A recently formed political organization called Ames Deserves Better is taking aim at the city’s school board, continuing a fight that began in January after the district announced its plans for a Black Lives Matter at School week of action — an initiative that parents variously praised and decried as inappropriately ideological.
Conservatives seized on the controversy, which was featured on Fox News and became the subject of a politicized Statehouse committee probe. It is a microcosm of the broader efforts across the country to push back against public school initiatives to raise students’ awareness of anti-racism and diversity concepts, particularly in states like Iowa that have passed laws aimed at restricting such curriculum and denying the existence of systemic racism.
The moral panic over the supposed influence of critical race theory in public education is typically a core element of this, although the Ames Deserves Better website does not specifically mention this theory. The site criticizes the school district for both its “divisive curriculum” and reluctance to return to in-person classes during the coronavirus pandemic, claiming these decisions have been the driving forces behind declining academic achievement and enrollment levels. Citing unnamed local realtors, the website alleges there has been a corresponding “influx of calls from families looking to sell their homes and move out” of the school district. It also suggests that Ames Deserves Better will endorse candidates for the school board.
The organization, so far, has otherwise been guarded about its activities. A political action committee with the same name was registered with the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board in mid-May. The filing identified Ames resident Eve Lederhouse as the committee’s chairperson and her husband, Bryan Lederhouse, as its treasurer. This was updated twice the following month, once to note the committee’s checking account opened at the Community Choice Credit Union on East Lincoln Way and the second time to change its treasurer to another Ames resident, Lee Mason.
Eve Lederhouse has an extensive resume that includes leadership roles in local business organizations and serving as the spokesperson for City Council member Tim Gartin’s unsuccessful 2010 campaign as a Republican challenging Ames state Senator Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat. She was a vice president of communications and operations at the Ames Chamber of Commerce for seven years before moving to Evanston, Illinois, in 2011, where she met her husband and briefly served as director of the city’s chamber of commerce before resigning and returning to Ames. From August 2018 to April 2020, she was the communications director for the Ames Convention & Visitors Bureau.
On a Friday in early February that marked the final day of the BLM week of action, Lederhouse appeared on The Ingraham Angle, a Fox News program hosted by Laura Ingraham, who introduced her as “an Ames Community School District parent who is not exactly thrilled with the attempt to brainwash and indoctrinate her second-grade daughter.”
Black Lives Matter at School is a national coalition “fighting for racial justice in school” that was founded in Seattle three years after the beginning of the BLM movement itself, but as Lederhouse mentioned on the program, the coalition’s guiding principles reflect those of the broader movement. As she described it then, the short period between the week of action’s announcement and when it began on February 1 gave parents little time “to digest this information.”
After Ingraham specifically voiced her displeasure with a guiding principle titled “Black Villages” that is a commitment “to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another,” Lederhouse agreed that this concerned her, too. (The principle is qualified by stating this should be done “to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.”) She added that the city already has events celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month.
Ingraham pointed to other focal points of the guiding principles, like sexual identity and intersectionality, that she argued should be left to parents to discuss with their children or that would be more appropriate in a college course. The Fox News host alleged the initiative was “left-wing Marxist propaganda” that “is indoctrinating children into a far-left, radical perspective.” Lederhouse told Ingraham that the lessons her second-grade daughter received went “right down the list of 13” guiding principles.
Other parents in the Ames school district have disputed such characterizations, pointing out that there was an option to opt out of the week of action activities (although the way in which parents could do this was also criticized by some of them) and saying they believed their children received age-appropriate lessons that bore little resemblance to how they were described by right-wing media outlets.
Jessica Sidler, the school district’s equity coordinator, uploaded overviews of the lesson plans for each grade level that generally support this. The lesson plan for second graders that incorporated the Black Villages principle, for instance, was actually based on a discussion of the Academy Award-winning short film Hair Love, which is intended to dispel stereotypes about Black men being deadbeat dads. The second-grade lesson plan for queer and transgender affirmation was based on a children’s book about a grandmother who is accepting of her grandson’s interest in dressing like a mermaid.
Regardless, Ingraham commended Lederhouse, saying she was “very brave to speak out” when other parents might have been afraid of the repercussions. “I appreciate you saying that,” Lederhouse replied. “There are a lot of concerned parents. But there is also a lot of fear. And we’re adults, but there’s a lot of name calling. There’s a lot of bullying, and social media is just a train wreck.”
In its announcement of the BLM week of action, which was published online a week and a half before the lessons began, the Ames school district acknowledged its longstanding struggle with addressing racial disparities in student achievement levels. “For years, our data has shown that there is a need to focus on our Black students,” one paragraph of the announcement read. “For years, community groups have requested we improve the educational experiences of our Black students. For years, Ames CSD staff have been working on deepening their critical consciousness. Now is the time for us to take action.”
