How district leaders can seize an opportunity emerging from volatile school board races

Administrators can host public forums and set a process for a respectful, evidence-based exchange of ideas
By: | November 19, 2021

The challenges created by this fall’s contentious school board elections also offer superintendents and their teams a chance to bridge some political divides, one expert says.

Even though one recent survey shows most Americans approve of how schools have performed since the COVID pandemic began, school board candidates in some districts won seats by capitalizing on anger over critical race theory and mask and vaccine mandates.

Administrators should be able to have more frank conversations with these new board members who will now be publicly accountable for their positions and decisions, says Casey D. Cobb, a professor of education policy a the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education. “It’s an opportunity to get front and center with potential detractors or those who are unhappy with the way things are going and speak to the reality of why you are making the decisions you are making,” Cobb says. “They will probably continue with the pursuit of what they think is right for kids, but they’re also going to see the day-to-day realities of running a school district.”

The could provide an opportunity to reduce the polarization that has developed over masks and other issues. Cobb recommends that district leaders seek out civil discourse strategies or bring in consultants to assist with productive dialogue when the board deliberates hot-button issues and “emotions are running high.”

“If you look at national polls, parents and citizens are still strongly supportive of their schools,” Cobb says. “But it’s cyclical, and it’s always happening in pockets, where candidates run for school board based on something they’re really passionate about—they have an agenda and they want to make their voices heard.”

Changing the landscape of education?

But superintendents may also have cause to fear for their jobs if recent trends take hold, warns Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

More from DA: How angry are parents really about masks and other safety precautions?

If those candidates gain a majority on a board, they could seek to hire a new superintendent who agrees with their positions on critical race theory and mask mandates, Domenech says. “That could change the landscape of education considerably, particularly if it is an impetus to stop the diversity, equity and inclusion movement that has been going on in school districts,” he says. “In the case of the pandemic, they might do things that perhaps are not considered in the best interests of the health and safety of students and staff by med organizations and health experts.”

Superintendents and their administration teams should hold more town hall-style meetings to allow the public to speak out on contentious issues. Such gatherings would be a better forum than school board meetings that have been intentionally disrupted, sometimes by people who are not even members of the school community, Domenech says.

“Clearly, there should never be an attempt to thwart freedom of speech and many school boards do allow for the public to speak on issues on the agenda,” he says. “But that opportunity is being used by agitators to almost invite law enforcement to be called in so they can get publicity in the media and say, ‘Look how my freedom of speech is being threatened.'”

Town hall meetings can help all sides define their teams. For instance, educators could ask members of the public what they mean by critical race theory and where they believe schools are teaching the concept. “Is the admission that slavery took place critical race theory?” Domenech says. “Deal with the issues and the facts rather than ambiguous references. The strategy is to obfuscate rather than clarify. The way to combat obfuscation is through clarification.”

‘Withdrawal is a losing strategy’

Some of the anger school leaders have faced in recent months is driven by parents’ fatigue and frustration over the continuing pandemic, says John Rogers, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and director of the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access. “This far into the pandemic, people want some way to reassert control over their own lives and communities, and some of that has played out in heightened attention to local school board races,” Rogers says.

One thing that’s unique about the most recent election cycle, is that right-wing organizations have mounted well-funded campaigns to bolster attacks on school leaders over anti-racism and equity initiatives, he says. Still, superintendents and their teams should try to capitalize on this renewed interest in schools.

“Public schools are supposed to be sites where democracy is practiced and young people are learning democracy,” Rogers says. “I believe deeply that district leaders need to support and encourage public engagement rather than see it as something to withdraw from—withdrawal is a losing strategy.”

Administrators should strongly consider hosting public forums and setting a process for a respectful and evidence-based exchange of ideas—including with people who have had bad experiences with the district. “Sometimes anger is an import dimension of political participation,” Rogers says. “Good public school leadership is about creating democratic moments throughout the school calendar.”

However, leaders also should not overreact to the loudest voices and the attention the media tends to give those individuals. “It’s important to note there are school board members around the country who have acted with sensitivity, empathy and courage,” Rogers says. “And the best district leaders don’t just listen and take direction from school boards but are in critical dialogue with them and encouraging members to  be courageous.”