Nothing is more “local” in local politics than a school budget in Maine.

First, members of a community elect people to represent them on the school board. Then the board members work out a budget with the guidance of administrators they employ, typically holding a series of public meetings before finishing their work.

A sign encouraging voters to reject the Portland school budget says it was paid for by a group called Concerned Ethnic Fathers, which apparently exists only as a closed group on Facebook. Rachel Ohm/Staff Writer

Finally, the voters of the community are asked for their approval on the amount of spending that would be raised from local property taxes. If the voters say “no,” then the board goes back and tries again.

That’s how it’s supposed to work. But a stealth campaign in Portland suggests that this year’s school budget referendum involves some ideas that are far from local.

Over the weekend lawn signs appeared on public property with the cryptic message: “Vote NO on 1. $125.2 million Portland School Budget. Provide Equity for All Students.”

We can only guess what the author meant by “Equity for all,” because no individual is taking credit for the campaign signs: They are attributed to “Concerned Ethnic Fathers,” who apparently exist only as a closed group on Facebook.

They appear to be opposing the school board’s stated goal of spending $2.9 million on “equity investments,” like English language services, expanded pre-K and teacher training, which are intended to keep children, regardless of the challenges they face, from falling behind. “Equity for all” implies that helping children who need it is somehow unfair to the students who don’t.

There’s a little more information on the group’s public Instagram page that sheds some light on their intentions. It says that Concerned Ethnic Fathers are “concerned about our school board pushing Critical Race Theory disguised as ‘equity.’ ”

That message shows that this campaign is trying to turn a local school budget into a battlefield of the national culture war.

“Critical race theory” is a legal argument developed by scholars in the 1980s that called on judges to consider the impact of systemic racism when deciding discrimination cases.

Recently, the term has become a monster under the bed for right-wing media pundits, who claim to see it behind every attempt to teach American history honestly – from mentions of George Washington’s slaves to segregation in “redlined” neighborhoods.

The term is also invoked when people on the right argue that only race-blind policies should ever be used to fix the social problems that racist policies of the past have caused. It’s an all-purpose conversation-stopper any time the subject turns to racial caste and the hierarchies embedded in American life.

In other words, “critical race theory” has a lot to do with blowing up social media with hot takes and virtually nothing to do with the experience of a child in a local school or the 2021-22 Portland school budget.

The “Concerned Ethnic Fathers” haven’t filed campaign finance reports with the city, and the lack of accountability is the reason that the signs were taken down Tuesday by city employees.

After the signs are gone, however, voters in Portland and elsewhere should consider whether they want the partisan national media setting the agenda when we debate the most local of local issues.


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