Why Are School Board Officials Getting Death Threats? : The NPR Politics Podcast School boards are the latest frontier in the culture wars, as incensed community members and right-wing activists protest mask mandates and anti-racist curricula.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, education correspondent Anya Kamenetz, and senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro.

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Why Are School Board Officials Getting Death Threats?

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ADDISON: Hi. This is Addison (ph) from Tallahassee, Fla., and I'm celebrating my 12th birthday by finally getting the COVID-19 vaccine. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

2:08 p.m. on Tuesday, the 19 of October.

ADDISON: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I'll be partially vaccinated and looking forward to my second shot. OK. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KEITH: Aw.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Fun story - my son turned 12 October 2, and the one thing he really wanted to do is get his vaccine. And he did.

KEITH: Aw.

MONTANARO: Yeah.

KEITH: These kids. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: And I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: Confrontations over masks, vaccines and how race is discussed in schools have made school board members worry about their safety. NPR's Anya Kamenetz is an education reporter, and she is with us now. Hey there.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Hey.

KEITH: This is serious stuff. And all of us, in one capacity or another, have watched school board meetings before, and they are typically not the most exciting events. They are not the most contentious events, typically. Usually only a few people show up, but things have been different.

KAMENETZ: That's right. And it's the worst that people have seen in recent memory. So I've talked to school board members at this point in five states. I talked to Sara Clark Pierson. She's the president of the Grand Ledge School Board. That's a medium-sized district near Lansing, Mich. And she's been in public service for 30 years, OK. And she said she's never seen this kind of anger and aggression. And she describes this really upsetting scene where someone in a public meeting got up and accused her of a crime with no evidence, and they even brought up the end of her marriage.

SARA CLARK PIERSON: No one in the community likes you. You're an embarrassment. In fact, even your family doesn't like you, and that's why they left you. And then the people in the audience stood up and started shouting, embezzler.

MONTANARO: Good grief.

KEITH: Wow.

KAMENETZ: Yeah.

MONTANARO: That's pretty personal stuff.

KEITH: Yeah. I think that this is different in a way from presidential politics because this is your local community. These are people you know or who you sit on the sidelines with at soccer or whatever it is. It's coming from inside the house, if you will. It's inside the family. Similarly, I was in Ohio doing some reporting and spoke to board members of the Centerville City Schools. Megan Murray Sparks says that, before a recent board meeting - and they knew that it was going to be contentious and it was going to be about the mask mandate that they have at the schools - that she was afraid.

MEGAN MURRAY SPARKS: We had a police officer at every entrance to the South Commons. We had security. They had a safe room that they were going to put us in, that they had planned out if anything was to happen. I was so scared before the meeting, I was physically ill in the bathroom, texting my priest, like, I am so scared. I don't know what to do. And, you know, he's trying to tell me, everything is going to be fine. You're going to be OK.

KEITH: So, Anya, we have now heard two people describing really contentious moments at school board meetings. What is happening?

KAMENETZ: So this is a national issue. The attorney general, we've heard, is making some, you know, moves to investigate and try to coordinate a federal law enforcement response because this is happening all over the place. And, you know, I really do think that it's coming from two directions at once. You know, there is authentic grievance at the local parent level. Just from, you know, 18 months of pandemic schooling, you know, parents are fed up. They were fed up about schools being closed and about - now they're upset about mask mandates in different places. So that is authentic.

At the same time, there is a very large infrastructure of groups that you can easily find online that will provide, you know, scripts, toolkits, activists, you know, supports, connections to legal help, template letters, model legislation. There's even a PAC - called 1776 PAC - that will fund you if you want to run for school board and overturn your local school board in - against sort of anti-racist education. So there's a lot of stuff behind this, and I think, you know, it really is not just isolated things here and there.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I think that one of the mistakes, though, that we made - a lot of people in the media - back when the Tea Party uprisings were happening in, you know, 2009, 2010, all of that, was people trying to say that they were astroturfed, you know, that they were funded by some, you know, broader organization that was then turning people out. You know, while there was some of that, and there is some of that now where you're seeing some of these groups clearly funded, what I think you're seeing more and what was happening then was you have this kind of cultural grievance movement that people latch onto whatever the culture moment is, you know, whether it's this or whether it was, you know, any number of things. Back then it was health care.

And then they kind of organize with, you know, new and also kind of traditional tools, you know, using Facebook, for example, to meet up and figure out where to be. And you do have people within each of these school districts and areas and states who know what the talking points should be, who then help filter those talking points down to some of the people who are going to these school board meetings so that they're all on the same page. So there's some organization to it, but it's certainly coming from a place of a groundswell movement among a vocal minority of people.

KEITH: Well, and I will say that in Centerville, where I've been doing my reporting, some of the people, some of the moms who stood up and spoke at a board meeting back in April are now running to replace the board members who they say didn't listen to them. Heather Schultz is one of those candidates. And she basically gave the board members a warning back in April, and now she's following through on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HEATHER SCHULTZ: If you continue to ignore the families speaking out against this and other related topics, the people who elected you will replace you with people who support our ideals and goals because we are no longer asleep at the wheel.

KAMENETZ: Yeah. You know, I saw that there is a record number of school board recalls that happened actually this year according to Ballotpedia. So this is something that is also happening that, you know, the next step from coming to a meeting, making a public comment, is actually getting involved in politics yourself.

KEITH: Right.

