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School board races will not be exempt from increased polarization

District87_SchoolBoardMeeting35.jpg
Emily Bollinger
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WGLT file
People wait to address the District 87 school board during public comment at a June 2021 meeting.

The way Elizabeth Fox Anvick remembers it, there were times during the pandemic that, as Bloomington District 87 school board members left meetings, particularly those that had been contentious, they shared a thought.

"We said, 'This is crazy.' And we even said that, in a million years, if you would have told us that we would have police escorts to our cars after meetings, I would have looked at you like, 'Are you crazy? It's a school board meeting,'" she said.

But such was the tenor of many school board meetings during the pandemic. In these meetings, public comment periods stretched for hours as people lined up — virtually or otherwise — to speak their piece, sometimes civilly and other times violently.

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Emily Bollinger
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WGLT file
District 87 school board members greet attendees at a meeting in June 2021.

The topics were usually COVID-related, although as the pandemic wore on, some people came to meetings to voice support for recalling books from school libraries or allege that a more than 40-year-old strain of collegiate, academic framework — critical race theory — was being taught in K-12 schools.

The situation was so serious that, in late September, the president of the National School Boards Association wrote a letter to the Biden administration, calling for a joint effort between federal law enforcement and anti-terrorism agencies to protect not only the school board members or school leaders who were on the receiving end of vitriol, but also teachers and children, as well.

"As the threats grow and news of extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings is being reported, this is a critical time for a proactive approach to deal with this difficult issue," the Sept. 29 letter read. "NSBA believes public discussions and transparency by local school board members are important for the safe and effective operations of schools. Our children are watching the examples of the current debates and we must encourage a positive dialogue, even with different opinions. However, with such acute threats and actions that are disruptive to our students’ well-being, to the safety of public school officials and personnel, and to interstate commerce, we urge the federal government’s intervention against individuals or hate groups who are targeting our schools and educators."

It is with this polarized backdrop that campaigns for local school board in Illinois will kick off later this year and into next year — campaigns for an office that is supposed to be nonpartisan, servant only to the constituents of the school district. The next election for Bloomington-Normal school boards is in April 2023.

"In everything that we do, the first thing that should be on the front of our minds is, 'Is this good for the kiddos?'" Anvick said. "I do think it's important to continue to make them nonpartisan races. I also would be completely naïve if I told you that you don't bring your whole self to a board meeting, either.

"I think being a good board member means being able to distinguish when I need to put aside some of my beliefs in order to do what is good for the greater good, and what's right for the kiddos."

Political parties are engaged

In McLean County, the two major political parties, Democrats and Republicans, are gearing up to help future candidates in ways that differ from pre-pandemic politics.

McLean County Democrats chair Patrick Cortesi said he doesn't necessarily think that's a good trend.

Patrick Cortesi
Ryan Denham
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WGLT
McLean County Democratic Party chair Patrick Cortesi.

"Unfortunately, now people are going to have to run a campaign, they're going to have to raise some money, they're going to have to have a bit of organization to what they're doing," he said. "I think there are some people who would be very good board members that are not going to want to do that — to be a politician, to raise funds."

Cortesi said the party is working alongside some people that have showed in interest in running, preparing them for a litany of election-related challenges.

McLean County GOP chair Connie Beard, however, said the trend toward politicizing school board races makes sense to her — and it presents a strategic opportunity for the party, which in other states, has adopted a keen interest in such elections, calling it the "precinct strategy."

"I think people make decisions on how they spend money, on how they operate an organization in the public realm based on how they view the role of government in their life," Beard said. "Personally, from my perspective, I think it's only fair that a voter understands what the mindset is of a potential candidate, in terms of how they believe that government should operate — whether it's a school board, whether it's a township or whether it's city council."

Beard said the McLean County GOP kicked off a series of school board race workshops in a response to a "public cry" to the party for "more involvement in what's happening in our schools." That was in addition to a subgroup in the party, called the Schools Advocacy Group (SAG).

"As a political entity, elections are what we're about," she said. "So people came to us. People are wanting to be on school boards, they are wanting to make a change on school boards, but they're intimidated by the election process. That's, of course, where we can come in and equip."

In some ways, interest in these boards and how people can participate or even become a member themselves is a good thing, said Illinois Association of School Boards executive director Thomas Bertrand.

"It's good to have that level of public engagement — it's very important. We need public engagement in our schools and looking for ways to get involved and to be supportive," he said.

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McLean County GOP chair Connie Beard.

Partisanship — not participation — is Bertrand's concern.

