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Ohio schools boards try to navigate contentious, divided climate at meetings

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Posted at 7:01 PM, Sep 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-17 19:29:56-04

From curriculum to COVID-19 policies, parents in communities across Ohio have not kept their feelings quiet at local school board meetings.

But some people have taken it too far by harassing or even threatening board members.

“I have never seen a climate like this in the past 16 years,” said Lynn May, the vice-president of the Dublin City Schools Board of Education.

May is a mom of three and has served four terms on the school board. She’s currently running for fifth term. She said she decided to run and has stayed on the school board for this long because she believes in public education, loves her community, and wants to help both.

These days, she said many people in her district are divided on issues like mask mandates and critical race theory and are looking at them through a political lens.

“This is supposed to be about what's best for the students and education. And what I feel has happened is that everyone comes at something with a political bent. They're concerned that it's this way or it's this way,” said May. “We've lost the ability to be able to sit down and look each other in the eye and talk about it and build consensus and come to an agreement on how to do things.”

So far, she and other board members haven’t been able to bridge the gap.

“It’s so difficult right now breaking through the armor to say, ‘Hey, we're all here about the kids,’ because some people feel we're not,” said May.

Experts believe there’s a reason this is all happening now.

“It’s what happens in times of crisis,” said Timothy Black, an associate professor of sociology at Case Western Reserve University.

Black said the combination of crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and racial injustice have brought opposing political voices to the surface.

“What happens in this context of crisis is that it creates a need for change. And whenever there's a need for change, there's a lot of fear and uncertainty. And so there's usually a reactionary response to that,” said Black. “We have a sort of progressive movement on one hand that's really coming together around a variety of different issues and at the same time a sort of reactionary movement to that, that's really generated by fear and uncertainty of losing what we have or what people have."

He said that struggle is at all levels of politics, including the national and state levels and he’s not surprised to see it in smaller, local spaces like school board meetings.

“Much is at stake in those schools in terms of the pandemic and the disruption it's created for families in the schools. You know, the push for trying to honestly confront our history through an honest discussion about race,” said Black. “So it's really a volatile time in certain ways because of the crisis, but also because of the political polarization.”

May said when she’s confronted with passionate speeches at school board meetings, she understands where they’re coming from.

“I know people are hurting and I know people are very angry and sad about what's going on,” said May.

She thinks the shift has been in the works for a few years now, but that the tone took a sharp turn during the period of social unrest last year.

However, she doesn’t agree that anger is the correct way for people to get their points across.

“For some reason, everyone feels they have a license to be nasty to everyone else right now. I don't know where they got that impression and it's not the way to get things done. To bully your way through is not the way to get things done,” said May.

But right now, she believes the best thing she and other board members can do right now is to be patient with whoever is speaking on either side of the issues.

“Even when they're screaming at us, I personally sit there and take it. You know, I listen, you have to listen, because that's the only way you can see that the people that are screaming are hurting,” said May. “Just like other people who are quiet and afraid to speak up. So many people are hurting right now.”

May said though some school board members in communities across Ohio are resigning from their positions or dropping out of races because of the current climate, she still intends to run for a fifth term on the Dublin City Schools Board of Education.

“It's worth the fight to keep hanging in there and sticking with it and talking to the people and listening to what they have to say, because that's what we're about, public education and it takes a lot,” said May. “I'm hopeful that we can turn the corner within these next few months, next year, whatever it takes, and hopefully we can turn the corner and start looking at each other and working together.”

As for the current divisive nature of school board meetings and politics in general, Black said it will likely continue so long as crises like the pandemic, racial injustice, and climate change are in the forefront.

“I think there's always going to be a reactionary movement when there's some effort to try to address issues that need to be addressed. And crisis, as I said, really brings that to the fore, brings that to the surface. And right now, there's a really strong push for change and it's change that we desperately need,” said Black.

Jade Jarvis is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

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