116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Fueled by state and national politics, local school board meetings are becoming increasingly volatile and divisive, some education experts say.
Decisions being made at the state legislative level that prohibit school boards from making local decisions they feel are best for their districts are encouraging increasingly polarizing views from citizens, said Siobhan Schneider, associate executive director of the Iowa Association of School Boards.
“This seems to reflect our society tackling some more polarizing topics. Having respectful, meaningful debate about different views and opinions is a cornerstone of our democracy and should be encouraged at the board table and beyond,” Schneider said.
Meetings, however, have not always remained respectful.
In December 2021, protesters opposing mask requirements for students threatened to sue the Cedar Rapids school board if they did not repeal the mandate. The mandate has since been lifted.
After about an hour of public comment — during which many protesters spoke about their opposition to masks — the meeting was disrupted when protesters shouted “take a vote” and “we will not back down.” This was the third time in recent months the board took a recess because of people protesting the mandate.
“Significant disruption” like this “hampers” the ability of government officials to do their jobs, said Randy Evans, executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council.
“Any decision a school board makes, you’re going to have a large number of people who are going to be satisfied with the decision and a large number who will be dissatisfied,” Evans said. “Part of that is the nature of having citizens who have strongly held opinions and also what democracy is about.”
Linn-Mar school board president Brittania Morey said politicizing education can detract from the true work of educating students in a “safe and supportive environment.“
“Community feedback is very valuable and can shed light on concerns we didn’t realize were concerns or provide a different perspective and lead the board to ask additional questions to learn more before making decisions,” Morey said. “Even though we can’t respond in the moment, we are listening, often taking notes and jotting down follow up questions.”
Social media in particular, however, fuels “a lot of rumors,” Morey said, further dividing the community over things that are simply untrue.
Last month, the Linn-Mar school board heard four hours of public comment, with the majority of the 76 speakers opposing the district’s new policies that spell out inclusive practices for transgender students.
“I would tip my hat to Linn-Mar for giving a substantial amount of time to hear what parents and taxpayers are saying,” Evans said. “By having this marathon meeting, it strips away any complaint that the board is not giving citizens a chance to weigh in. There certainly is a difference between weighing in and getting what you want, though.”
Iowa Code Chapter 21 — the state’s open meetings law — requires school boards to give notice to the public through publishing an agenda at least 24 hours before the meeting. The law, though, does not require school boards to provide an opportunity for public comment, Evans said.
It also does not require board members to respond to questions from the public, a frustration from some citizens, Evans said. “There’s a difference between what the law requires and good governing practices,” he said.
“The response often is they don’t want to violate the advance notice part of the agenda,” Evans said. “’I think that contributes to the frustration when people ask legitimate questions and don’t get an answer. It does not build respect and confidence in the government board.”
Pandemic brought education to the kitchen table
Lisa Williams, an Iowa City school board member elected in 2019, said the pandemic brought K-12 education to “people’s kitchen table.”
Virtual school board meetings offered during the pandemic to slow the spread of the virus allowed more people to engage in ways that were a more efficient use of their time. Citizens no longer had worry about transportation, child care or getting off work early to attend a meeting.
As more people got engaged, school board elections saw a higher than average voter turnout last fall after a contentious races in which candidates debated mask mandates, curriculum and school funding. Cedar Rapids school board member Nancy Humbles won the largest number of votes for Cedar Rapids school board with 10,716. This compared to the 5,478 votes Cindy Garlock captured as the top vote-getter in the 2019 school board election.
Kurt Rogahn, an education reporter for The Gazette from 1982 to 1992, said he can’t “recall that the parade of issues that would draw people out to school board meetings was as great then as it is now.”
Lew Finch, former Cedar Rapids schools’ superintendent from 1994 to 2004, said there was always a group of vocal critics, but there wasn’t the bitterness and volatile language boards are seeing today.
It’s a “reflection of what’s going on in America,” said Finch, who worked as a superintendent of public schools for 30 years.
Education has been a hot topic during in the Iowa Legislature.
In May 2021, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law legislation that prohibits Iowa districts from requiring students and staff to wear face masks while at school, reversing mask requirements for some school districts overnight.
Another new Iowa law bans Iowa governmental entities — including K-12 schools and public colleges — from teaching “divisive concepts,” including that moral character is determined by one’s race or sex, or that the United States and Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist. It was signed into law by Reynolds in June 2021.
Earlier this year, Reynolds also singed in to law a bill banning transgender girls from competing on girls sports teams, a move many school district officials have publicly disagreed with.
Other legislation proposed this year would require schools to post a catalog of all of their library books and curriculum materials online. Schools are already required to have that information available.
Iowa City school board President Shawn Eyestone, who was elected in 2017, agrees that meetings are “more divisive” and “less cordial” than in previous years. The pandemic, for example, has become a political issue instead of a public health issue, he said.
“If everything related to education had the focus of how do we make public education succeed, I think we would find common ground,” Eyestone said. “There’s a push toward this narrative that public education is bad or wrong, and that’s simply not true.”
Public speakers approach school boards in a way that is “almost like lobbying,” said J.P. Claussen, an Iowa City school board member initially elected in 2017.
Although public comment can “make for a long meeting,” there is benefit to giving the public a voice, Claussen said. “I think it’s really empowering, especially when you get people who normally haven’t felt comfortable, students especially, who don’t feel like they have had a voice.”
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