Brooks: Minnesota school boards are at the breaking point

The school boards are breaking.

It was always a thankless job. Serving on a school board means long nights, endless meetings and votes that hit your neighbors right in the heart or wallet. Their children. Their taxes. Their future.

Then came the pandemic, and a thankless job turned joyless.

“I used to tell people that the most rewarding thing that I do is the service to my community and to our schools,” said Jonathan Weinhagen, board chairman for the Mounds View Public Schools. “I haven’t been able to say that in over a year.”

No matter the vote — to mask or not to mask, to cancel the hockey season or play ball — there are frightened, furious people trying to scream school boards into submission. Board members are getting death threats and hate mail and angry people showing up on their doorsteps or business places. There are school board members who need police escorts back to their cars after a night meeting.

All for voluntary positions that barely pay enough to cover the cost of antacids for the 2020-21 school year.

Some Minnesota school board members have started walking away from a job that no longer feels worth it. Sixty-three of them statewide, at last count.

Two school board members quit in Byron, Minn., last week.

“It has become apparent to me that my duties on the school board are negatively affecting my physical and mental health,” Byron school board Member Mike Denney wrote in a resignation letter obtained by the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

The two who resigned were on opposite sides of the mask debate but faced the same flood of public vitriol. The district has started the search for their replacements. They’ve found few takers.

“It’s hard to find someone. They don’t want to step into that,” said Byron Public Schools Superintendent Michael Neubeck.

People hurl insults at his board members, and at their children. They disrupt their workplaces and post unflattering reviews, hoping to hurt their business. They show up at their homes.

“It’s hard to find people with solid backgrounds in education, or who have been school board members,” who are willing to take a temporary seat on the board, just to fill in for a year, Neubeck said. “Because they know what it’s like.”

Kent Pekel, interim superintendent at Rochester Public Schools, walked into his first school board meeting in July and was confronted by a jeering crowd raging against masks and the district’s stance against racism. One man carried a rifle into the boardroom.

So far, he said, not one member of the board has talked about resigning. Still, they talk about the idea with a “deep understanding” of why other school board members might choose to do so. None of them expected a seat on the school board to land them in a room full of people who swear at them one minute and try to drown them out by shouting the Lord’s Prayer the next.

“They really see it as their duty,” Pekel said. “But when it gets to this level of vitriol, it goes beyond exhausting.”

The quality of a school board can have a big effect on a school district. Pekel wonders how many experienced, thoughtful people will sign up for this work in the future if insults and death threats become a regular feature of the job.

“If we make this a job that good people will not take,” he said, “kids are going to suffer.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Weinhagen estimates he’s responded to more than a thousand e-mails about what Mounds View should or should not be doing. Some of it is respectful and constructive, some of it “really visceral and nasty attacks.”

“I have a lot of days where I lean into this work and I go, ‘What am I doing?’ ” said Weinhagen, who has a more-than-full-time day job as president and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. “I’ve got a busy family life, I’ve got a busy professional life, and I do this work to serve our community — and for what?”

So he holds onto the things that do bring joy and remind him why this job is worth doing, thanks or no thanks. Like the first day of the new school year, and the 12,000 children who will return, safely masked, to in-person classroom learning this week.

“As a parent of four kids, my happy thought is the bus pulling away from my house at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. There’s a bottle of champagne chilling in my refrigerator,” he said with a laugh. “I think every parent in this pandemic feels that way.”

When tempers flare at Anoka-Hennepin school board meetings — like last month, when a crowd booed an immunocompromised high schooler who asked for a mask mandate — Nicole Hayes, the board’s vice chairwoman, tries to remind herself that COVID has tested everyone, and few have been under more strain than the parents of school-aged children.

Hayes said she ran for the board to be an advocate for kids, a resource for parents and a partner with educators. The pandemic, the hate mail and the booing haven’t changed that.

“That’s why I haven’t considered quitting,” Hayes said. “And I’m not going to.”

jennifer.brooks@startribune.com • 612-673-4008

Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks

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