COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - Walkouts, controversial resignations, and emotional pleas have been happening at school board meetings across South Carolina in recent months. And while school boards have been known to get tense before the COVID-19 pandemic, board members say this time is different.
“I think what typically happens is you have hot spots in the state where certain issues pop up and then it ebbs,” said SC School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Price. “The difference here with the pandemic, and again the issues surrounding the pandemic, is it hasn’t ebbed yet. And it’s not just with hot spots around the state, it is an issue across the state.”
Price believes the tension at these meetings is so high right now because national debates, in particular about COVID-19 mitigation, have become localized. He also thinks the pandemic forcing so many school boards to go virtual and live stream their meetings has put more eyes on the work they do.
“Mask or no mask, quarantine or no quarantine, vaccine or no vaccine...have all contributed to more vocal community input at local school board meetings,” Price said.
Richland School District Two Vice-Chair James Manning has seen this tension at his board’s meetings and among his board members. In September, three members of the board walked out in the middle of the meeting because of their objection to taking a vote on the superintendent’s contract without more time to review it.
“I have seen the ebb and flow and I’ve seen the tensions on our board, but I’ve never seen it to this degree or this consistent,” Manning said. “We really need to stay focused on the business. It should not be a political battleground.”
In fact, the chair of the Richland Two board is worried these tensions could escalate.
“We have had conversations about ramping up security,” Richland Two Chair Teresa Holmes said.
Holmes said that because school boards are easily accessible, offer opportunities for public comment, and have less security than other meetings of elected officials, they are opportune places for people to promote a political view.
“People can come in there and do all sort of things that they couldn’t do at other meetings. So it’s an easy stomping ground to try and push their agendas,” she said.
Holmes and Manning said sometimes people forget that school boards like Richland Two manage a nine-figure budget and help oversee one of the largest organizations in the midlands.
“Masks and other small items, and I don’t want to say masks are a small item….in the scope of the bigger issues of the district, that is a small item that we deal with,” Manning said.
To Irmo Middle School teacher Will Green, the school board meeting was not a place to present a political ideology but to express concerns about his and colleagues’ safety and well-being.
“We do not have enough adult bodies at our school. Our cafeteria team is not fully staffed, our custodial team is not fully staffed, we have had two teachers resign this year both in the past two weeks. Today, we had 13 teacher absences including those two teachers who resigned. And yet four substitute teachers, four, were at our school today. So how are we covering these other 9 classes? We ask teachers and staff members to spend their planning periods covering someone else’s classes,” Green told the Lexington Richland School District Five board on Monday.
Green ended his limited time in front of the board with a plea.
“It is sad, it is dangerous, it is unsustainable, please help us,” he said.
Price noted that school boards are not required to leave aside time for public comment, but every district in the state makes sure to do it.
“The pandemic over the last two years has driven healthy and productive dialogue surrounding our local public schools, but there have been instances where tensions are high and where civil discourse has broken down...every board in South Carolina reserves time on their agendas for public comment even when they anticipate getting emotional or even angry comments from constituents, parents and even students.,” Price said.
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