Supporters of Grand Blanc school board Member Amy Facchinello at Grand Blanc High School, May 24, 2021 | Anna Gustafson
There will likely be more than 1,000 open school board seats across the state in 2022, and local and national political groups are already gearing up to find candidates.
But local education leaders are saying the school board isn’t the place for partisan politics — and they’re concerned this could further divide local communities over political issues.
“It seems like there are some groups that want to take an issue and use it as a recruitment tool. I think both parties right now see the school board space as the one closest to the people and may be a good launching pad for their members to move up in the ranks,” said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB).
A number of county-level political parties in Michigan have hosted school board training events in recent months to inspire members to run for their local school boards.
“I think the most important aspect of a good school board … is the ability to have conversations, perhaps disagree, but come to a decision that’s based on the wellbeing of the students. And that’s challenging given some of the discourse that’s happening right now,” said Doug Pratt, Michigan Education Association (MEA) director of public affairs. “When you look at that and the people who are being recruited to run based on the angry rhetoric that’s out there, that’s a bad precursor. That’s a bad way to start things out.”
Recruiting people to run for a school board position that is often unpaid or offers small stipends has been a struggle in Michigan in the past, Wotruba said. That’s because the function of a school board is largely administrative — dealing with budgets, hiring vendors and approving employment.
I think both parties right now see the school board space as the one closest to the people and may be a good launching pad for their members to move up in the ranks.
– Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards
But in the last year, local school boards have been dealing with hyper-politicized issues and protests largely from right-wing activists, like LGBTQ rights and “critical race theory” (CRT), a graduate school-level concept focused on the history and ongoing effects of white supremacy in the United States.
CRT is not taught in any of Michigan’s K-12 schools. However, right-wing activists have equated Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion plans, which many schools do have in place, with CRT.
Additionally, these right-wing groups have gone after local school boards for instating mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, and have crowded into school board meetings and protested outside schools. This has been a national trend, fueled by well-funded groups on the right.
In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer dropped the statewide mask mandate for schools in July. Since then, local school districts or health departments have been tasked with issuing their own mask mandates.
Data shows the mask mandates have been working. According to state health officials last week, students in K-12 schools without masking policies are far more likely to be diagnosed with COVID compared to districts requiring masks. And the number of school districts with new outbreaks is growing every week by the dozens.
In recent months, local school board members in Michigan and nationwide have received death threats, have been the subject of recalls and have been yelled at during regular meetings. The Department of Justice has now directed the FBI to investigate threats against teachers and school board members.
For some, what once was an altruistic opportunity to join their local school board is no longer worth the risk.
“What we see nationally is that there are a host of public officials who have felt threatened by some of these far-right activists, and have in fact been threatened and have had their families threatened,” said Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research, a liberal watchdog group, and a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy. “It’s definitely troubling to see people being incited to behave in such ways toward public officials who are trying to manage schools in a continuing public health crisis.”
Political parties step in to recruit their own for local school boards
In June, state Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), who is from Oakland County, shared a post on Facebook from the Kent County Republican Party offering a “school board workshop.”
“Today we did our second school board candidate recruitment and training event. Kent County GOP worked very hard to get a very successful sold out event. We will continue these across the state. Let me know if you want one in your area,” Runestad posted on Facebook.
Neither Runestad nor a spokesperson from the Kent County Republican Party responded to a request for comment on their event.
Earlier this month, the Oakland County Democrats held a school board candidate training of their own.
Jody LaMacchia, the Oakland County Democratic Party chair, said they hosted the training for potential school board candidates because “there is such an intense level of focus on them with extremists wanting to run or being encouraged to run. And that’s really troublesome to me.”
Even though LaMacchia, who ran for the state House in 2020, believes partisan politics shouldn’t have a role in school boards, for right now she feels like Democrats have to be on the defensive against right-wing attacks.
“It’s not to say that we want school board members out there spouting liberal talking points, either,” LaMacchia said. “It’s really not about getting a bunch of Democratic candidates in there. It’s about getting people in there who believe in education, believe in supporting our students and supporting our teachers. That’s why we’re offering this sort of training. It is not to push our own agenda, but to push facts and reality.”
School board trainings aren’t unusual. Many organizations host trainings to help community members understand budgets, meeting procedures and typical school administrative issues.
In 2019, Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former teacher, introduced Senate Bill 540 that would require school board members to take training on conflict of interest related to board members, labor relations, education law, school finance and board governance. The bill was referred to the Committee on Education and Career Readiness, but was never given a hearing.
The MASB also offers trainings for people interested in running for a local school board. However, Wotruba said he is uncomfortable with offering these trainings to political parties as a whole.
