Tears, politics and money: School boards become battle zones

RAPID CITY, S.D. — Local school boards around the country 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 galvanized 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 control.

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.

“Now we’re known as the district with the crazy school board,” said Tifani Moore, a mother with three children and a husband who teaches in the district.

Moore is running for the empty board seat and promises to tamp down the political split, which she worries has crippled the board.

“It’s so thick, even the kids feel it,” she said.

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.”

Paul Martino, a venture capitalist who donates to Republican candidates and pledged a half-million dollars to the movement and the creation of a statewide political action committee, said the new PAC will support candidates committed to keeping schools open no matter what, “even if there is the dreaded fall COVID surge.”

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.

Curt Pochardt, who was unseated as the school board president in the election, said he worries the new partisan dynamic will hurt students’ education.

“It doesn’t help kids when there’s tension on a school board,” he said.

Education experts warn that school boards are squandering time that could be spent tackling issues such as recruiting teachers, ensuring students have internet access at home or improving opportunities for youngsters with disabilities.

“Every time we’re not talking about those issues and we’re talking about something else that’s divisive and it may not be happening at all — or at least not to the level it’s being portrayed — is lost opportunity for what we really need to be focused on,” said Chip Slaven, chief advocacy officer for the National School Boards Association.

In Kalispell, one losing school board candidate who campaigned against mask mandates made it clear he is not finished.

“I am the barbed spine of the jumping cholla cactus,” Sean Pandina told the board in May. “I’m the cholla in your flesh that you cannot remove. I’m comfortable with losing the election because I have latched on and am not going away.”

Associated Press reporters Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina and Iris Samuels in Helena, Montana contributed. Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.