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  • Tom Sgouros

Bullying public officials for doing the right thing

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

The Gaspee Project, a secretive conservative Rhode Island political group, is fundraising for the recall election against Jennifer Lima. They are a statewide organization, the non-profit associated with the "RI Center for Freedom and Prosperity," and are trying to make Lima into a statewide issue. The front page of their web site currently features a hysterical screed against her.

As a matter of policy, the Gaspee Project and the Center for Freedom and Apple Pie yell at you if you ask who their donors are, but they are almost certainly funded at least in part by national right-wing foundations. (They will doubtless call this a lie, but they also refuse to provide any kind of accounting of their donors that might demonstrate otherwise.) They do not dispute their membership in various networks of right-wing organizations, like the State Policy Network whose web site suggests removing restrictions on for-profit hospitals as the first priority for dealing with the coronavirus. Non-profits like the Gaspee Project are classified as "social welfare organizations" and are allowed to do public education, but are not allowed to participate in elections. But the rules for recall elections are vague and do not restrict the signature-gathering period. So this local arm of national dark money feels free to tamper with our school committee.

This is sad, and nothing more than an attempt to bully a school committee member who manages both to embrace her serious purpose and remain full of joy. Their goal is to make an example of her, to discourage others like her from seeking elective office. Lima's central offense is simply having the temerity to call for giving all students a fair shake, and to ask the schools to look at the ways in which some students might not get one. Running on that platform, she got more votes last fall than any other local candidate.

Harassment and bullying just like this is why the school committee chair in South Kingstown resigned her chair earlier this summer and another member resigned altogether. Mission accomplished in SK, they move on to NK, looking for another scalp.

The New York Times had a good op-ed about what's going on in school boards around the country.

Forget sonorous debates over capital improvements and annual budgets. Today’s gatherings are ground zero for some of the nation’s nastiest brawls over the hyper-politicized issue of mask mandates. Meetings are being overrun by protesters voicing their objections to face-coverings in classrooms — replete with mask-themed conspiracy theories, accusations of fascism and biblically themed condemnations. (Many protesters have divined that the Almighty hates masks.) School board members are being harassed and threatened, in person and online.

Here's a little more because there is a paywall. I especially liked "open-mic night for the disgruntled."

Displays like these upset people who do not think that largely nonpartisan school boards should be the targets of partisan lunacy. But while the drama may feel bound up in the angry, ugly, polarized politics of the moment, it is nothing new. Public schools have long been an irresistible battleground for America’s culture warriors. On issues ranging from sex education to desegregation, public prayer to evolution to the Pledge of Allegiance, cultural cage matches are frequently fought on the backs of local schools, with board members, educators and students too often caught in the fray. Mask mandates are not the only topic roiling the school scene. Not infrequently, multiple issues get bundled together. In the affluent Virginia suburbs of Washington, the Loudoun County School Board has drawn the wrath of parents opposed to critical race theory, transgender rights and pandemic policies. The board’s actions have been compared to those of Nazis and Communists. A new PAC, Fight for Schools, has popped up, aimed at recalling and replacing most of the board with “common sense” candidates. On Wednesday, the PAC is co-hosting a “Save Our Schools” rally with 1776 Action, a group opposed to critical race theory. The rally is to feature the former Trump administration cabinet member Ben Carson. Much of the passion in the school culture wars is grounded in gut-level fears. Many parents are terrified by the thought that their children could be indoctrinated or otherwise manipulated by strangers. This is a particular concern for conservatives, who worry that a snooty, liberal education establishment, in cahoots with a secular state, will turn their offspring against them and their traditional values. The fierce strains of anti-intellectualism and anti-science that periodically dominate conservatism make things exponentially worse. Just witness the backlash in some conservative corners against college — not against specific institutions or particular excesses but against the idea of higher education altogether. As Wilma Mankiller, who was the first woman elected to head the Cherokee Nation, once noted, “Whoever controls the education of our children controls the future.” School boards are super local, highly accessible public entities on which citizens can focus their rage and frustration. Fed up with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting normal life? What easier target than the low-level officials struggling to keep area schools on track? It can be tough for an individual or a small band of people to command the attention of a member of Congress or a state lawmaker. But school board members are right there in the community — with meetings open to all! — just waiting to be screamed at. Think of it as open-mic night for the disgruntled. For the average citizen, punishing or even replacing a school board member seems a much more manageable proposition than ousting a mayor or governor. Small surprise that, over the decades, conservative movements and groups — who tend to have a better grasp of the power of local politics than their liberal counterparts — have spearheaded large-scale pressure campaigns and board takeovers.

Sound familiar?


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