Melinda Burrell

By Melinda Burrell & D.G. Maw

“This is painful. The people we are ‘up against’ are people we have known for years. Our lives are intertwined.” Speaking from rural California, Jane explained what school board conflict is doing to her community.

She is not alone. Many communities are being torn apart as parents fight for their children’s future – but with different views of what that future should be.

In many ways, this energy around school boards is wonderful. Parental involvement has increased. People have decided to run for office who never expected to do so. While so much involvement is great for our democracy, often missing are the basic elements of engagement, openness and learning, transparency and trust, collaboration and shared purpose. Many times, people are not listening to each other and solving conflicts together.

There are reasons these conflicts are happening.

School boards have become ground zero for our culture wars, often stoked by people outside the school community: mask and vaccine mandates, history teaching methodologies, school and mascot name changes.

There are also legal complications. A big one is liability, making board members reticent to reveal much to the public. Another is regulations governing school boards. In Virginia any gathering of three of the five school board members is legally considered an open meeting – even an email exchange between three or more members within a certain number of hours. These legal issues constrain the members of boards’ ability to communicate with themselves and the people they serve.

Many school boards now are setting the year’s policies and strategies. Reacting to the disruptive and sometimes dangerous meetings of the previous year is top of mind. A first impulse often is to call police to help with security. Another is to limit public comment or curtail open hours. “After what the last school board experienced in 2021, they just withdrew. Walls went up,” a newly-elected Virginia school board member noted.

But these reactions tend to deepen the conflict, making parents feel angrier and more unheard.

However, this does not need to be. Here are ways to improve the situation.

School board members can:

· Reach out, listen, and make people feel heard. After emailing parents who had made their one-minute public comments, then been cut off with a quick “thank you”, the Virginia school board member said, “People write back and say, ‘this is the first time someone from the board has ever written me.’ They know I’ve tried to really see and understand them. It helps.”

· Consider different formats for receiving public input, such as listening sessions, mediated conversations, or other methods of productive listening, learning and leaning into the conflict.

· Get conflict literacy and de-escalation training.

Others can help. Faith leaders, Rotary-style service organizations, and community mediation centers can convene community-wide conversations outside the restricted school board format, which school board members can attend unofficially.

Many resources exist to support such constructive public-school board engagement. Community mediation centers have highly skilled conversation facilitators. Living Room Conversations offers conversation agreements with tips for setting ground rules. The Bridging Divides Initiative has de-escalation guides for community meetings.

This intense community engagement is a wonderful opportunity. For the sake of the children watching and learning from us, let us make this engagement constructive by being informed, inclusive and participatory.