ran a write-in campaign advocating against critical race theory in schools, which has become a catchall term among conservatives for any education that addresses racism. 

Abigail Miller, the incumbent and top vote getter, advocated for board transparency. Her race will be the subject of a recount on Monday, after she won by 34 votes in the initial count.

In Regional School Unit 22, activists and parents who had testified at school board meetings in favor of optional masking encouraged voters to support four specific candidates for seats representing Hampden on the district’s board of directors. 

In a Facebook post, a local activist who is the former Maine chapter president of a national anti-critical race theory organization said the candidates would “fight against your children’s indoctrination” into ideologies like “LGBTQ, critical race theory, sexual education before 9th grade and Black Lives Matter.”

All four candidates lost. 

The RSU 22 winners — incumbents Lester French and Faye Anderson and newcomers Colleen Jolley and Jessica Barnes — said they wanted to continue the district’s work to improve equity and encourage community members to continue participating in board meetings. Jillian Sarnacki-Wood won a separate seat for an unexpired two-year term. 

Other winners like Sara Luciano and Ben Sprague, who won election to the Bangor School Committee, ran on issues like expanding internet access for families and supporting teachers in the classroom. 

Grace Leavitt, the president of the Maine Education Association, said anti-mask candidates were part of a “loud minority” and that most parents recognized that mandates kept children safe and in school. 

She noted that in RSU 14, incumbent Jennie Butler, who had run on a pro-masking platform, won reelection to the Windham-area school board over opponents who had said they wanted to make masks optional.

“Hopefully the outcome and the races across the state got folks elected that are still going to be making good decisions going forward,” Leavitt said. “These are not political issues.” 

Lia Russell

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