Allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choosing became a linchpin issue in the Fairfield school board race.
The issue prompted heated campaigns that drew an unusually high number of voters to the polls Tuesday in the southeast Iowa community.
Fairfield became a political battleground after a transgender student’s car was vandalized in 2016. The school board passed guidelines and renovated school facilities to offer transgender students protection, causing a backlash that found its way into this week’s school board election.
“It was a litmus test on political and religious ideology,” said Ben Picard, one of the 15 candidates who ran for Fairfield’s school board. “There’s a side that believes that they won and there’s another side, at the very least, that believes they are right.”
With five of seven seats coming open on the board — one will be decided in an upcoming special election — some believed the district’s support of transgender students was in jeopardy.
The Jefferson County Bernie Progressives backed a bloc of candidates likely to keep those protections. All four won seats. They are Frank Broz, Debi Plum, Kelly Scott and Christi Welsh.
A special election will be held to fill a fifth seat held by Phil Miller, who was recently elected to the Iowa Statehouse.
The district, which serves 1,600 students, faces other issues that could have brought voters to the polls, including financial challenges that closed an elementary school, said school board member Warren Schaefer, who was not up for re-election.
But passing transgender guidelines and the subsequent renovations to Fairfield’s high school became a political flash point. Changes to the school allow more privacy in gendered bathrooms and label single-stall facilities as unisex.
That “created a huge division between the sides,” Schaefer said.
Fairfield had usually high voter turnout. More than 22 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Voter turnout in Des Moines was 4.6 percent.
In total, 2,118 voters cast ballots in the Fairfield race, compared to 463 voters in 2015, according to the Jefferson County Auditor’s Office.
“Iowa does not tolerate hateful rhetoric against a group of people, and attacking transgender students, or any students, does not work. You’re not going to win an election,” said Nate Monson, executive director of Iowa Safe Schools, which advocates for LGBTQ youth.
School districts have faced opposition from conservative organizations over policies that allow transgender students to access bathrooms based on gender identify.
“While compassionate consideration should be given to students struggling with gender dysphoria, schools should not embrace policies that jeopardize the safety and privacy of any of its students,” said Drew Zahn, spokesman for The Family Leader.
The Christian advocacy group was “not directly” involved in the Fairfield or other school board races, but its leaders urge members to stay politically active.
“We believe the key to impacting society is not to merely win political victories, but to inspire Christians to engage in government and transform culture,” Zahn said. “Only then will we see our values reflected in elections and policy.”
Iowa civil rights law protects gender identity, and public schools cannot force students to use a bathroom that reflects the gender of their birth if it does not reflect the gender they identify with.
Absent a safety concern, the Iowa Department of Education instructs schools to allow the use of a bathroom or locker room that reflects a student’s gender identity, said spokeswoman Staci Hupp.
But earlier this year, the Trump administration overturned Obama-era rules that took transgender protections a step further by requiring public schools to allow transgender students to have access to all restrooms and locker rooms associated with their gender identity.