It is hard to miss the shocking displays of anger directed at school board members. Louden and Fairfax counties in Virginia have been the epicenter of protests involving the teaching of critical race theory while Broward and Sarasota counties in Florida have attracted national attention over the “masking” of children. Several suburban school districts in suburban Philadelphia had school board meetings in which security was summoned.
In late September, the National School Board Association (NSBA) penned a letter to President Biden asking for federal intervention to quell this violence – equating the attacks against school board members as “domestic terrorism.” Spurred by these incidents and others like it, U.S. Attorney General, Merrick Garland, directed the F.B.I. to investigate the outburst by parents at school board meetings. In a statement, Garland the Department of Justice to meet with “federal, state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders to discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend.”
The DOJ’s decision to intervene had caused political rifts across the county. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association, for example, withdrew its long-standing membership in NSBA because it supported federal intervention in quelling local board disruptions. Similarly, Virginia indicated that such parent and participant outbursts are capably managed by local law enforcement.
Typically, school board meetings are the epitome of local, democratic administration in action. Unlike Congress, school board members and superintendents are not insulated by protective layers of bureaucracy. Members of school boards tend to know their constituents, and need to make tough decisions revolve around budgets, staff levels, redistricting, etc. Unanimity is often the goal, but the consensus is more likely the common outcome. There are disagreements and hurt feelings, but emotions subside when the community trusts the motivation of the decision-makers. Agreeing to disagree is a prevailing theme for those with opposing points of view.
While the climate at board meetings may have always required strategy and finesse, the current atmosphere is a radical departure from the past. If the current board meetings resemble a car, its dashboard lights are blinking, the engine is smoking, and the wheels are falling off. School district leadership needs to “pop the hood” and see what is happening.
So, while some of the current rancor is perceived because of political manipulation or ideological proselytization, the more likely culprit of this wayward behavior is rooted in misinformation, misperception, or a lack of inclusion in the decision-making process. Emotions “spillover” when high-impact decisions are perceived to have been conceived arbitrarily without sufficient vetting through community participation. Vetting examines the intentional and non-intentional ramifications of a proposal through the lens of constituents impacted by the decision.
Failure to understand the dynamics of how school boards impact our children will cause widespread reverberation in a given community. A rational governing style, which listens to all perspectives before deciding, mitigates the passion around an issue and lead to data-driven decisions. These discussions should take place in advance of a formal board meeting or planned action.
To “quell the chaos” currently plaguing school boards across the country, it is imperative to divorce the decision-making process from political partisanship or from a nationally promulgated agenda. Any hint of alignment to a principle other than one that places “children first” increases the potential for disruption. Transparency throughout the process eliminates accusations of “hidden agendas.” Incorporating choice, alternatives, and individualized solutions assist in building trust among constituents.
Tolerance, acceptance, empathy, and inclusion are attributes that all parents want children to learn. A good place to model such values is at your local school board meeting where everyone has a right to their opinion, but not the facts. Solutions begin by listening to each other.
Dr. Vincent F. Cotter
Dr. Vincent F. Cotter, as Superintendent of Schools, was the primary innovator of a unique school improvement program. “Reaching Above and Beyond,” which dramatically improved student performance. For his efforts, he was awarded the prestigious Juran Medal (2011) for sustained systemic improvement by the American Society for Quality in the field of education. Dr. Cotter also co-founded the Exemplary Schools Organization which was created to improve school performance and leadership capacity.
Based on over forty years of success in the field of education as a teacher, principal, superintendent, professor and consultant, three leadership books that focus on school improvement, performance and leadership were released by Rowman and Littlefield publishers, “Leaning into the Future: Building Beyond the Post-Covid-19 New Normal” (2022), “Igniting School Performance: A Pathway from Academic Paralysis to Excellence” (2019) and “Performance is Key: Connecting the Links to Leadership and Excellence” (2018). Dr. Cotter has been a periodic contributor to the Smerconish website on the topic of schools and achievement.