A few weeks ago, a fellow school board member texted me the link to a New York Times opinion piece entitled “America’s School Board Meetings Are Getting Weird – And Scary.” The article chronicles the sudden increase in chaotic and contentious public school board meetings overwhelmed by irate parents, community members, and school staff. In the last week, both the California and National School Boards Associations have sent open letters to Governor Newsom and President Biden, requesting attention to and intervention with an environment that has devolved, in some communities, to a threat to safety and, frankly, the effective functioning of the public school system. “I’ve watched in horror,” writes Vernon Billy, Executive Director of the California School Boards Association, “as school board members have been accosted, verbally abused, physically assaulted, and subjected to death threats against themselves and their family members.” My primary (and surprising) emotion to reading these news articles? Gratitude.
It’s been an interesting eighteen months for school board members. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have received hundreds of points of feedback from parents, staff, and the public – usually by email, but also in person, and yes, through comments on social media that have sometimes been less than kind. We have insisted on as much public access as the Public Health Officer would allow throughout the pandemic. We happily abandoned Zoom and began meeting in person again in May 2021. At our October meeting, we will welcome public comment in person with masking and social distancing measures in place. Throughout it all, I’ve appreciated the insights, the ideas, the questions, and the deep emotion expressed by our community of stakeholders. With the exception of an isolated few careless and cruel statements that I’m still trying to forgive, the input has been civil.
Board members are unpaid volunteers who do this work and spend their time solely as an act of service to children. Our motivations are relentlessly focused on what’s best for kids. And during this pandemic, what was best for kids wasn’t always aligned with what was best for adults. School districts were (and are still deeply engaged in) trying to salvage what they could from a seemingly interminable emergency with serious negative impacts on children. This pandemic has been awful for almost everyone. It should be no surprise that the public response to all kinds of pandemic-related issues has been assertive.
So why, I’ve been thinking to myself, is civility important? Isn’t unruly public behavior simply a manifestation of speaking truth to power? Isn’t incivility actually an indicator of democracy? Personally, I’m a fan of speaking up and speaking out. But in a small town especially, I’ve recognized that civility in public discourse is critically important. All of us have professional, personal, and volunteer-based relationships that overlap in multiple ways. Our school stakeholders are more than faceless constituents – they are co-workers, fellow parents, fellow grandparents, local business owners, friends, and more. These relationships are impossible to untangle completely. In a small town, the impact of open vitriol extends beyond a single public meeting.
Let me be clear… I am not seeking sympathy or trying to invite readers to a pity party. This pandemic has been hard for me as a board member. We’ve had to weather tough feedback, tense moments, second-guessing our own decisions, and the truly heartbreaking acceptance of what our community’s children have endured academically, emotionally, and socially. But my experience pales in comparison to that of our teachers, classified staff, and administrators. They’ve endured exhausting months of uncertainty, helplessness, and just super hard work. (And it’s not over. This school year has been overwhelming for administrators especially. One veteran principal told me that the current school year “has been the hardest year in my 20+ years of being an administrator.”)
From the perspective of a board member, the past eighteen months have been challenging and disheartening. Our board meetings have sometimes been long, sometimes heartbreaking, and definitely stressful. Yes, there have been moments that were weird. But I’ve never felt scared. Not yet. So thank you, Ukiah, for keeping it civil. It matters. And I’m truly grateful.
Megan Van Sant has been a school board trustee with Ukiah Unified School District since 2011. The views expressed in this article are hers alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the School Board as a whole.