Last spring, 150 residents signed a petition in the southern Minnesota city of New Ulm asking school board members whether it's appropriate to include instruction on "sexual and gender identity" in the youngest elementary school classrooms.

No school board members responded to the petition, which echoed a controversial Florida law passed this year. But when a moderator posed a question about busing at a recent school board candidate forum, the most outspoken in a slate of conservative challengers piped up.

"I'm going to jump off the bridge here a little bit and take note of something that hasn't been asked this evening," said Michael Thom, a 67-year-old retired accountant and father of five. "A petition was delivered to the school board, asking them to state whether they agree or disagree with the proposal that classroom instruction on gender identity and sexual orientation ..."

The moderator cut him off, but Thom persisted. "This is my time," Thom said, "and I will answer it in a way that I feel is best." Several in the audience shouted, "No!" and the moderator told Thom he could address the petition in closing remarks. (He did not.)

That charged moment underscored how this school board election has become a localized flashpoint in the national culture wars. In New Ulm, the battle has been fought in churches, in placard-filled front yards, on social media and in a barrage of back-and-forth letters to the editor in the local newspaper, the Journal.

Some in this rural hub of 14,000 people — the seat of Brown County, where Donald Trump received twice as many votes as Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election — have pushed for New Ulm to become more welcoming, which became especially resonant after recent incidents highlighted what some see as an anti-gay undercurrent in town. Meanwhile, fiery conservative candidates like Thom are attempting to shift the discussion away from typical school board issues such as a high-stakes operating levy renewal on the ballot, which could lead to budget cuts. The petition, as well as critical race theory and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, dominate their talking points.

As Steve Bannon, former President Donald Trump's chief strategist, told a recent gathering of conservative activists about what he sees as the culture wars' most important front: "School boards are the key that picks the lock."

New Ulm's divisive election is something Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, is seeing more throughout parts of Minnesota: conservative activists imprinting hot-button social issues on local races.

"How are we going to come together to solve real problems when you have candidates worried about litter boxes or banning books?" she said. "These candidates are really using culture wars as a way to get us to forget the fact of disinvestments in schools and students is really what's at stake."

The nationalizing of New Ulm's election has flummoxed current school board members.

"My question to myself always is, 'How does it relate to our school in New Ulm, or is this just a national talking point?'" said Jonathan Schiro, vice chair of the school board, who isn't up for re-election this cycle. "I see [the petition] more as a political ambition statement. ... I don't see it related to our school. Any type of sex education is not appropriate for kindergarten through third grade."

Welcoming or divisive?

New Ulm can seem like a fairy-tale place, full of community pride and home to August Schell Brewing Co., a 45-foot glockenspiel, and the Hermann the German statue that overlooks town.

Part of the fairy tale was punctured last winter when several incidents surrounding the varsity boys' basketball team occurred. The school punished a player accused of harassing a gay rival player. Then, after the teams met again in the playoffs and St. Peter fans wore rainbow shirts to support their player, four New Ulm students were cited for disorderly conduct after they chased down St. Peter's team bus on the highway and shot at it with a fully automatic water gel ball gun.

Afterward, the principal told a school assembly the incidents weren't related and that media reports inaccurately portrayed the school as unwelcoming. Several students shouted at the principal, including one who said gay students often hear slurs in the hallway. The principal said all instances of bullying and harassment ought to be punished. Students later formed an LGBTQ club.

Thom downplayed it: "The basketball incident has been used by local LGBTQ activists and their supporters in the media to create a narrative that depicts our city as a place where LGBTQ persons must fear for their safety," he wrote in an email to the Star Tribune, though he declined interview requests. "The city of New Ulm is no different from any other city in the Midwest in its view of the LGBTQ lifestyle."

Some LGBTQ people in New Ulm disagree, saying the city may be a wonderful place to raise children — but not children who are gay.

Josie Ringhofer, a senior at New Ulm High School, said coming out was easier for her than for some of her gay friends because her parents, both educators in Mankato, were accepting. Her dad is also a New Ulm school board member.

"But it was still hard," she said. "There were no role models in my town to look up to. Now, [some school board candidates] say how wrong it is there are gay people in school, that CRT is being taught in our school — which it's not! — just make-believe stuff."

Her feelings are echoed by Levi Wick, who graduated in 2015. Wick said the community was rarely negative toward him because of his sexuality — but never outwardly supportive. He felt isolated, dreading anyone finding out.

"I was never told it was going to be OK," he said. "Having those conversations is making sure school is a safe, comfortable, open place for all students."

Wendi Ringhofer, Josie's mother, is conflicted: She loves New Ulm, but she fears the upshot of this election.

"Plenty of people in this town are welcoming, the school is welcoming," she said. "But Josie reads letters to the editors, she hears what people say at school board meetings. She hears the ugliness toward her, even if it's not directly toward her by name.

"There are kids in kindergarten right now that have 12 years to go," she continued. "How do you hear that and then be your best self and perform academically?"

Culture wars

In an email, Thom depicted America as currently in the final steps of "the path of socialist revolution in the western world ... a long march through the institutions."

Those in charge of Minnesota's education system "are teaching our children to think in Marxist terms of a class struggle between privileged classes and victim classes," he wrote, adding that it's driving a wedge between children and their parents, churches and "the America that we have known."

David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University who has written on education and democracy, said public schools are meant to give everyone equal access and opportunity, and giving parents a veto over policies is a dangerous precedent.

"If parents are pressuring school districts, saying, 'I don't want to have my children exposed to certain things,' the simple answer is to take their kids out of public school and put them in a private school," he said.

Thom and two school board candidates aligned with him — Jo-ell Flitter and Gigi Rysdahl — have painted diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives as hurting the district's cohesiveness.

Flitter says the statewide education plan, which "would ensure academic standards ... are inclusive of ethnic studies, and are reflective of students of color and Indigenous students," is furthering critical race theory. And Rysdahl's impetus to run was seeing a school bulletin board reading "All are welcome here."

"I did not feel welcome, because it was in rainbow colors," Rysdahl wrote on Facebook. "We need to provide a safe place for all students, and this is harder to do when students flaunt their sexuality."

Current New Ulm school board members compare diversity, equity and inclusion training to the curb-cut effect; curb cuts were designed to make things easier for people with wheelchairs, but they helped others, too: parents with strollers, cyclists, senior citizens. The three incumbents argued during the forum that the initiatives are a rising tide that lifts all boats. "We're not taking away anything from anybody," incumbent Amanda Groebner said. "We're creating a better environment for everybody."

During the forum, though, Thom made a different comparison, arguing that it's straight out of the Soviet Union.

"Wherever diversity, equity and inclusion become part of the focus or the focus of an organization ... what the core mission of that organization is suffers," he said. "We don't want divisiveness in our schools, and this is the breeding ground for it."