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How Fox News gave birth to a false narrative
03:16 - Source: CNN

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Washington CNN  — 

Heckling, protests, even death threats. Welcome to school board meetings in 2021.

For months now, school boards across the nation have been targeted with angry protests over masks and vaccines, joined more recently by concern about critical race theory, the oft-misunderstood concept examining the role of institutional racism in American history.

Elections have become so vitriolic and divisive that the National School Boards Association asked for help from the federal government to investigate threats.

But the issue over school governance isn’t going away. In Virginia – where the next governor will be decided on Tuesday – Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin has made what he calls parental rights key to his campaign, even releasing an ad last week that made the teaching of Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” the latest fight in the culture wars.

And he targeted critical race theory – which is not taught in commonwealth schools – earlier this month at a rally in Culpeper, seizing on a comment from Democratic opponent Terry McAuliffe in a debate earlier this year that he didn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

“We’ve seen parents saying, ‘Tell us what material is being used in the classroom and the library, just tell us so that we can choose if we want it in our kids’ lives or not.’ Because guess what? Parents have a fundamental right to be engaged in their kids’ education,” Youngkin said. “We’re going to stand up for parents. We’re going to stand up for students. And we’re going to stand up for so many teachers that have just been asking for help.”

And it’s not just Virginia. School board debates are being amplified in early campaigns from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt, as national Republicans focus on cultural issues to rally conservative voters heading into the 2022 midterms.

For help understanding what’s driving the focus on school boards, CNN turned to Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. Our conversation, conducted over the phone and lightly edited for length and clarity, is below.

CNN: As a jumping off point, can you tell me what a school board is?

DD: So a school board is, generally, a group of individuals who happen to live in the community and are voters and they have the opportunity to run to get elected to the school board. That is generally the case. There are exceptions, there are places such as large cities – New York City for example, Chicago for example, where the school board is appointed by the mayor or by some other official, but generally they’re individuals that run for office. It’s an elected office in the community that the school district serves.

CNN: And generally people don’t have to have any sort of affiliation with the school to run for the school board?

DD: Correct. They don’t even have to be parents of children in the school, they can just run.

CNN: Before all the contentious incidents that have popped up across the country, what have school board meetings generally entailed?

DD: Well a school board is basically a legislative body like all other legislative bodies who have responsibility in terms of approving, for example, finances. A major decision would be the hiring or firing of the superintendent, and deciding and approving the curriculum that is going to be taught in the schools. So they generally oversee the running of the school board and have all of the responsibilities in overseeing fiscal matters, ethical issues, curriculum issues, staffing issues. So it’s a considerable amount of responsibilities that they have.

CNN: What has been happening more recently with school board meetings?

DD: What has been happening with school board meetings is that they have become a battleground.

It began with the pandemic on issues of “Why is my school closed and my kid isn’t in school in-person because I have a job and I need my child to be in school.” Or “Why are you demanding that my child be at school in-person, because I don’t feel it’s safe and it’s dangerous and I don’t want to send them. And if I don’t send them, he’s going to be penalized for not being there.” Then that gravitated to “Why should my child wear a mask or why isn’t my child wearing a mask?” And we’ll be seeing more of this in the future: Requirements for vaccination. We may be seeing more of that particularly now with the vaccination being available for elementary age. So these are the issues that have become volatile.

And then on top of all of that is the critical race theory situation where organized groups are now using critical race theory as a way to make political gains – to use that in terms of recalling existing board members and then running other people for the school board. And to date, there have been a significant number of these recalls that have taken place and people are elected to the board. So it’s really changing the dynamics of school boards and what school boards are about in a way that we have never seen before.

CNN: Can you name some of the instances of harassment against school board members that you’ve heard about?

DD: Calls, emails, personal threats and abuse over whatever issue it is – and it’s not just the school board members. It’s been the superintendents. I can tell you that I am seeing a significant departure of superintendents from their jobs because they have been threatened. Their families have been threatened. The children, if they have been in the schools, are being threatened. And that’s not usual.

And that’s something that becomes a concern. I think most superintendents are willing to take the abuse because that’s the job, but when it extends to family, that’s a whole different story. That’s something that is not typical. And so I’m seeing many superintendents are leaving the profession because of that. The long-term danger of that, by the way, is who’s going to take their place at a time when leadership is so key and so important?

To have a significant loss of experienced leaders being replaced by individuals that are moving into those jobs without any experience is a concern.

CNN: Do you worry about losing smart, driven people who genuinely want the best for their local school communities because they don’t want to deal with this sort of harassment that they’re hearing about?

DD: Exactly. And as you get these changes on school boards, those new board members that have been elected on the particular issues that they’re running – they’ll probably be the ones that will fire the existing superintendent and hire somebody who agrees with their point of view and their position. And that’s how those individuals will get those jobs.