MONTANARO: Yeah. And let's see if there's a majority for that. You know, I mean, this is what happens in this country when it comes to democratic processes, you know, is that people can run. People can run for president. They can run for their local school board. They can run for governor or senator or whatever. They need a majority to win. You know, and I think that what's changed now from what it used to be is that I think we're seeing with former President Trump that if he loses or someone who believes the same way that he does, they don't necessarily accept the outcome.

KAMENETZ: Well, just as a counterpoint, I mean, in a super-low turnout, traditionally off-year public election like a school board election, you don't necessarily need a majority of all the parents. You just need a majority of the voters. And when there's national money coming in, you know, to buy ads, I've seen, you know, to set up websites against certain candidates, you know, people can get in who maybe don't represent the majority of the voters in that area.

MONTANARO: That's always the case in our politics, right? It's a majority of the voters.

KEITH: Right. And school board elections are typically low turnout. But I think a question that I have is this focus on school boards, is it changing politics? Is it going to have an effect beyond just the school boards?

MONTANARO: Well, it may not be that the school boards are changing things nationally. It may be that the national politics have changed the school boards. And I think that what we've said before in this podcast that it seems that all politics is national now. And I think we're seeing that over and over again in lots of places.

KEITH: Right. It used to be all politics are local, and maybe now it's the other way around. All right, more after a quick break.

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KEITH: And we're back. And I have to say that all of this focus on school boards sort of reminds me of something that we saw last year and into this year, which is poll workers, people who put on elections also experiencing intense focus and sometimes threats. And you know, these are sort of two examples of democracy in action that in the past wouldn't have gotten so much focus.

KAMENETZ: You know, Tamara, I was thinking about what you were saying about, you know, how is this going to change politics? And just in my conversations with these folks around the country, I was honestly - I'm so inspired by them. They are humdrum public servants. They are typically parents who really just wanted to serve their community. They're mostly nonpartisan. They're mostly volunteers. And now their lives are being made a living hell.

KEITH: Yeah.

KAMENETZ: You know, that's not what people sign up for when they get involved in their school board. And so I just have to wonder what happens to our politics - what happens not just to our politics, but the fabric of civic life. If you can't, you know, stick your head up and say or put up your hand and say I want to serve my community without being attacked.

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, that's true. I mean, poll workers, school board officials, this - they're kind of easy targets, right? I mean, there's a lot of access to them. On the other side, if you have a degree of organized frustration, then they're taking it out on the people who it's easiest to do to. And, you know, trying to kind of force them out in places. And you know, anything beyond poll workers, you know, election officials, people who are presumed to be nonpartisan election officials who just want to do their jobs to count votes, which is a pretty routine thing to do. And they've been targeted by the people at the highest levels of power. And, you know, how those institutions stand up against this kind of threat, attack, bullying, whatever you want to call it, I think is going to be determinative of what kinds of policies and politics and civic life that we see in the next, you know, five to 10 years.

KEITH: Just to step back, though, schools have not been without controversy. You know, this is an instance in recent memory that that seems more extreme than people remember. But there have been intense fights over what is taught in school, over who can go to school. Schools are a flashpoint in American life.

KAMENETZ: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, of course, in memory, people can think about the desegregation battles that stretched into the '70s in a lot of places. But you know, I've been reading into history a little bit more recently about when we first started to have compulsory universal public schools in the first place. In the mid-1800s, there were these fights over, what version of the Bible are we going to use? You know, are we going to use Protestant Bible or Catholic Bible? And there were riots in the streets, anti - you know, nativist riots, anti-immigrant riots over things like the curricula in public schools

KEITH: Getting to the electoral consequences, there are elections happening this November, both the Virginia governor's race, where education has become a main focus, as well as the school board elections all over the country. I was talking to a Republican pollster who spends a lot of time talking to suburban women, and she was not convinced that this is going to be a tactic that wins over suburban women who may strayed from the Republican Party because of President Trump. I think there's a theory out there that this could be the way, you know, through the schools could be a way to get people back to the Republican Party who may have left.

She thinks there could be a backlash, that there are independent voters in the suburbs who don't want chaos and don't want this national political fight coming to their school board. I don't know ultimately how that's going to play out, but it certainly seems like it is a powerful tool for Republicans to turn out their base voters, at the very least.

MONTANARO: Yeah. I think that clearly there are two things happening, especially if you look at, like, at the test case in the Virginia governor's race, where you have a Republican who's running statewide trying to kind of keep his distance from Trump, but at the same time, welcoming his endorsement. But, you know, trying to paint himself as kind of this suburban dad and businessman who's not all that scary to the suburban crowd, right? But then below that, you have a lot of candidates in, you know, lower turnout places and in smaller elections, delegate races, for example, who are very much in the mold of President Trump pushing the election lies, pushing, you know, these kind of right-wing cultural issues. And what you're seeing is both of these things on two trackway kind of play out while you have the people at the top in statewide races, in some respects, helping to fund some of those local races.

So I think we're seeing a test case right now. And what Republicans in Washington are looking at is which one of those kind of ways out - can they get a win with somebody who can make an appeal to suburban voters while still having the kind of cultural Trumpism also play itself out? So try to marry both pieces of that. I think it's a really delicate dance that they're trying to walk here.

KEITH: Well, I guess we'll know sometime in early November. All right. We are going to leave it there for now.

Anya, thank you so much for coming on the pod.

KAMENETZ: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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