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School Boards Become Battlegrounds Over Tears, Politics, And Money
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School Boards Become Battlegrounds Over Tears, Politics, And Money


RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Disputes over COVID-19 mask rules, the treatment of transgender students, and how to teach the history of racism and slavery in America are boiling over on local school boards across the country.

Meetings that were once orderly, even boring, have devolved into squabbles, and uncontested school board elections have drawn slates of candidates galvanized by one or more issues.

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

Nonpartisan school board races in Rapid City, South Dakota, and Kalispell, Montana, devolved into political battles as conservative candidates sought to seize control, enraged by the requirement that students wear masks in school.

A Republican donor in Pennsylvania intends to spend $500,000 on school board races.

“We are in a culture war,” said Jeff Holbrook, chairman of the Pennington County Republican Party in Rapid City.

In South Carolina's Lexington-Richland school system, a new majority of board members dissatisfied with pandemic restrictions ousted the superintendent, Christina Melton, who had pushed to keep a mask requirement in place until the end of the academic year, despite being named the state's superintendent of the year just weeks earlier.

Melton cried as she offered her resignation at a June meeting, and a board member also resigned that day, complaining that the board 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 of three children and a teacher in the district.

Moore is running for the vacant board seat and promises to reduce the board's political divide, which she believes is crippling it.

“It’s so thick that even the children can feel it,” she explained.

School boards are typically made up of former educators and parents whose primary responsibility, at least until recently, was to work out budgets, discuss the lunch menu, and hire superintendents.

During the pandemic, however, online meetings made it easier for parents to participate, and the crisis gave new weight to school board decisions, as parents worried their children were falling behind due to remote learning or disagreed on how serious the health risks were.

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

She recruited nearly 100 parents to run for school boards across Pennsylvania in November. While the group came together to advocate for schools to reopen, its candidates have also sought to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory, which holds that racism is embedded in America's laws and institutions, among other things.

Schillinger said the group is split 70-30 between Republicans and Democrats, but its priorities are unmistakably conservative. She said it is attempting to counteract the influence of teachers unions on 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 has pledged a half-million dollars to the movement and the formation of a statewide political action committee, said the new PAC will support candidates who are committed to keeping schools open regardless of what happens, “even if there is the dreaded fall COVID surge.”

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Conservative candidate slates have also targeted school boards in other parts of the country.

In Rapid City, four newly elected school board members will have a veto power on the seven-member body that oversees the education of approximately 14,000 students. In an area where Trump flags still fly, the four candidates for the usually nonpartisan board received local GOP endorsement in the June election.

Seats on the board were frequently filled in uncontested elections in previous elections, but this year's campaigns turned into political battles, complete with personal attacks.

Critical race theory is not taught in schools in Rapid City, but that hasn't stopped candidates from making it a campaign issue.

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

Curt Pochardt, the school board president who was defeated in the election, expressed concern that the new partisan dynamic would harm students' education.

“It doesn't help kids when there's conflict on a school board,” he says.

Education experts warn that school boards are wasting time that could be spent on issues such as teacher recruitment, ensuring students have home internet access, or improving opportunities for students with disabilities.

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

One losing school board candidate in Kalispell who campaigned against mask mandates made it clear that he is not done.

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

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Associated Press reporters Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, and Iris Samuels in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report. 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.

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