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‘Not for the faint of heart’: Education experts and leaders warn school boards dominated by politics

Veronica Sierra | March 22, 2022

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This article is part of a collaboration between The 74 and the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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School boards across the nation have become consumed with polarizing political issues such as masking and critical race theory, turning their jobs into nearly impossible work, a panel of experts said earlier this month.

The USC Center for the Political Future hosted a virtual panel of experts in early March who discussed how political polarization across the nation is making parents’ collaboration with educators and elected school board officials more challenging.

“Being a school board member is an extremely time consuming, difficult job where you’re investing sometimes more time in other people’s children than your own,” said former Beverly Hills Unified School District President and panelist Lisa Korbatov.

“Everyone gets threatened with a recall,” said Korbatov, who was on the board for nine years and served as president twice. “And I used to say to people who threaten me, ‘OK, where do I sign up for this? I’ll donate to recall me.’ This is a labor of love. This is not for the faint of heart.”

Panel member Nick Melvoin, who also serves as LAUSD vice president, said school boards are being used as a tool by certain partisan interests.

“I think school districts and school boards are… fighting America’s societal battles, whether that’s masking, vaccinations, critical race theory, these things that affect American families,” said Melvoin, who was first elected to the board in 2017 in the single most expensive school race in U.S. history, and is up for reelection in the Los Angeles’ June 7 primary ballot.

USC Rossier School of Education Dean Pedro Noguera, said “agitators” are politicizing hot issues in right-leaning states, such as Florida, where some parent groups have protested against critical race theory being taught in schools.

He added that in some cases unions “have, I think, incorrectly taken a position that schools should stay online longer than they were and all that masks should be kept on.

“So I don’t want to pretend the issues are simple but I do think that by over politicizing them, what we’re seeing is many superintendents deciding to retire early… And what we need to recognize is that some of those were agitating, destroying the public schools as part of their agenda,” Noguera said.

During the discussion, Korbatov said parents are simply concerned about their children’s education.

“I met many of them from Virginia, and they were just moms and dads…(a)… Loudoun County father came up who was arrested, dragged off, I believe, because his daughter was raped in a bathroom by a transgender kid who the superintendent did not inform anyone or the school board,” Korbatov said.

Noguera replied, “I know that superintendent. I quickly looked it up. It’s not true, and it’s been documented that it’s not true,” Nogera said. “But misinformation is part of the problem, and this is part of what we also have to teach kids.”

The mask mandate in schools is also expected to be a hot topic in the upcoming LAUSD elections. California and most local districts across the state lifted the mask mandate earlier, but it wasn’t until this week that LAUSD, after negotiating with the teachers union, was set to drop its indoor mask requirement. Instead, the district announced that starting March 23 masks will be strongly recommended in schools.

Darline Robles, former superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education and professor at USC Rossier, acknowledged that politics have been and will always be there but as a board member having the trust of the community and a relationship with parents is critical.

“It begins on day one… you’d better handle it if people already know who you are, what you believe and what you stand for, that you care deeply about their children. What’s best for students? What’s best for my employees to make sure they have what they need to support the students?,” Robles said. “Everything else is noise.”

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Veronica Sierra is a sophomore pursuing a journalism degree at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. She was born and raised in Valencia, Venezuela; and moved to California in 2015 where she continued high school, graduating in 2020.

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