Local school boards across the country are increasingly becoming cauldrons of anger and political divisiveness, seething with disputes over issues such as the COVID-19 mask rules, the treatment of transgender students and how to teach school history of racism and slavery in America.
Once orderly, even boring, meetings have turned ugly. School board elections that were once uncontested drew candidate lists galvanized by one issue or another.
A school board meeting in June in Loudoun County, Va. That dealt with transgender students and teaching critical race theory became so unruly that one person was arrested on suspicion of disorderly conduct and another was cited for trespassing.
In Rapid City, SD and Kalispell, Mont., Non-partisan school board races turned into a political war as Tory candidates, angered by the requirement to wear masks in schools, sought to take control.
In Pennsylvania, a Republican donor plans to donate $ 500,000 to school board races.
“We are in a culture war,” said Jeff Holbrook, head of the Pennington County GOP in Rapid City.
In South Carolina’s Lexington-Richland school system, a new majority of board members unhappy with pandemic restrictions forced superintendent Christina Melton, who had been pushing to keep a mask requirement in place until the end of the school year. She had been honored weeks earlier as the state’s Superintendent of the Year.
Melton broke down in tears at a meeting in June as she offered her resignation. A board member also resigned that day, complaining that the organization had decided behind closed doors to force Melton out and avoid a public vote. The board censored the deceased member at its next meeting.
“Now we’re known as the district with the crazy school board,” said Tifani Moore, a mother of three and a husband who teaches in the district.
Moore is running for the empty board seat and promises to reduce the political split, which she says has crippled the board.
“It’s so thick that even children can smell it,” she said.
School boards are usually made up of former educators and parents whose jobs, at least until recently, have been mainly to iron out budgets, discuss the lunch menu, or hire superintendents.
But online meetings during the pandemic made it easier for parents to connect. And the crisis has given new gravity to school board decisions. Parents feared their children might fall behind because of distance learning or argued over the seriousness of the health risks.
“I have seen over and over again frustrated parents, thousands of parents, call their council meetings, write letters and get no response,” said Clarice Schillinger, a relative from Pennsylvania who formed a group called Keeping Kids in School.
She recruited nearly 100 parents to run for school boards across Pennsylvania in November. While the group has come together to push for schools to open fully, its candidates have also sought to ban the teaching of critical race theory, which argues, among other things, that racism is rooted in law. and American institutions.
Schillinger said the group is split 70-30 between Republicans and Democrats. But its priorities are unmistakably conservative. She said he was trying to counter the influence that teachers’ unions have on school boards: “It’s really less government – that’s what it comes down to. “
Paul Martino, a venture capitalist who donates to Republican candidates and pledged half a million dollars to the movement and the creation of a statewide political action committee, said the new PAC would support candidates determined to keep schools open no matter what, “even though there is the dreaded COVID surge in the fall.”
Conservative lists of candidates elsewhere in the country have also set their sights on school boards.
In Rapid City, four newly elected school board members will hold a controlling vote over the seven-member body, which oversees the education of approximately 14,000 students. In an area where Trump flags still fly, the four generally non-partisan board candidates won local GOP approval in the June election.
In previous elections, board seats were often filled in uncontested elections. But this year the campaigns have turned into political battles, with personal attacks.
Critical Race Theory is not part of the Rapid City curriculum. But that did not prevent the candidates from making it a central issue in the campaign.
“I believe with all my heart that this is how they are going to drag socialism and Marxism into our schools,” newly elected member Deb Baker said at a campaign event.
Curt Pochardt, who was ousted as school board chairman in the election, said he was concerned the new partisan dynamic could hurt student education.
“It doesn’t help kids when there is tension in a school board,” he said.
Education experts warn that school boards are wasting time that could be spent on issues such as recruiting teachers, ensuring students have internet access at home, or improving opportunities for young people with disabilities.
“Anytime we don’t talk about these issues and talk about something else that is divisive and that may not be happening at all – or at least not at the level it’s described – is a wasted opportunity for what we really need to focus on, ”said Chip Slaven, chief advocate for the National School Boards Assn.
In Kalispell, a losing school board candidate who campaigned against the mask warrants made it clear he was not finished.
“I am the barbed spine of the jumping cholla cactus,” Sean Pandina told the board in May. “I am the cholla in your flesh that you cannot take away. I’m comfortable losing the election because I hung on and won’t leave. “