In good times, serving on a school board is not exactly thankless work, but it’s hardly glamorous.
School board members typically sign off on textbook choices, hire everyone from cafeteria personnel to superintendents, read the fine print in budgets, and consider nuts-and-bolts questions like whether the high school roof needs to be replaced or whether a new bus needs to be added to the fleet.
But these are not good times. They are turbulent and uncertain times, and once snoozy school board meetings have lately became flashpoints in battles over mask mandates and how issues revolving around race and social justice are taught. Anyone who ran for a seat on a school board just a couple of years ago could have hardly imagined it would come to this.
Earlier this month, a Canon-McMillan School Board meeting came to an abrupt end when audience members angry about the district’s masking policies would not put on masks themselves and were causing a ruckus. One board member became the object of snide remarks because of their weight. Board meetings in other Pittsburgh-area districts, like North Allegheny and Norwin, have also dissolved into rancor and chaos. Similar dispiriting scenes have been unfolding in other parts of the country.
It’s apparently been enough for some school board members to start seriously worrying about their personal safety. Others have reached their breaking point with the threats, ridicule and off-the-rails vitriol and have submitted their resignations.
A story from the Associated Press late last month detailed how one school board member in Nevada thought about killing himself amid threats and bullying. Rick Grothaus, a school board member in a community near Milwaukee, said when resigning that serving on the board had become “toxic” and the work they needed to do “impossible.”
Grothaus told AP, “When I got on, I knew it would be difficult. But I wasn’t ready or prepared for the vitriolic response that would occur, especially now that the pandemic seemed to just bring everything out in a very, very harsh way. It made it impossible to really do any kind of meaningful work.”
And everyone should be concerned about the meaningful work that is being crowded out due to the histrionics of community members whose outrage has been fueled by media personalities and online misinformation. They should also be concerned about the consequences of experienced and level-headed school board members deciding they have had enough and packing it in. There’s certainly the chance that in some circumstances they will be replaced by people who are decidedly less skilled and able, and come with ideological hobbyhorses to ride.
To borrow a phrase from President Biden: c’mon man. School board members deserve respect and praise for the hours they put in, not scorn and abuse. Think about the example this is setting. Do we want our children to grow up to be the kind of people who scream and yell and foam at the mouth at school board members who are trying to do their best for their communities?