Parents gathered for a recent school board meeting in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District were warned at the onset: Put on a face mask or the meeting will be shut down.
“Tonight, it’s required that you wear masks,” board President Carrie Buck told a crowd on Jan. 11, soon reminding them of a state mandate. “So, please, take a couple of minutes and put your masks on… so that we can continue.”
Many in the audience either didn’t budge or didn’t change their mesh masks. They also refused an offer of free, non-mesh face masks.
So, four and half minutes after it started, Buck adjourned the meeting.
And that was a nice version of the type of battles taking place in school board meetings across Orange County and the nation.
As coronavirus re-surges, and social issues such as race and politics boil over, school boards have become venues for the expression of citizen discontent. The non-partisan boards – typically low-profile until not long ago — are now, often, a community’s focal point.
In the past year, there have been protests and heated rhetoric at board meetings across the county, including the Placentia-Yorba Linda, Tustin, Orange, Capistrano and Los Alamitos unified school districts.
The California School Boards Association, in a Sept. 29 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, described a “hostile climate at local board meetings” that pose a danger to elected officials and others while derailing the business of the boards.
“Nothing in recent memory could have prepared trustees for the onslaught they face today,” wrote Vernon M. Billy, the association’s CEO and executive director.
Orange County board members contacted early this week said that since the start of the pandemic there’s been a huge uptick in the number of people who reach out to them and show up to meetings. Most are civil. Some are not.
Masks, vaccines, race
“We have been in the catcher’s position when it comes to people’s worries and fears and objections to safety protocols,” said Orange Unified Trustee Kathryn Moffat, a school board member for nearly 21 years.
“School boards are very handy,” she added. “Because they’re right in your neighborhood.”
Parents have been targeting school boards to express their concern, and sometimes their anger, about COVID safety protocols, vaccines and hot-button topics such as critical race theory. The latter is a 40-year-old academic concept about the roots of racism in America – concepts many educators say is taught at a college level and others insist has seeped down to elementary school.
Troy Flint, a spokesman for the California School Boards Association, said Tuesday that three topics have dominated most of the board meetings that have become unruly: face masks, vaccine mandates and ethnic studies or critical race theory.
“We want everyone to express their opinions, not just to be the loudest,” Flint said.
“When one side is continually shutting down the speakers and refusing to yield the floor, or wear masks, it leads to meetings delayed or even closed,” he said.
“That deprives people across the spectrum an opportunity to raise their voice.”
The same day the California School Boards Association sent a letter to Newsom, the National School Boards Association sent one to President Biden. That letter was more strongly worded. It likened threats against school board members at meetings, in mail and via social media, to “domestic terrorism,” and asked Biden to order federal law enforcement to intervene.
The backlash to a letter that described American parents as domestic terrorists was swift and now the organization is at risk of collapsing, the Washington Post reported last week.
“We are not domestic terrorists. We are using our First Amendment rights to speak the truth,” said Brea resident Nita Causey, who attended a protest Tuesday outside the Placentia-Yorba Linda district.
Causey argues that local boards have the power to make changes by not accepting federal COVID-related dollars.
Members of Orange County school boards say they’re working to continue conducting the business of their districts, and they want to hear what parents have to say. But, many said, they also would welcome a calmer tone at meetings.
“I appreciate knowing how parents feel,” said Orange Unified’s Moffat.
“Sometimes, it’s difficult to listen to them if they’re not civil or polite,” she added. “But at the same time, it’s important for us to be available to them and listen to their comments.”
Last month, a man yelled loudly and angrily at the Orange board, coming toward them repeatedly. A November meeting also included other instances of frustrated speakers. The events prompted the district to contract with private security, Moffat said.
Last year, in another school district, a trustee, who asked to not be identified, asked for a security escort to the parking lot following one of the board’s more volatile public meetings.
In some districts, school boards are split on the state mandates. Some board members openly defy rules themselves. At the Jan. 5 meeting of the Orange County Board of Education, for example, board President Mari Barke told the audience that she was advised by the board’s attorney that people attending the meeting needed to wear a face covering. Yet, during the rest of the session, she wore a bandanna under her chin while fellow Trustee Ken Williams did not wear a face mask at all. (The Orange County Board of Education has repeatedly argued against face masks and other safety protocols, filing two lawsuits against the governor.)
Some mask protests have taken place directly outside schools. Most take place during school board meetings, including Capistrano Unified, where board President Martha McNicholas said officials have “learned how to manage these meetings.” No one is allowed inside a district building without a mask, she said, and the number of people inside the boardroom is limited.
“We’ve had some really unruly rude meetings,” she said.
School districts where meetings in the past year have been temporarily halted due to protests, or a defiance to mask orders, include Capistrano Unified in south Orange County, Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District in Los Angeles County and the Redlands Unified School District in San Bernardino County.
Not every board has seen pandemic-era debates turn into arguments or even fights. At the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, for example, long-time Trustee Marilyn Buchi said meetings have remained civil.
“Our audiences have been polite, not that there haven’t been a lot of passionate people,” said Buchi, a board member since 1983.
In the past, school board meetings gained attention, and drew big crowds, when controversial topics like sex education or the renaming of schools were up for debate. Now, the numbers and the demands are bigger, with many parents wanting their local school boards to defy state mandates and guidance.
School board members suggest parents would do better to focus their energy into contacting the state leaders who issue the guidance.
“We don’t have control over the mandates,” said Brea Olinda Unified School District Trustee Nicole Colon.
“But if it brings people to our meetings, I’m happy to have them there,” Colon added.
Despite the friction, all board members contacted said the increased parental involvement is a plus. They also emphasized that they understand parents are worried about their children. School board members said they want to hear those concerns.
But there’s also a lot of misunderstanding, in part because of the ever changing rules.
“They are very worried and confused and sometimes they’re operating under false information,” Moffat said. “Because it is hard to keep up with, and sort through, what’s the current wisdom, some people say ‘Well nobody understands it.’”
Parents vs. biology
Cynthia Critchfield, a parent of three at Placentia-Yorba Linda district, is one of many parents who has become active in school board matters during the pandemic.
She said she’s worried about Newsom’s plan to add the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of vaccinations required for students age 12 and over, something that could happen after the vaccine receives full approval from the Food and Drug Administration.
“This is about parent choice,” said Critchfield, one of about 60 people who attended a protest outside the Placentia-Yorba Linda district office Tuesday, Jan. 18.
“Parents know what’s best for their children.”
Critchfield has yet to speak publicly at a school board meeting, which she began attending some three months ago. She believes the board is “picking and choosing” the rules they want to enforce, noting that she’s seen many photos of children at school with masks pulled under their nose.
Therese Sorey, former president of the Irvine Teachers Association, said some Orange County parents are forming a political action committee to support local school boards. After finding that their first choice for a name, “Truth in Education,” was already being used, the group of about 100 parents, teachers and other residents are working to establish what they now call “Supporters of Public Education – OC.”
“People have been looking at the increased tension and threats and lack of decorum during school board meetings, and (they’re) saying, ‘Wait a minute. That’s not how board meetings are supposed to be,’” Sorey said.
“Groups come in and they take over the whole room and they yell out, and some of the things they say are out loud and other things are under their breath. So you hear it if you’re sitting nearby.
“Sometimes, they’re very angry, pounding …even crying,” she added. “It’s very sad.”
In Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District, where last week’s meeting was abruptly shut down because people in the audience refused to wear acceptable face coverings, meetings often turn heated. After the Jan. 11 adjournment, the board plans to reconvene. The next meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 19.