Nation's political and cultural divides take toll on school board members

On Board Online • September 27, 2021

By Pauline Liu
Special Correspondent

Anger and threats expressed by members of the public at school board meetings across the nation have prompted some trustees to quit while others are asking police to protect their homes. While the sources of tension vary, two prominent topics are masking policies and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives (DEI).

In Nevada, five trustees of the Elko County school board resigned in August. They did not indicate their reasons, but some residents blamed community pressure over mask mandates, vaccine requirements, COVID-19 testing and district reopening plans. The new board president asked the public for unity "instead of fighting about everything."

Closer to home, the Aug. 10 meeting of the Guilderland Board of Education in Albany County temporarily adjourned after 50 minutes of a public comment period in which residents debated the merits of masking. "Multiple community members interrupted other members with shouting and insults," seven board members recounted in a letter to a local newspaper. "There was little adherence to the board policy time limit of three minutes per public comment; there was rancorous and aggressive arguing between community members that threatened to devolve to violence; there appeared to be targeting of people of color for the worst vitriol."

Several board members said they received threatening emails afterwards, including trustee Blanca Gonzalez-Parker. She reported the emails to police, who patrolled her home overnight.

In other districts, controversy over DEI has led to political campaigns targeting school board members. In Virginia, protesters have accused the Loudon County Board of Education of indoctrinating students by teaching them that America is a racist nation and other tenets of "critical race theory" developed by law professors. Efforts to recall seven of nine members of the board are underway.

Another recall campaign is being waged against a pediatrician on the school board in Fargo, N.D. Dr. Tracie Newman, who is also the county's public health officer, is entering school board meetings through a back door to avoid parents who are angry over what they see as hypocrisy. Like California Gov. Gavin Newsom, she was photographed maskless at a social event.

There are at least 63 recall efforts affecting 160 school boards nationally, according to Ballotpedia, which tracks U.S. elections.

There is no recall mechanism for school board members in New York State. But anti-DEI sentiment fueled a change of the composition of the school board in Smithtown, Long Island during the last election. Three incumbent trustees were unseated by a trio of challengers that were endorsed by an organization called Save Our Schools (SOS), which opposes critical race theory and claims it is taught in Smithtown schools.

According to Smithtown Superintendent Mark Secaur, CRT is not taught in its schools. "Some folks are conflating CRT with diversity, equity and inclusion, and I'm trying to carefully draw a distinction between the two because the work around DEI is incredibly important," Secaur said.

Secaur noted that public comment sessions at school board meetings have changed in recent months. "There's just increased polarization, politically, and we're seeing unfortunately some of the same battle lines being drawn in public education. It saddens me because our task is to teach all of the students and prepare them for the world beyond school," he said.

In an effort to promote more constructive dialogue with community members as well as reach out to the school board's critics, Secaur sought BOE approval to hold "community chats" in the high school library. The meetings are held several times a month and have been going "wonderfully," he said.

"People have been asking tough questions, and I'm giving them my best answer," Secaur said. "No one's mean or being rude. People have a better understanding because we can talk at length about an issue."

Disagreements over mask requirements intensified over the summer in anticipation of the reopening of school.

The absence of any state guidance on masking until the end of August put school boards in the middle of the one of the nation's sharpest divides. "The abdication of the Department of Health on this issue was felt throughout the state and has led to widespread lack of standardization of safety measures across districts," Guilderland board members wrote in a letter to a local newspaper, the Altamont Enterprise.

In Buncombe County, North Carolina, anger over the district's mask mandate spurred 30 parents to "overthrow" the school board by disrupting a meeting and declaring themselves trustees. Meanwhile, an anti-mask incident in Tennessee drew national headlines when protesters threatened doctors who spoke at a Williamson County school board meeting. They even followed the doctors to their cars afterwards with shouts of, "We know where you live."

Legal challenges have been launched on both sides of the issue. Families of students with disabilities are suing to stop bans on mask mandates in the states of Tennessee, Florida, Utah, Texas and South Carolina. The families argue that their children are being forced to choose between their health and education.

Meanwhile, a private school from the Buffalo area, Christian Central Academy, filed a lawsuit on Sept. 7 claiming that the mask mandate threatens its survival because its parents oppose masks. The school, located in affluent Williamsville, spent $27,000 to install air purification systems in each classroom.

Some school boards are opposed to a mask mandate.

"We respectfully request that you reconsider the statewide school mask mandate and leave the decision in the hands of local school districts and duly elected boards of education who know their specific communities best," the William Floyd school board in Suffolk County wrote to Gov. Kathy Hochul. The board said it had developed a "hybrid-masking" approach: "students can lower their masks when seated at their desk socially distanced from others. They are also permitted to lower their masks outdoors at recess, for participation in physical education class (socially-distanced activities) and while eating." Masks would be required to be on when "moving around the classroom, walking through hallways or otherwise engaged in small- or large-group instruction where social distancing is not possible."

In Broadalbin-Perth, school board members penned a lengthy open letter dated June 22 opposing a mask mandate, saying "the circumstances here in Broadalbin are unlike circumstances in the large cities for which most rules are fashioned."

"Our board remains opposed to mandating masks for schools," School Board President Ed Szumowski told On Board. "The guidance from the CDC has changed numerous times (sometimes taking self-contradictory positions) . we ought to defer to the discretion of the parents in the decision," he said.

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