How Zach Arco defeated the teachers union in Minnesota’s largest district

Zach Arco put his engineering background and mindset to work in a race for Anoka-Hennepin School Board against a formidable opponent.

Zach Arco put his engineering background and mindset to work in a race for Anoka-Hennepin School Board against a formidable opponent. (Courtesy photo)

Zach Arco enjoyed his upbringing in Anoka County as a product of public schools. The Anoka-Hennepin School Board member-elect wants the same for his children, who are now 4 and 2 years old.

So when Arco, 33, decided last spring to launch a run for a seat on the Anoka-Hennepin School Board, in the state’s largest district, he knew name recognition and political insider status were two factors he would not have in his favor.

He wasn’t the star quarterback growing up in Blaine. And even as he’s kept a close eye on civic issues, Arco has never been heavily involved in local political circles.

He was also sure to be pitted against a candidate heavily backed by the local chapter of Education Minnesota, which has openly recruited, vetted and promoted slates of candidates in more than a handful of Twin Cities-based school districts in recent years.

What Arco did have going for him is the mind of an engineer. A mechanical engineer to be exact. And when he began mapping out his election campaign plans in reverse order several months ago (from finish to start), he knew one thing was clear. If he wanted to win, he would have to make time a near inexhaustible resource.

“Far and away, when you’re competing against someone who has nearly unlimited resources, like my opponent did with Education Minnesota, you are never planning to match them monetarily,” Arco said last week as he reflected on his 12-vote margin of victory on Nov. 7 over teachers union-backed candidate and well-known DFLer Susan Witt. “The one advantage, if you do it right, is time.”

That’s easier said than done for a married father of a toddler and preschooler who works full-time.

But when he set out on his campaign for the District 2 seat on the Anoka-Hennepin School Board in May, he leaned on his engineering mindset and calculated the work he would have to put in to win a race during an off-year election that was likely to draw somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 voters.

Yes, he’d need to fundraise. And amass a core of dedicated volunteers to help him communicate his message as the campaign shifted into late summer and fall. But Arco realized he would also need to pound the pavement and engage with voters, door-to-door, much sooner than most candidates tend to do for local elections in order to get ahead of what has become a daunting battle in several metro area school districts, where the teachers union has increasingly gained more ground on independent candidates.

The execution of that plan led to Arco’s Nov. 7 election win against Witt and was regarded as one of a few highlights for Minnesota Parents Alliance-endorsed school board candidates who proactively ran against Education Minnesota-backed opponents in a number of politically-charged races for school board across the metro.

Time versus money in communicating a message

While Arco was actually able to match Witt in fundraising — they both reported just under $11,000 raised at the end of October, just days before the Nov. 7 election — he believes it was the work he put in early and consistently, in meeting with voters and articulating his vision, that mattered most.

“To start that early (in May), to begin to put yourself on people’s radar and ask them to discuss school board and education issues with you on their front step, it’s very time consuming,” Arco reflected. “But I knew that getting out there six months before the election, staying persistent in meeting with voters, is pretty much what it would take to win. Because you can have the best message in the world, but if you don’t get it out to the right people in the right manner, your message doesn’t matter.”

Arco believes his message pulled no punches, but wasn’t overtly political. He doesn’t consider himself a partisan. But he’s a philosophical conservative who believes Anoka-Hennepin has focused so much on equity that it’s sacrificing student achievement.

Arco meets with voters during an August campaign event. (Courtesy photo)

“Just look at the academics,” Arco said, pointing to a precipitous drop in standardized test scores among students in the district. “Academic achievement is the whole reason schools exist; it’s tragic that we are not doing that well at all, and for some reason we are incorporating these really politically divisive values, which many people don’t realize is going on unless, like me, you start paying attention because your own kids are students or will be soon.”

Education Minnesota endorsement brings resources 

Arco knew at the outset of his campaign he wouldn’t have any real chance to receive the endorsement of the influential Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota (AHEM) chapter. But it was somewhat of a surprise to him to learn in July that the teachers union had already been publicly backing candidates, several weeks before candidates could officially file their affidavit of candidacy.

In late July, AHEM promoted a “Meet Your Anoka-Hennepin School Board Candidates” event that took place on Wednesday, Aug. 2 at Alloy Brewing in Coon Rapids. In a social media post, the local union listed incumbent Erin Heers-McCardle along with Kimball Newton and Michelle Langenfeld as “Education Minnesota Endorsed!” The event at Alloy Brewing was co-hosted by Indivisible North Metro, a left-leaning political action group that supports Democrats, and John Brillhart, chair for the Anoka County DFL. Newton ended up deciding not to run, and that gave way to Witt, a retired teacher, former candidate for DFL state House and a one-time party executive for the local Democrats.

Witt’s campaign was not only backed by Education Minnesota and the DFL-aligned School Board Integrity Project. It was aided by local Democrats like Kelli Brillhart, spouse of the aforementioned Anoka County DFL chair. Witt also had already established herself as an experienced campaigner. She ran two unsuccessful campaigns for the Minnesota House of Representatives, but came within 168 votes of defeating Republican Nolan West in 2016.

Both Arco and Witt were running for an open seat left vacant by a two-term school board member who chose not to seek another term.

And while Arco sought and received the endorsement of the upstart grassroots conservative organization Minnesota Parents Alliance, he said that endorsement rarely became a topic as he met with voters across the political spectrum on his door-knocking circuit.

“Honestly, most of the conversations were constructive,” Arco recalled. “The most common insult I would get is when someone would say, ‘You want to make us like Florida.’”

“First off, the second someone would say that to me, I knew there is not a chance I am getting this person’s vote because they’ve made up their mind that they support that narrative. But I like to have conversations. And sometimes you find common ground.”

‘Incremental steps in the right direction’

While the Anoka County canvassing board officially certified Arco’s razor-thin margin of victory on Thursday, Arco said he’s had little time to celebrate, and is transitioning to a new role on the Anoka-Hennepin School Board that he will put on his plate next to husband, father of two young children and engineering professional.

Anoka-Hennepin, which has long held the distinction of the district with the largest student enrollment in Minnesota, encompasses boundaries of more than 248,000 residents. Its school board approved a $610 million budget in June.

Arco said his goal will be to help the district incrementally get back on track in making sure students can learn without distractions in the classroom or politically divisive curriculum.

“I’m a big fan of ‘let’s just take really common sense, incremental steps in the right direction,’” he said. “Let’s be really receptive to feedback and let’s make common sense decisions that back our teachers’ ability to teach and our students’ ability to learn.”


Hank Long

Hank Long is a journalism and communications professional whose writing career includes coverage of the Minnesota legislature, city and county governments and the commercial real estate industry. Hank received his undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, where he studied journalism, and his law degree at the University of St. Thomas. The Minnesota native lives in the Twin Cities with his wife and four children. His dream is to be around when the Vikings win the Super Bowl.