Friday, December 3, 2021

PA: Board Activism Versus Board Business

Earlier this week the New York Times ran a piece by Campbell Robertson contrasting the light and heat surrounding school boards with the actual problems crying for attention. The piece opens with a fairly stark example from Doylestown, PA:

Early in the November school board meeting, a few of the departing members made farewell remarks, talking of things that they believed still need addressing: more special education programs, mental health initiatives, a program for high school students to take college classes. There was a long list, but over the past two years other things had gotten in the way.

When the meeting opened up to public comments, there was an indication of what those other things might be. Parents and other residents took turns standing before the board, speaking about Zionism, Maoism, slavery, freedom, the Holocaust, critical race theory, the illegality of mask requirements, supposed Jewish ties to organized crime and the viral falsehood that transgender students were raping people in bathrooms.

“I fight here week after week,” one woman said, “to ensure that my children will never be subject to having their freedom taken from them.”

"Well, at least I don't have to wear a mask" 
There's this thing that happens, often, with one-issue school board candidates. They run for their particular issue (often a local concern like "save our elementary football program") but then they get on the board and discover that school board work is largely about very unglamorous nuts and bolts decisions. But now we're seeing districts that are being ground to a halt by people who don't care about the nuts and bolts--they just want their righteous--and sometimes imaginary--cause to be championed, at length.

We'll know better in the next couple of months. Some analysts believe that most of the board candidates who ran on liberty and anti-mask and anti-CRT did not win. 

But I live in Trump Country, and several local districts are feeling the pinch. Keystone School District was one of many that saw a contentious and successful campaign by anti-mask, anti-vax, grumpy parents candidates whose stated objectives include things like "put myself between our government and our kids." That in district's whose board has already spent a lot of angry time in struggles with mask mandates, to the point that they've had trouble filling the superintendent spot.

If you really want to see this sort of trouble in action, let me take you down the road a little past the Keystone District to Redbank Valley Schools, where an incumbent was unseated by a young local. Mitch Blose is a RVHS grad and volunteer coach. The election was not as contentious as some (pro tip-- in PA board candidates can cross-file with both parties, so trying to track party affiliation is not always helpful), and in the end Blose won.

His first act as a new member was to shut down board business.

The member-elect attended the board meeting as a member of the public, and refused to wear a mask. So the board held an executive session (required in PA for any personnel or student issues) and then quit for the night. This isn't remotely the first such occurrence-- back in September the Oil City School District board shut down a meeting because a couple of freedom fighters, including one student, refused to mask up for the meeting. Similar tales can be heard from around the country.

The Redbank Valley incident gets some extra detail because nobody thought to turn the livestream off right away, so Blose's arguments with board members was broadcast live. Nobody wanted to defend masking, but one board member pointed out that it looks bad when you make the kids do it and you don't. But another gets closer to the heart of the issue.

“Mr. Blose, I don’t want to wear this mask,” Reddinger answered. “I don’t want to see anyone else wear the mask, but at the same time, I am obligated to this board, sitting in this chair. I am obligated to the taxpayers, to the lawsuits."

As is infrequently noted, mask mandates are related to liability issues. If the state has mandated masks, and you don't follow the mandate, you are an expensive lawsuit waiting to happen. The first time someone can show they got sick in your facility, it will be costly. Consequently, many school district lawyers have been having quiet Come To Jesus meetings with their boards. 

In Pennsylvania, the state mandate for school masking is set to end in January, at which point local districts will have to relitigate the whole thing on their own. Expect lots and lots of spirited public debate, a reshuffling of enrollment in and out of cyber schools, and in general a whole lot of time spent on things other than the actual regular operation of the school district and dealing with the various challenges of doing the work. Bus drivers. Bus routes. Budgets. Program costs. Special ed. Lunch prices. Whatever specific challenges have cropped up in the district. And there's an unmeasurable secondary effect--how many people who would have been really useful board members said, "Well, I don't want to wade into this mess," and stayed at home instead? I'd like to be more optimistic, but I see some rough days ahead. 

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