RAPID CITY, SD (AP) – Local school authorities across the country are increasingly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division, simmering disputes over issues such as COVID-19 mask rules, treatment of transgender students, and conveying the history of racism and slavery in America.
Meetings that were once neat, even boring, have become ugly. School board elections, once unchallenged, have drawn a number of candidates inspired by one topic or another.
A school committee meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia in June that examined transgender students and teaching “critical racial theory” became so unruly that one person was arrested for misconduct and another was cited for trespassing.
In Rapid City, South Dakota and Kalispell, Montana, non-partisan school board races turned into political warfare when Conservative candidates, angry at school mask requirements, tried to take control.
In Pennsylvania, a Republican donor plans to invest $ 500,000 in school board races.
“We are in a culture war,” said Jeff Holbrook, director of the Rapid City GOP in Pennington County.
In the South Carolina school system in Lexington-Richland, a new majority of board members angry at pandemic restrictions forced headmistress Christina Melton, who had urged to maintain mask compulsory through the end of the academic year. Just a few weeks earlier, she had been named State Inspector of the Year.
Melton burst into tears at a June meeting when she offered to resign. A board member also resigned that day, complaining that behind closed doors the corporation had decided to oust Melton and avoid a public vote. The board reprimanded the resigned member in its next meeting.
“Now we are known as the district with the crazy school board,” says Tifani Moore, mother of three and husband who teaches in the district.
Moore is running for the vacant board seat and pledges to bridge the political divide that she believes has crippled the board.
“It’s so thick, even the kids can feel it,” she said.
School boards are typically made up of ex-educators and parents whose job, at least until recently, has mainly been to iron out budgets, discuss the lunch menu, or hire superintendents.
But online meetings during the pandemic made it easier for parents to get into the mood. And the crisis gave new weight to the decisions of the school board. Parents feared their children would fall behind because of distance learning or argued about the seriousness of the health risks.
“I kept seeing frustrated parents, thousands of parents calling their board meetings, writing letters, and getting no response,” said Clarice Schillinger, a Pennsylvania parent who started a group called Keeping Kids in School.
She recruited nearly 100 parents to run for school councils across Pennsylvania in November. While the group banded together to push for schools to be fully opened, its candidates have also tried to ban the teaching of critical racial theory, which, among other things, states that racism is anchored in American laws and institutions
Schillinger said the group was 70-30 split between Republicans and Democrats. But its priorities are clearly conservative. She said it was trying to counter the influence of teachers’ unions on school authorities: “It’s really less government – that’s what matters.”
Paul Martino, a venture capitalist who donates to Republican candidates who has pledged half a million dollars to the movement and the creation of a statewide political action committee, said the new PAC will support candidates who are committed to keeping schools open by all means , “Even if” there will be the dreaded increase in COVID in autumn. “
Conservative lists of candidates from other parts of the country are also targeting school authorities.
In Rapid City, four newly elected school board members will hold a majority vote on the seven-member body that oversees the education of around 14,000 students. In an area where Trump flags are still flying, the four candidates for the normally impartial board of directors in the June election have secured support from the local GOP.
In previous elections, the seats on the board were often filled in unchallenged elections. But this year the campaigns turned into political battles with personal attacks.
Critical racial theory is not part of the Rapid City Schools curriculum. But that didn’t stop the candidates from making it a central theme of the campaign.
“I believe with all my heart that this is how they will bring socialism and Marxism into our schools,” said newly elected member Deb Baker at a campaign rally.
Curt Pochardt, who was deposed as school council president in the election, said he feared the new party dynamic will affect the education of students.
“It doesn’t help children when there is tension in a school board,” he said.
Education experts warn that school authorities are wasting time tackling issues like hiring teachers, ensuring students have internet access at home, or improving opportunities for youth with disabilities.
“Every time we don’t talk about these issues and we talk about something else that divides and may not happen at all – or at least not to the extent that it is portrayed – a lost opportunity is focused on what we really need said Chip Slaven, chief advocacy officer for the National School Boards Association.
In Kalispell, a defeated school authority candidate who campaigned against mask mandates made it clear that he is not finished yet.
“I am the barbed backbone of the jumping cholla cactus,” Sean Pandina told the board in May. “I am the cholla in your flesh that you cannot remove. I feel good about losing the election because I’m tied up and not leaving. “
Associate press reporters Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina and Iris Samuels in Helena, Montana contributed. Samuels is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national utility that places journalists on local newsrooms to cover undercover issues.