I am a currently serving school governing board member of nine years and the past president of the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA). As such, I have been closely following the stories of school board meetings, especially in Arizona, that have become especially contentious.
The ugliness probably shouldn’t be surprising in the uber-polarized environment we now find ourselves. As Michelle Cottle (editorial board member) points out in the New York Times,
while the drama may feel bound up in the angry, ugly, polarized politics of the moment, it is nothing new. Public schools have long been an irresistible battleground for America’s culture warriors. On issues ranging from sex education to desegregation, public prayer to evolution to the Pledge of Allegiance, cultural cage matches are frequently fought on the backs of local schools, with board members, educators and students too often caught in the fray.
And that my friends, is the saddest part of what we see being played out – students caught in the fray. Even those who have never been parents understand that children learn from our actions, as well as our words. What does it say to our students when parents show up to their school to threaten, harass, and vilify teachers, administrators and school board members? Director of ASBA’s governmental relations, Chris Kotterman, described it well when he said,
Threatening public officials for advancing policy you don’t agree with is fundamentally opposed to the behavior we expect from our students. It sends the message when we aren’t getting what we want or we disagree, the thing to do is to try and intimidate the opposition into compliance. That’s a terrible example to set.
Cottle gives plenty of examples of school board meeting protestors around the country being incredibly ugly and scary, screaming profanity and threats like ““You will never be allowed in public again!” one raged. “We know who you are,” another warned. “You can leave freely, but we will find you!” and after another school board passed a mask mandate, another saying, “you made Dr. Mengele proud” (while giving the Nazi salute). Even locally though, we’ve had protestors in Vail try to elect a new school board outside the board meeting and blocking staff members from leaving the building shouting obscenities at them and saying, “You’re surrounded. You can’t leave.”
It is not okay to treat each other this way and the lack of respect shown each other at the most fundamental level – as human beings – is sorely lacking these days. I personally know of an administrator who was called a “cunt” by a grandmother of a student. And again, this shouldn’t surprise me when we just suffered through four years with a U.S. President who normalized all sorts of actions and words that wouldn’t have been acceptable before his time.
Let me just point out though, that at least in Arizona, school board members don’t get paid for their service. In fact, this is true for most school board members around the country. And yet, during my travels all around Arizona and to national conferences with ASBA, I met countless dedicated school board members who really care about their students and work hard to improve their educational experience. Yes, just like in every other endeavor on the planet, there are those few who either have agendas that aren’t focused on the kids or don’t take their roles seriously enough, but they are the rare exception, not the rule.
And although I can understand how the current climate would discourage good people from wanting to serve on school boards, it is exactly the time that they must. Otherwise, the bad guys win. What we’ll end up with is school board members who thrive on hateful discourse and self-destructive environments. We’ll end up with an exodus of good school board members, good administrators, and good teachers. Eventually, we’ll end up with a system of public education that is circling the drain.
I don’t think of myself as a conspiracy theorist, but neither do I think we should be so naive, to think that all this is happening organically. Of the April Vail protests for example, Superintendent Carruth said,
“There was a handful of people – I don’t know exactly how many – who either don’t have kids in the school district, don’t live in the school district, don’t live in the county, who came with the express purpose of whipping up that group.”
Yes, around the country, administrators and school board members have suspected outsiders of coming in to school board meetings to wreak havoc for political purposes. This is not a new strategy, as conservative strategist Ralph Reed, (former executive director of the Christian Coalition), once said he would “exchange the presidency for 2,000 school seats”. But the current political climate and ease message spreading via social media has whipped it into a frenzy.
For those who are shocked at how low we’ve sunk at a country, and are committed to do their part to “Build Back Better”, there is almost no better place to start than to serve on your local school board. Ensuring our students are prepared to build a better future is why I first ran for the school board in 2012, and why I continue to serve. I can assure you that the other side is feverishly working to ensure they win this battle for hearts and minds and they’ve been very successful thus far in using school board seats as stepping stones to higher political offices.
Elections happen every two years and the paperwork to run is usually due in the summer of election year. Our kids need you, will you step up in 2022? For more information about running for school governing boards, please contact the office of your County Schools Superintendent (Pima and Pinal), or the Arizona School Boards Association.