“I am not going to deny any candidate that wants to run for school board access to our trainings; I just don’t want it sponsored by either political party,” said Wotruba, who denied hosting a training for a county party earlier this year, but would not specify which one.
Efforts to infiltrate local boards stem from national groups
Like many of the hot-button issues that have arisen in the last two years, like election fraud theories and disinformation about the pandemic, the fight to gain control over school boards is largely being fueled by well-funded national groups.
Turning Point USA, a Phoenix-based pro-Trump group aimed at getting young Republicans involved in politics, has flagged six Michigan school districts in its“School Board Watchlist” — Ann Arbor Public Schools, Dearborn Public Schools, Detroit Public Schools Community District, Grand Rapids Public Schools, Utica Community Schools and Plymouth-Canton Community Schools.
National groups with political agendas getting involved in local school board elections isn’t an entirely new concept.
But for decades, it has primarily been led by the religious right, rather than political parties themselves. Groups like the Christian Coalition have helped get conservative Christians on to school boards. National groups led local activists fighting districts on desegregation and teaching evolution and sexual education.
The religious right has played a longstanding role of policing what is or isn't taught in the public schools. I'd be a little more concerned about the religious right than I would be even about the local county Democratic parties or local county Republican parties.
– University of Michigan-Dearborn professor Mike Whitty
“The religious right has played a longstanding role of policing what is or isn’t taught in the public schools,” said Mike Whitty, a University of Michigan-Dearborn professor in the College of Education, Health and Human Services. “I’d be a little more concerned about the religious right than I would be even about the local county Democratic parties or local county Republican parties.”
Now, the main group of conservatives fighting against school districts on pandemic-related issues or CRT are far-right former President Donald Trump supporters.
Last school year, a then-senior at Grand Blanc High School discovered that one school board candidate, Amy Facchinello, was spreading COVID-19 disinformation and QAnon theories on her social media. She eventually won the election. Despite protests from students and community members this year, she refused to resign and has been backed by local conservatives.
“One of the unfortunate effects of Donald Trump has been this sort of cavalier attitude about violence toward people,” Graves said, referencing the many threats school board members across the country have received recently. “When you have someone who is in a prominent national role like Donald Trump, whose rhetoric tends to lift up people who have engaged in violence or illegal activity. … It basically suggests to some people, people who aren’t well, that if they act on his behalf, they will be praised.”
Current members choose to step down after facing threats
For some, the risk and stress caused by being on the school board may outweigh the desire to continue serving or run again.
In November 2022, most of Michigan’s more than 800 school districts will hold elections, creating an opening for an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 new school board members across the state.
Already, there are school board members who are stepping down from their positions.
Longtime Grand Haven Public Schools school board President John Siemion resigned last month, citing threats and harassment as his reason for leaving the position after two decades.
“We’re seeing people choose not to run for reelection because of the animosity, the threats and bullying that’s happening,” said Pratt. “These are people who want to speak up and be part of decisions about their student’s education and their community.”
When you have someone who is in a prominent national role like Donald Trump, whose rhetoric tends to lift up people who have engaged in violence or illegal activity … it basically suggests to some people, people who aren't well, that if they act on his behalf, they will be praised.
– Lisa Graves, executive director of True North Research
There have also been a number of efforts from the right to recall board members and make room for conservative candidates, like in the Forest Hills Public School District near Grand Rapids and Mount Pleasant Public Schools.
On Monday, several major statewide education organizations – AFT Michigan, Michigan Association of School Boards, Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, Michigan Education Association, Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators and Middle Cities Education Association – released a statement in support of local school boards and denouncing threats and harassment.
“Threats and vitriol – often based upon false information – are creating a wholly unjustifiable disturbance to everyone’s efforts in the education community to promote a safe, quality public education for Michigan students,” the groups wrote. “Rather than respectfully raise opinions, behavior has escalated into bullying of public school employees, parents, and unpaid elected officials who want only to accomplish good things for kids. Michiganders have faced adversity and disagreements before, but the common denominator to overcoming division has always been – and must continue to be – the well-being of our youth.”
The groups also urged the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 689, introduced by Polehanki on Thursday, which would increase criminal penalties for anyone who assaults a school employee or school board member.
LaMacchia said for some of the community members she has talked with about these issues, it has inspired people “who desire to represent children and do the right thing by them even in the face of adversity.”
But in other cases, the involvement of political parties, the energy from the right and the recent history of threats to local officials might be the recipe to create space for far-right extremists on school boards.
“If you have people who are public servants being driven out of school boards and being replaced by hyper-partisan zealots who have a very particular personal agenda. … I think that you have a real potential to distort our schools in ways that potentially risk the health of children and the genuine education of kids,” Graves said.
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