School boards nationwide struggle with public comment

School boards across the US have experienced cases of harassment and disapproval from citizens as the political climate tenses with the Covid-19 pandemic.

At Downers Grove South, parents storm school board meetings over a book titled Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe. The school has received national attention as the book is said to contain “pornography” and demanded for removal of circulation. 

Parent disapproval at Downers Grove South also stretches to Covid policy. Citizens declare the precedence of medical freedom over CDC guidelines, attempting to establish the masks as an impediment to freedom, vaccine mandates as a form of discrimination, and call for the resignation of high school officials as necessary. 

“I’d suggest you retreat to your safe spaces if the truth is too much for you to handle,”  District 99 resident Marcella Cheaure told the District 99 school board during their December meeting. “Step down. Let the real Americans, those who value freedom, handle this,” she said. 

For the December meeting, the school board moved to another location under the direction of Superintendent Dr. Henry Thiele as the volume of outside guests exceeded expectations. Only 20 visitors were allowed entrance on a first come-first serve basis while the remainder were asked to view the meeting on livestream.

This, too, brought backlash from Downers Grove citizens.

“I’d like to express my extreme discontent with Superintendent Henry Thiele for usurping the rights of residents by not following the open meetings act,” said District 99 Resident Eileen Bryner.“He took it upon himself to move the school board meeting to a location that allowed only 20 seats for the public. This district has multiple possible locations that are large enough to gather the citizens. This mandate was not presented to the board. I was at the November meeting. I did not see violence. This is all a hyperbole from Hank [Thiele],” she said.

At AT, school board meetings were previously not open to permit outside guests, but the district now is open to in-person guests;  interested citizens are able to submit public comments online, but still, while AT does not face the same harassment or disapproval, the school is no stranger to harsh public comments.

“Certainly we’ve seen a trend since last year in public comments regarding school operation – whether we were open or closed, in person or remote. This year it was really about the mask mandate,” District 88 Superintendent Dr. Jean Barbanente said. “Comparatively to other districts though, we do not have a lot of public comment. If you compare our volume of comment, it’s not nearly as high as some other districts,” she added.

Barbanente, who has worked in the district office for 14 years, noted the uprise in public comments in comparison to previous years, fueled by the tense political climate caused by the ongoing pandemic.

District 99 Superintendent Henry Thiele agreed with Barbanente, describing the citizens’ uproar in response to the changes that have occurred in recent years.

“It’s just a very difficult time to be a human being right now,” said Thiele. 

While Barbanente notes that no cases of harassment have threatened District 88 in board meetings, Thiele mentions District 99 has faced harassment, although that did not take place at the December board meeting during a session of sharp public comments.

What happened today, that’s not harassment at all,” said Thiele after the board meeting. “But it has happened before. 

He added that his decision to move the board meeting to a smaller location was in relation to incidents of harassment.

“That’s why we moved the board meetings. It’s really hard in a giant auditorium for security staff to determine who it is that’s harassing people, threatening people, calling out to them, or saying inappropriate things,” Thiele said.

This rise in public turbulence has received national attention. In Yankton, SD residents call board members “bullies” in rebuttal to a mask mandate. In ME, Critical Race Theory debates take center stage at board meetings. Across the United States, school board meetings face repeated battles, cases of harassment, and threats.

“Oh yeah. School board members have been harassed,” Thiele said. “I think that at every school in the nation it’s happened over the last 16 months. I think there’s very few school districts where either the board, the administration, or visitors in the audience, have not been threatened or harassed or verbally assaulted in some way.”

Controversy is no stranger to school board meetings–in past years, other board decisions from disciplinary action to curricular changes have created an uproar from divergences of opinion. Remote learning was another controversial topic, but with the mask mandate coming from the state, not the school board, comments have calmed down.

“We’ve definitely received large amounts of public comments in the past regarding a variety of topics,” said Barbanente. “This year we’ve received a pretty regular amount of public comments from not too many people, and they’ve definitely tapered way down from last year and the beginning of this year.” 

Barbanente attributes the lower volume of comments received by District 88 to the district’s communication with the public via forums such as newsletters. She acknowledged that public opinion is instrumental in the functioning of a school district and welcomes public comments regardless of rage or disapproval.

“Do I believe that these ideas [public comments] are based on fact? Maybe not, but it’s really not my role to figure out where they’re getting this information or limit their rights to express their opinions to us. We have the choice to follow it or not, but do I have the right to say I disagree? Maybe, but it doesn’t negate the fact that I value their input,” said Barbanente.

Thiele agreed, citing the open meetings act as an opportunity for tax paying citizens to observe the people deciding where their money ends up.

“The board’s job is to do their business. The public, because we’re using public tax dollars to run school, is afforded the opportunity to observe their board meeting. But that’s the extent of it.”

The purpose of a school board, much to the chagrin of residents, is not to validate these opinions, only to listen. While most school boards uphold this premise, the National School Board Association sent a letter to President Biden on Sep 29 requesting law enforcement to deploy against “domestic terrorists” at school board meetings. 

In response, the Illinois Board of Education discontinued partnership with the NSBA.

Professionalism takes precedence over personal opinion. Far right ideas circulate in school boardrooms across the United States, stirring controversy in every corner. With respect to the safety of administrative officials, open board meetings across the nation act as open ground for residents everywhere.

+ posts
+ posts