"I think there's risk whenever a board member is clearly partisan," he said. "Frankly, we're at a time where people want to push nonpartisan positions to be more partisan. And I think there's danger in that: Ultimately, school board service is about representing the entire community and serving all of the students and their families."

IASB serves as a support and advocacy group for more than 840 Illinois school districts; until last year, it fell underneath the National School Boards Association.

In addition to legal information, trainings, and conferences, IASB also provides its members a code of conduct template that it suggests boards adopt; in that code, board members pledge to "represent all school district constituents honestly and equally" and refuse "to surrender responsibilities to special interest or partisan groups."

Taking the long view

One of the longest-serving school board members in Illinois history is Gail Ann Briggs. Seated on the Unit 5 school board in 1976, she stayed until her retirement from the job in 2017.

In those 41 years, Briggs saw a lot of controversy — some overtly ideological, some less so. Ideological controversies included whether Unit 5 students should put on the 1954 play The Bad Seed; other controversies included redistricting.

"Some of it was disturbing. I remember being singled out at board meetings and people yelling from the audience, 'How can you do this, Gail?'" she said. "It's cyclic."

That said, Briggs emphasized that, no matter the tone, it's important that all people have the chance to express comments to the board.

"It's always important to hear out those interests, no matter in what manner they were presented," she said.

District 87's Fox Anvick would agree.

"When I first ran for school board, that's even what I said: I wanted to make sure that everybody's voice had a seat at the table. I would hope that everybody would feel like they could bring their voice to me so I can understand how decisions are impacting their family," she said. "And I think it's important to be able to hear everybody's voice and especially when you're talking about how to run a school district."

Feeling heard

So why do some parents, like District 87 dad Mark Weaver, say they don't feel heard?

"It feels like there's this gap, like no matter what the board's decision is, parents should feel so disconnected right now," Weaver said in a previous interview with WGLT on the topic on masks in school.

That feeling of not being heard could stem from a lack of understanding how school boards typically operate. Boards are required to dedicate a portion of an open meeting to public comment, but members are not required (and in fact advised against) to respond to the public.

"A school board meeting is a meeting held in public, but it is not a public meeting — there is business on the agenda that has to be addressed during that meeting," IASB's Bertrand said. "You have to have some protocols in place for managing public comment."

Amy and Barry
Staff
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WGLT file
Unit 5 school board president Amy Roser, right, with school board member Barry Hitchins.

Current Unit 5 board president Amy Roser said refraining from responding to public comment helps ensure that every speaker has the same experience — that preference is not shown to one person or group over another.

"It is certainly very difficult to not respond," she said. "I think I remember one board meeting at the end of public comment, and I looked down at my hands, and they were just shaking. It wasn't that I was upset — it was just so much to take in, and so much to process in a short period of time."

"One of the reasons why we don't respond is is because we certainly want to keep that public comment period fair and consistent, regardless of the opinion being expressed," Roser added. "If I make comment to one person, or draw out information from one person, it's almost like I'm showing maybe a preference or a deference to that individual's opinion versus not to another."

Briggs said that while she believes in the right for people to speak to the board during public comment, she also knew that some people aim to almost bully board members into changing their minds.

"It is not the case that just because the loudest voices, or the most voices, on an issue step forward, that doesn't mean they are going to carry the weight, the rationale and educated research that administration and board members have to do to come to a decision," she said.

"I can't think of one time that I voted because it was politically expedient, or negative, or positive or for the union, school individuals, parents or staff. I voted because it was what I felt was the right thing to do. Was it always the right thing to do? No. But I was a voice and ears for people on what the issues were, and I used my common sense, my head, and my vote for the greater good, in my opinion and at that time."

Bertrand and Fox Anvick both said there's another aspect at stake in increasingly polarized times: The efficacy of a board member.

"They always say, if you are running as a single-issue candidate, your experience on the board is probably not going to be what you think it's going to be," Fox Anvick said. "We're seven people. If you are running and you get elected to the school board as a single-issue candidate, your one vote is only one vote. You've got six other people on the board who have voting power as well."

But whether local races live up to the polarization hype, or whether the races fail to draw candidates after the vitriol directed at board members during the pandemic remains to be fully seen and, according to Bertrand, may depend on location.

"In some places, it's becoming incredibly difficult to find individuals that are willing to serve as volunteers, school board members, given the difficult circumstances. And I think on the other side, in some areas, with all of the challenging issues that boards have had to consider in the last two years, you've also seen a lot of public interest," he said. "You might see both: When next April's election cycle arrives, you may see some parts of the state that have a lot of interest and other parts where there is not as much interest."

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