‘Words have power’: School board members troubled by rancor

Once, school board meetings were routine, sedate — forums of civil discourse. Not today, as board members and superintendents face a segment of the public that is vocal and at times confrontational. Instead of an exchange of ideas, angry words are often hurled at school board members. How did we end up here with board meetings resembling battlegrounds? What is driving this turn from civility?

“It is disheartening to see how neighbors, friends and family are mistreating their own people right in front of their children and the rest of the community to see. It’s actually disgraceful,” said a board member who wished to remain anonymous.

“Words have power, and they can either build up or tear down. People who are coming to the meetings and speaking from the podium are pouring forth complaints and criticisms instead of asking how they can join forces with us to combat government overreach,” they added.

Todd Engel, president of South Williamsport’s School Board, characterized the meetings as not being “healthy discourses.”

“Neither side is completely right or completely wrong, and everyone needs to understand that. So many are focused on one issue right now, but we have a lot on our plate other than COVID-19 and masks. There are rules and procedures to follow at every level of government meetings, and school board meetings are no different,” Engel said.

“I appreciate the passion people bring, but I hope everyone understands that no matter how we vote, some will be happy and some will not. I don’t like to see board members get targeted for how they vote,” he added.

Another member of a local school board who has served for over 16 years puts the blame on society today.

“We’ve just allowed ourselves to get out of control, where you can’t have opposing opinions,” he said.

“Good people can have different opinions on the same topic, given the same information,” he added.

A hot-button issue for school boards right now is the masking order from the state Department Health instituted last month. Armed with information from internet experts, parents and community groups have become vocal in expressing their opinion on the topic at area board meetings and across the country.

One board member feels that these confrontations are motivated by “a spirit of fear and anger…simply displayed by a lack of self-control with their mouths.”

“The board is the local point of contact, so it’s easy for people to come to meetings and vent their frustrations,” she said. Parents and taxpayers make blanket statements about the board, which is extremely hurtful and disrespectful. Some board members are working hard and advocating for their constituents, but when evil statements are made about the whole board, it discredits individual members’ reputations. Once words are spoken, they cannot be taken back.”

Across the board, any official in a district is bearing the brunt of the accusations about mandates and orders they did not institute.

“Right now, administrators, building principles and nurses are taking a beating, as are some board members,” Engel said. “In my opinion, most of it comes from the issue on quarantine protocols of students and the long-term effects of kids not being the classroom or having to learn in a remote setting, which isn’t ideal, along with the masking issue. …I agree with those that say 10 days is too long for a student to be out of school from a potential exposure when that student presents with absolutely no symptoms. The data from last school year supports their argument. How many students sent home for 10-14 days actually tested positive during that time? It’s easy to see why people are upset and taking their frustrations out on school boards and officials. It’s misdirected because it should be directed at Harrisburg or local elected government officials who actually can fight for them in Harrisburg.”

Another side of this issue is the fact that the people who come to board meetings are not representative of the entire district, but they just may be the loudest. If there are 30 people at a board meeting speaking during the public comments period, that could possibly represent 60 to 90 children, at most, but there may be 2,000 children in the district, so where are the parents of the other children?

“A lot of people will come to meeting speaking for their children, but as a school board, we have to look at all the children. If there’s a child in any classroom whether it’s a Special Ed or anything else that has some type of a pre-existing medical condition…they have rights as well,” a board member said.

“It’s not that we don’t care. People accuse us of not caring when we spend years representing kids for no pay,” he added.

One board member who said he and other members have been contacted quite a bit.

“The presumption by some is that everybody is telling us that we’re doing the wrong thing. Actually, we probably have more voices telling us that we’re doing the right thing in the midst of what is a very difficult, challenging time.”

Another avenue some parents have taken is to sue school officials. A recent suit filed against the Montoursville Area School District was denied in federal court, but that does not stop the threat of litigation from looming over the heads of administrators and board members.

“When I hear people threaten to sue, hire lawyers, pull their children from school etc…. it’s to be expected because they are angry with governmental control and are misdirecting their frustrations on the entity that is carrying out the laws…we didn’t create the laws but we must enforce them….the police officer doesn’t create the law but takes an oath to uphold it, just as we do. I don’t personally feel threatened, but I’m very guarded and mindful of the environment I’m in. However, I am expecting some level of opposition because many people today are confused calling evil good and calling good evil,” a board member said.

Filing lawsuits against district officials and board members takes money from district budgets for legal fees, money that could be used for students’ needs. Critics say that boards should stand up to government overreach and just defy orders or mandates from the state. They cite the idea that it only costs a minimal amount of money to fail to enforce the current masking order, for example. A recent letter from the state Department of Education clarified that a “violation occurs each day there is a violation and be charged for each student or staff member attending the school.”

For that school with 2,000 students, that could amount to tens of thousands of dollars each day the mandate is not enforced, and that would be a personal liability for each board member.

“Parents’ freedom of choice concerning medical and educational issues have been stolen from them, and they are looking for their local school boards to give it back. Unfortunately, we don’t have the jurisdiction to do so. I believe we need to arise and stand for what we believe is right, but it has to be directed to the right entity,” one board member said.

“Also, the Lycoming County Patriots made a video and posted it on Facebook stating that our whole board was full of cancer, and we all needed to be removed. …Cancer steals, kills and destroys…we’re not as a board sitting behind closed doors scheming and plotting our own children’s demise of our community. We’re there to serve and better this school district for future generations strictly as volunteers, not tear it down with our own hands. When falsities and accusations are spreading on social media, people tend to believe it without verifying it. This causes nothing more than division,” she added.

Board members offer a variety of reason why they have chosen to run.

“I have always had this district close to my heart and I wanted to do my civic duty, do my part to help keep it thriving and a great place for parents to want to send their kids to learn and grow,” Engel said.

Another board member said the he feels it is a “form of service to our community and school district.”

East Lycoming School Board member Donna Gavitt who has been on the board for around 19 years, said that initially she ran for the office because she felt that there should be an educator on the board.

And would they seek to serve again? All said a resounding yes to serving again.

When asked about the current atmosphere permeating meetings, Gavitt said, “confrontation comes and goes. That’s part of what you have to do to be a school board member. You have to be prepared for it.”

“I think there’s an underlying anger against government control and it’s kind of seeped its way into our school district because of the mask mandate,” Gavitt said.

“It is a mandate and we have lots of other mandates which we absolutely hate,” she said. “But, that (mandate) is nudging people. It’s as if people are saying no more.”

Another board member summarized the current situation.

“While many of the conversations and anger that has been directed at school boards is about some specific issues like masking, I think the more deep seated issue is that people have larger concern distrust about the systems in which we operate. Do I think that our general distrust is fully founded. I don’t necessarily. I think we need to be critical of elected officials. We need to hold them accountable, but we also need to try and not respond by being so angry and presuming that something is fundamentally broken when it may not be,” he said.

“We have to get away from demonizing those with whom we cannot agree. If we can’t do that at the local level, how will we ever do it a the regional, state and national level. We need to be in conversation with each other. It doesn’t mean you always get your way. It doesn’t mean I always get my way as an elected official. I would argue that it’s not always about getting your own way. It is about listening to those who can best inform and wisely shape the decisions that we make,” he added.


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