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Education

School board meetings have become increasingly combative. Local officials say federal involvement won’t help

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One school-related meeting in Utah county received national attention after angry, maskless parents ignored public health guidelines and demanded an end to mask requirements in schools.

Utah has seen its fair share of contentious school-related meetings over the last year and a half. One in Utah county received national attention after angry, maskless parents ignored public health guidelines and demanded an end to mask requirements in schools.

Another in the Granite School District led to 11 misdemeanor charges, after parents shouted down board members and forced the meeting to an early end. Many didn’t even live within the district’s boundaries.

That kind of tension is playing out in districts across the country, as board meetings have become ground zero for intense political debates and some school board members are receiving threats.

The National School Boards Association weighed in recently, requesting assistance from the Biden administration and federal law enforcement. The Department of Justice responded by saying it would create “a task force … to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes” and provide training for board members and administrators.

But for some school board officials in Utah, the letter appears to be undermining local efforts at maintaining civility and fueling contention among groups already distrustful of local school boards.

“Mostly we just want to say, ‘Yeah, we do need better civil discourse,’ but nobody's really looking at federal law enforcement getting involved here,” said McKay Jensen, past president of the Utah School Boards Association.

Ben Horsley, a spokesman for the Granite district, said while some meetings have risen to volatile levels, actual threats of violence have been minimal. He said police investigated two threats over the last year, both of which turned out to be vague and from out of state.

The bigger issue for Jensen is that as hot button issues like mask mandates and Critical Race Theory increasingly take up precious time at school board meetings — fueled it seems by national groups and state lawmakers — local issues and authority get watered down.

When two opposing groups came to debate CRT at a Granite meeting last July — which wasn’t on the agenda — Horsley said it appeared to be more about garnering media attention than discussing real issues.

“It didn't elevate the discussion by any means” he said.

Jensen said getting federal law enforcement involved validates concerns from parents that school boards are trying to silence debate or criminalize participation in meetings, when really the goal is to bring the focus back to local issues.

Increased skepticism and hostility further erodes the trust people have in both state and national school board associations, which Jensen said provide important resources to local members, including legal services, policy examples and professional training. It’s also leading to board members resigning across the country.

“This [the work of school boards] is actually something really important,” he said. “This is about the future of any given community and the money that you spend right now. You want the best of your community in this job.”

Jensen said USBA is urging the national association to return its focus to advocating for and protecting local authority. In a statement to local boards in Utah, Jensen’s group said “regardless of what is happening on a national level, we will continue to focus on what is happening here, close to home, in our neighborhood schools.”

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