by Susan Crabtree
Over the last year, school board meetings have become ground zero for the country’s culture wars as irate parents have showed up in droves to decry school COVID closures, mask mandates, and critical race theory, as well as transgender policies.
After political analysts credited a parental uprising with helping Republican political newcomer Glenn Youngkin capture the Virginia governorship this month, these fights show no sign of easing. Both major political parties are already gearing up for next year’s midterm elections with Republicans sensing an advantage and Democrats digging in to defend beleaguered school boards, teacher unions, and the progressive policies they hold dear.
This week, conservative parents and their supporters are expressing new outrage over news that the FBI is placing “threat tags” on individuals accused of harassing or trying to intimidate school board members and teachers. For months, disgruntled parents have angrily targeted school board trustees for recalls across the nation, regularly denouncing union control of the schools as the crux of the problem. Recall attempts against school board trustees have tripled in 2021, targeting at least 216 officials, according to Ballotpedia.
But in at least one school district in Southern California, parents are warning their like-minded revolutionaries across the nation to be careful what they wish for and to get ready for a tough fight ahead. After gaining majority control of the local school board, they found themselves on the other side of the firing line with teacher unions vigorously targeting their trustee allies.
A local affiliate of the California Teachers Association has spent months this year trying to wrest back control of the school board after some of its trustees successfully fought alongside parents to reopen schools earlier this year. The union’s actions, while flying below the national radar, were unusually aggressive.
They included spending up to $60,000 in union funds on a private firm to collect recall signatures against one trustee; successfully recalling the only African American on the board; and hiring a private investigator to follow the school board president home from meetings in an effort to challenge her residency within the district.
Why is the union so focused on regaining control of this particular school board? For local parents, it’s no mystery. The answer is the ripple effect of pandemic politics.
Frustrated by coronavirus lockdowns, a group of parents in North County San Diego founded an association and sued the state to overturn pandemic rules limiting the number of days of in-person learning or completely blocking some schools from reopening at all. In mid-March, San Diego Superior Court Judge Cynthia Freeland ruled in the association’s favor, prohibiting the state from enforcing its restrictions, which she agreed were “arbitrary,” interfered with school districts’ reopening plans for in-person instruction and denied children’s “fundamental right to basic education equality.”
Moreover, in the absence of a contrary ruling by a higher court, the judge’s decision applied to the entire state, sending a clear message to the CTA (the biggest statewide union) and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration that their guidelines weren’t mandates and they must allow school districts to reopen more rapidly.
The San Dieguito Union High School District, a high-performing area with 13,000 students and 600 teachers, had scheduled school re-openings for January 2021 but reversed course when the union sued in December to block that action.
School board Trustee Michael Allman, who was elected to the board last fall, was the lone dissenting vote. Allman’s outspoken opposition won strong support from local parents organizing on a Facebook forum, a group that quickly grew to more than 2,000 supporters. Other board members, including President Maureen “Mo” Muir, had also started pushing back against COVID school closures.
The San Dieguito Faculty Association, the local CTA affiliate, launched a recall campaign against Allman just five months into his four-year term. The union accused Allman, a former energy company executive, of violating the district’s code of conduct, charges he denies and that he believes arose from a public war of words over schools’ pandemic policies taking place on social media sites.
The SDFA a few months ago gave itself permission to spend up to $60,000 hiring a private firm to gather 5,000 signatures needed to recall Allman. At least $14,500 of that came directly from the CTA. Yet, even with the private help, the union recently gave up and the recall failed to qualify.
Allman had fought back, spending nearly all of his free time going door to door defending himself. He said he heard from supporters that recall signature gatherers were falsely accusing him of being under criminal investigation, among other “outlandish lies,” so he sent a cease-and-desist letter to SDFA President Duncan Brown. He says he’s still considering filing a defamation suit.
“It’s hard to beat the unions. I prevailed because I have the support of parents who are speaking up like never before,” Allman said in an interview. “Put yourself in my shoes. Teachers are spreading lies about me in the community, so I went door-to-door with parents to say, ‘Hey, I’m a good guy, and I support parents.’”
He says he had a roughly 50% conversion rate of area residents who said they had already signed the recall petition. (State rules allow for the rescinding of signatures.)