The Ames Deserves Better PAC has yet to report any donations, as it was only recently registered, but it is soliciting donations on its website and last Saturday hosted a “kick-off rally BBQ” at the home of Marc and Jenn Peterson in north Ames with a suggested donation of $15.
“Join friends and neighbors to hear from state and community leaders who EXPECT BETTER from Ames,” a since-removed description on the website’s events page read. “Hear how YOU can be a part of the solution for better education in Ames and throughout the state of Iowa.” The description also noted that Governor Kim Reynolds had been invited and that Holly Brink, a Republican state representative from Oskaloosa in southeastern Mahaska County who chairs the government oversight committee that questioned the Ames school board over its BLM week of action, would be a guest speaker. (Update: Brink posted photos of the event on Facebook — drop us a line if you recognize anyone.)
The Informer sent a request for comment about this event and other details to the email addresses of the Lederhouses and Mason that were listed on the PAC filings, as well as to the general contact address on the Ames Deserves Better website. In a response from the website’s email address, a representative for the organization who did not disclose their name confirmed that Brink but not Reynolds attended the event along with about 100 others. “Because it was a private event, I am not at liberty to discuss names of other attendees,” they said. (In response to another question, they replied, “I am not running for school board” — possibly suggesting that the person who responded to the email was Eve Lederhouse, whose name has been floated as a potential candidate.)
At least two would-be guests RSVPing to the event, the Informer was told by another source, received responses that the list was already full, apparently after their names were recognized as opponents of the organization’s views. The representative denied this and added, “Everyone who registered for the event was sent a confirmation email, even if it was after the RSVP date of June 23, up until noon on the 26th.” Details of the event were later removed, the representative said, because the Squarespace website builder they use does this by default.
The Informer also inquired about another curious aspect of the website: From the home page, clicking the “Learn More” link under the section on “Social Responsibility” leads not to that page but an earlier draft of it featuring a photograph of Black children in a central African classroom. The photo is accompanied by the text, “Implementing programs aligned with Black Lives Matter, proposing to ‘defund’ School Resource Officers and bringing political agendas into the classroom is driving families out of district.”
“Using SquareSpace as our website builder, the template we used had stock photos,” the Ames Deserves Better representative said in their email. “A combination of user error and a bad link kept defaulting to the template photo.” The photo’s filename, “justice-rising-ECHO-AND-EARL-21.jpg,” appears to reference, respectively, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps finance the construction of schools in war-torn nations including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and an LA photography collective that has done work for Justice Rising. The Informer did not find any connections between the nonprofit and Ames Deserves Better.
Several Ames residents who do not support the views of Ames Deserves Better have speculated that the new PAC might somehow be involved with the Cornerstone Church, a non-denominational evangelical church along Highway 30 in Ames that’s affiliated with The Salt Company, a religious student organization at ISU. The church also has close ties to conservative Republican politics in Story County, although its website stresses that membership is diverse and open to people of differing political viewpoints.
In a document titled “The Church and Culture: Faithful Presence,” Cornerstone equates critical race theory — or the “‘New’ Social Justice” — with white supremacy, denouncing both as heresies on opposite sides of a spectrum defining evangelical beliefs. The document as a whole is consistent with the views of conservative Christians who oppose incorporating concepts of social justice into religious teachings, believing they would misrepresent and threaten to undermine the biblical gospel.
Marc Peterson, one of the hosts of the kick-off barbecue, is a deacon in Cornerstone’s youth ministry, according to his Linkedin profile. The Lederhouses also appear to be involved with the church. However, the Ames Deserves Better representative told the Informer, the organization itself is “not affiliated with Cornerstone Church or any other church.”
The establishment of the Ames Deserves Better PAC promises to keep the controversy over the school district’s efforts to address racial disparities and promote inclusivity alive, as well as the criticism some have leveled over the district’s response to the pandemic. Already, the controversies were seen as an influencing factor in the resignation of Superintendent Jenny Risner, who was hired by the district just three years ago and whose final day on the job was Wednesday.
Risner became superintendent shortly after the 2017 school board elections that resulted in three progressive candidates joining the board who made issues such as racial equity and LGBTQ acceptance key parts of their campaigns. Their terms all expire this year, with the next school board election to be held on November 2.
One of the newcomers was Monic Behnken (who on Thursday will become the ISU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ first associate dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion). Behnken’s 2017 school board campaign was targeted with white supremacist messages and, in a public Facebook post late this May, she described the toll of “the abusive emails that the board has been receiving for over a year now” regarding the recent controversies. Two days later, when the board formally accepted Risner’s resignation, Behnken cast a sole dissenting vote.
Correction: This article previously said that Oskaloosa, where state Representative Holly Brink lives, is in Keokuk County. Brink grew up in that county, which borders Oskaloosa’s Mahaska County to its east.