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Members of hostile school boards have called it quits

A Virginia board member quit over politics and mask-driven decisions. One member of the Wisconsin board was worried that he would have his tires slashed by the vitriol.

School board members are mostly unpaid volunteers. They are typically former teachers and parents who volunteer to help shape school policy, select a superintendent, and review the budget. Many are questioning their willingness or resigning as the meetings have turned into shouting matches between deeply political constituencies about how racial issues will be taught, what masks should be worn in schools, COVID-19 vaccine requirements, and other testing requirements.

Rick Grothaus, Wisconsin's Oconomowoc Area Schools Board member, resigned from the board in a letter. He stated that its work was "toxic and unsustainable."

Grothaus, a former educator, stated by telephone that "When I got going, I knew it was going to be hard." "But I wasn’t prepared or ready for the bitter response that would occur, especially since the pandemic seemed like it was bringing everything out in a very, very brutal way. It made it impossible for me to do any meaningful work."

Along with Dan Raasch and two other members, he resigned August 15.

The National School Boards Association's interim executive director, Chip Slaven, said there isn't evidence of widespread departures, but he and several board members reached by The Associated Press said the charged political climate that has seeped from the national stage into their meetings has made a difficult job even more challenging, if not impossible.

At a recent meeting in Vail, Arizona, speakers took turns blaming school board members for discussing vaccines, masks, and race in schools, even though they had no plans to take action on or even discuss any of these topics. One woman stated, "It is my constitutional right to act as mean as you guys want,"

After more than an hour, the board continued to move on, but was interrupted again by more shouting. Allison Pratt, a board member, recalled thinking that she would not want to be on the board if she wasn't.

Pratt, who is a six-year member of the school board, stated that "there is beginning to be an inherent distrust about school boards, that some notion that we're out to indoctrinate or undermine parents or anything like that," even though they are part of the same team. "We are here for children."

Pratt stated that she tries to see issues from the point of view of all community members and has no plans of resigning. She has increased security at her house.

Police have been called to intervene in places including Vail, where parents protesting a mask mandate pushed their way into a board room in April, and in Mesa County, Colorado, where Doug Levinson was among school board members escorted to their cars by officers who had been unable to de-escalate a raucous Aug. 17 meeting. Levinson was adamant that he did not know why he was doing it.

Kurt Thigpen, a former member of the Washoe County school board in Nevada, wrote that he had considered suicide after being subject to bullying and threats from people who didn’t even live in the area. He wrote that he was always looking over his shoulder in July.

Susan Crenshaw, a Craig County, Virginia school board member, resigned this month. She had more than one year remaining on her term. Crenshaw said she was "blindsided" by her board's decision not to follow the state's mandate. It was a move she felt was more motivated by political considerations than educational ones.

Crenshaw, who has taught for 31 years in a district with only 500 students, said that this is a way to fight government overreach and tyranny. It's more than just the mask. "I feel that the mask is the trigger or spark that started this dialogue."

Experts agree that masks are effective in reducing virus transmission in schools, but opponents claim they can restrict breathing and make it difficult for children to understand social cues. Conflicts over masks have put some boards in Florida, Texas and Arizona at odds with their Republican governors.

Recall efforts are being launched in several states against embattled board members who refuse to resign. Ballotpedia lists 59 school board recall efforts against 147 board members in 2021.

Jon Aitken, Vail's board president, is one of those being attacked by critics. They claim that the pandemic restrictions have caused a decline in mental and physical health among students. In recent years, the Arizona board has been faced with contentious issues, such as the Red for Ed movement, which saw 50,000 people rally at the Capitol for more education funding. He said that this was different.

Aitken stated that "that was a very real problem, with legitimate concerns from both sides." He said that much of today's talk is either false or made up.

Slaven stated that many of the current board members are more excited than ever due to the fact that their work has taken on a new significance in a time of public health crisis.

"Now you know that what you do is crucial." He said that the decisions you make as an elected official can have ramifications.

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