But the SDFA, again with significant CTA help, successfully forced a special election for another seat on the school board, which was held by Ty Hume, the only African American member of the all-white panel. Hume, a businessman and openly declared independent, had been appointed after a union-backed trustee resigned earlier this year. Hume’s appointment gave non-union-aligned members a three-to-two majority on the board.
The SDFA took issue with Hume’s appointment, arguing that voters should have had a say in his election. His opponents produced the necessary signatures to rescind the appointment and call a special election, costing the district up to $500,000 to hold. But the gambit worked: Hume was defeated by union-backed candidate Julie Bronstein, who out-fundraised him with donations from the SDFA, another public employee union, as well as the local congressman, Rep. Scott Peters.
In a more bizarre twist, the same union hired a private investigator to follow Mo Muir home to see whether she was in fact living in the district she represented, as required by law. The private eye determined that the board president was renting out her home, which was up for sale, leading the local teacher union president to file a complaint with the district attorney. But Muir explained that she was spending time at the home of her elderly mother-in-law in Lake Tahoe during the height of the pandemic lockdowns. She sold her home but rented another within the district boundaries. The district attorney has yet to take any action; a spokeswoman said the office has a policy of declining to say whether it’s involved in an investigation.
Brown declined an RCP interview request but provided a lengthy written statement, arguing that “democracy prevailed” because the union successfully ousted Hume, whom the board had appointed, and allowed residents to elect Bronstein, who won with nearly 60% of the vote.
“While our efforts to recall Michael Allman did not result in activating a special election … we have been successful in highlighting Allman’s abuses of office to the broader community,” Brown said. He noted that the effort collected more than 4,000 signatures while thousands of other district residents “have been made aware of the dysfunction of our school board majority.”
Brown didn’t respond to an RCP request to outline Allman’s “abuses of office” and whether he or anyone else in the union is responsible for the false information Allman says was circulating about him. “SDFA will continue to stand for our students, our educators and our community,” he said.
Area parents’ groups privately warn of a greater union backlash to come if reform groups successfully recall and replace school board trustees in large numbers across the country.
Yet this is precisely what conservative groups are pledging to do nationally, although competing with the unions’ massive organization and deep pockets is a tall order for the newly energized patchwork of parents’ groups.
A national group called 1776 Action, which promotes teaching children a traditional appreciation of America’s founding, is asking candidates and elected officials to sign a pledge calling for the restoration of an “honest, patriotic education.” The group is a conservative response to the New York Times’ 1619 project, which frames all of U.S. history through the prism of slavery.
“2021 is really going to sort of be seen as kind of a canary in the coal mine of what’s coming down the pike next year and into the future,” Adam Waldeck, the group’s president, recently told the Associated Press. “This will be the year that I think primarily parents stand up and say, ‘You know, we have a voice, too.’ And I think it’s going to be overwhelming.”
Kimberly Fletcher, the president and founder of Moms for America, another group organized to fight for school reopenings and against CRT and other liberal education policies, recently protested at the headquarters of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. Her organization, along with numerous other voices on the right, denounced a letter the NSBA sent to the Biden administration urging it to treat complaints aimed at school boards and teachers as possible acts of “domestic terrorism.” After a nationwide uproar, the group rescinded the letter and apologized to its members.
Fletcher says she views the outsized role fed up parents played in the Virginia governor’s race as a “precursor of what’s to come” in the 2022 midterms.
“I have been saying for years that the moment that moms find out what’s going on behind closed doors in our schools, there’s going to be a national revolt, and that’s exactly what’s going on,” she said. “We’re just getting started.”
In recent months, she said several members of her group have been running for spots on school boards and winning in places such as Texas and Idaho, as well as the swing states of Pennsylvania and Colorado.
The moms group is providing training sessions for prospective board candidates and for newly elected trustees, which, Fletcher argued, is far more powerful than trying to compete dollar-to-dollar with unions.
“Here’s the beauty of it — when you’re fighting for parents’ rights, you don’t need a lot of money to win,” she argued. “It’s a matter of principle.”
Still, the well-oiled teacher union machine can be formidable, especially in more liberal areas of the country. While angry parents helped fuel Youngkin’s win in purple Virginia on Nov. 2, the same day the entire Denver school board flipped from trustees supported by education reform organizations to union-backed candidates.
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Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.