Tears, politics, and money: School boards are battle zones

Local school boards across the country are becoming hotbeds of anger, political division and tussles over issues such as COVID-19 mask rules and the treatment of transgender student. They also have to decide how to teach America's history of racism and slavery.

Tears, politics, and money: School boards are battle zones

Even boring meetings that used to be orderly have become chaotic. Elections for school board seats that were previously uncontested have been dominated by candidates who are passionate about one issue or the other.

Loudoun County's June school board meeting, which dealt with transgender students, and the teaching of "critical Race Theory" , became so chaotic that one person got arrested for disorderly conduct, while another was cited as trespassing.

Kalispell, Montana and Rapid City, South Dakota saw nonpartisan school board races turn into political warfare when conservative candidates, upset by the requirement to wear masks in schools sought to seize power.

A Republican donor has pledged $500,000 to Pennsylvania's school board races.

Jeff Holbrook, the head of Rapid City's Pennington County GOP said that "We're engaged in a culture war."

A new majority of South Carolina's Lexington–Richland school board members were upset about pandemic restrictions. They voted to fire Christina Melton, the superintendent. Christina Melton had tried to keep the mask requirement in place until the end of the academic calendar. Just weeks before, she was named the state's superintendent-of-the-year.

Melton wept at June's meeting when she announced her resignation. Another board member quit the day after Melton offered her resignation. He claimed that Melton was forced out by closed doors in order to avoid a public vote. At its next meeting, the board expelled the departing member.

Tifani Moore, a mother of three and husband who teaches in the district, said that "now we're known for the district with crazy school boards".

Moore is running to fill the vacant board seat. She promises to end the political division that she fears has led to the board's insolvency.

She said, "It's thick enough that even the children feel it."

School boards typically consist of parents and former educators. Their job was, at the most, to discuss budgets, plan lunch menus, or hire superintendents.

During the pandemic, parents were able to participate in online meetings. The crisis also gave rise to new urgency for school board decisions. Parents were worried about their children's progress due to remote learning and argued over the severity of the health risks.

Clarice Schillinger, a Pennsylvania mother who founded Keeping Kids in School, said, "I saw over-and-over again frustrated parents. Thousand of parents calling into their board meetings. Writing letters and getting no reply."

Nearly 100 parents were recruited to run for school boards in Pennsylvania in November. The group unified around the goal of promoting full school openings. However, the candidates sought to ban the teaching of critical racism theory. This theory, among others, holds that racism is embedded within American laws and institutions.

Schillinger stated that the group is 70-30 divided between Republicans and Democrats. Its priorities are however unmistakably conservative. She stated that it was trying to counter the influence of teachers unions over school boards. "It's actually less government -- that is what this boils down to."

Paul Martino, a venture capitalist, donated half a million dollars to Republican candidates. He also pledged a half-million to the campaign and the creation a statewide political committee. Martino said that the new PAC would support candidates who are committed to keeping schools open, "even if there's the dreaded fall COVID flood."

Conservative candidates from across the country are also targeting school boards.

Four members of Rapid City's newly elected school board will vote in control over the seven-member body that oversees the education and welfare of approximately 14,000 students. The four candidates for the normally nonpartisan board were supported by the local GOP in June's election.

In past elections, the seats on this board were filled in uncontested elections. However, this year the campaigns became political battles complete with personal attacks.

Rapid City schools do not teach critical race theory. Candidates made it a central issue in their campaign, however.

Deb Baker, a newly elected member of the House of Representatives, stated that she believes this is how they will slip Marxism and socialism into schools.

Curt Pochardt was elected as the president of the school board but was not re-elected. He expressed concern that the new partisan dynamic could harm students' education.

He said, "It doesn’t help children when there’s tension on a board of school,”

Experts in education warn that school boards waste time and are not able to tackle issues like recruiting teachers, providing internet access for students at home, or improving opportunities for children with disabilities.

Chip Slaven is the chief advocacy officer of the National School Boards Association. He stated that "every time we're not discussing those issues, we're talking on something else that's divisive" and that this leads to lost opportunities for what they really need to focus on.

Kalispell's losing school board candidate, who opposed mask mandates, made it clear that he was not done.

Sean Pandina stated to the board that he was the jumping cholla-cactus' barbed spine in May. "I'm the cholla that you can't remove from your flesh. Because I have latched onto the idea of staying, I am comfortable with losing the election."

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