Contentious school board elections can provide an opportunity for district administrators to interact with detractors, explain why decisions are being made, and work to build bridges between opposing sides even as some candidates stoke controversy over topics like critical race theory and mask mandates, District Administration reports.
To promote civil discourse, administrators could bring in experts trained to minimize polarization and allow for productive conversations over hot button issues, according to Casey D. Cobb, a professor of educational policy at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. But AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech warns a school board majority with opposing views could also put the superintendent’s job at risk.
Domenech also suggests creating additional town hall meetings where the public can speak out, helping to reduce tension and prevent disruptions during official school board meetings. These meetings can also provide an opportunity to clarify misinformation and fully explain issues like COVID-19 precautions or critical race theory.
School board meetings are taking on a new dimension as portions of the country remain at odds over COVID-19 protocols and contentious issues like critical race theory. The pressure being exerted could force administrators to avoid making controversial but necessary decisions, according to a Los Angeles Times op-ed by Joseph Kahne, a professor of education and co-director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at University of California Riverside, and John Rogers, a professor of education and director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at University of California Los Angeles.
The National School Boards Association and AASA, The Superintendents Association, released a joint statement in September expressing concern over school leaders "facing threats because they are simply trying to follow the health and scientific safety guidance issued by federal, state and local health policy experts.”
In fact, board meetings in California, Florida, Georgia and other states have been disrupted over COVID-19 protocols. Concerns for the safety of school officials and teachers have prompted U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to direct the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorneys' Offices to work with local jurisdictions and law enforcement on ways to address growing threats against school personnel.
Still, there are steps school boards can take as they hold open meetings and allow for public comment. To prevent heated exchanges, board members should refrain from arguing with speakers. And while forums should be open, speakers can be restricted by time and speaker sign-up dates. Clarifying rules around decorum before the meeting can also help prevent tempers from flaring.