Belleville News-Democrat (Sunday)

Tears, politics, money: School boards become battle zones

- BY STEPHEN GROVES

Local school boards nationwide are increasing­ly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division, boiling with disputes over such issues as COVID-19 mask rules, the treatment of transgende­r students and how to teach the history of racism and slavery in America.

Meetings that were once orderly, even boring, have turned ugly. School board elections that were once unconteste­d have drawn slates of candidates galcontrol. vanized by one issue or another.

A June school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, that dealt with transgende­r students and the teaching of “critical race theory” became so unruly that one person was arrested for disorderly conduct and another was cited for trespassin­g.

In Rapid City, South Dakota, and Kalispell, Montana, nonpartisa­n school board races devolved into political warfare as conservati­ve candidates, angered over requiremen­ts to wear masks in schools, sought to seize In Pennsylvan­ia, a Republican donor is planning to pour $500,000 into school board races.

“We’re in a culture war,” said Jeff Holbrook, head of Rapid City’s Pennington County GOP.

In South Carolina’s Lexington-Richland school system, a new majority of board members upset over pandemic restrictio­ns forced out the superinten­dent, Christina Melton, who had pushed to keep a mask requiremen­t in place through the end of the academic year. She had been honored just weeks earlier as the state’s superinten­dent of the year.

Melton broke into tears at a meeting in June as she offered her resignatio­n. A board member also quit that day, complainin­g the body decided behind closed doors to force Melton out and avoid a public vote. The board censured the departed member at its next meeting.

School boards are typically composed of former educators and parents whose job, at least until recently, mostly consisted of ironing out budgets, discussing the lunch menu or hiring superinten­dents.

But online meetings during the pandemic made it easier for parents to tune in. And the crisis gave new gravity to school board decisions. Parents worried their children were falling behind because of remote learning or clashed over how serious the health risks were.

“I saw over and over again frustrated parents, thousands of parents, calling into their board meetings, writing letters and getting no response,” said Clarice Schillinge­r, a Pennsylvan­ia parent who formed a group called Keeping Kids in School.

She recruited nearly

100 parents to run in November for school boards across Pennsylvan­ia. While the group coalesced around pushing for schools to fully open, its candidates have also sought to bar the teaching of critical race theory, which among other things holds that racism is embedded in America’s laws and institutio­ns

Schillinge­r said the group is split 70-30 between Republican­s and Democrats. But its priorities are unmistakab­ly conservati­ve. She said it is trying to counter the sway teachers unions have over school boards: “It’s really less government – that’s what this comes down to.”

Conservati­ve slates of candidates elsewhere across the country have also set their sights on school boards.

In Rapid City, four recently elected school board members will hold a controllin­g vote on the seven-member body, which oversees the education of roughly 14,000 students. In an area where Trump flags still fly, the four candidates for the usually nonpartisa­n board secured an endorsemen­t in the June election from the local GOP.

In previous elections, seats on the board were often filled in unconteste­d elections. But this year, the campaigns turned into political battles, complete with personal attacks.

Critical race theory is not a part of the Rapid

City school curriculum. But that didn’t stop candidates from making it a central issue of the campaign.

“I believe with all my heart this is how they are going to slip socialism and Marxism into our schools,” newly elected member Deb Baker said at a campaign event.

 ?? GRACE PRITCHETT AP ?? Area 3 candidate Gabe Doney, center, waves to people driving by with supporters near Sheridan Lake Road during school board elections in Rapid City, S.D., on June 8.
GRACE PRITCHETT AP Area 3 candidate Gabe Doney, center, waves to people driving by with supporters near Sheridan Lake Road during school board elections in Rapid City, S.D., on June 8.
 ?? ANDY BARRON AP ?? A man protests critical race rheory outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev., on May 25. Local school boards nationwide are increasing­ly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division.
ANDY BARRON AP A man protests critical race rheory outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev., on May 25. Local school boards nationwide are increasing­ly becoming cauldrons of anger and political division.

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