‘The Hate Is Just Too Much’: Threatened by Neighbors and Trolled on Social Media, Minnesota School Board Members Are Quitting in Record Numbers
By Beth Hawkins | May 4, 2022
Bob Nystrom comes from a long line of small-town, central Minnesota public servants. His great-uncle was elected sheriff of Stearns County three times. His wife was a three-term member of the Crow Wing County Commission. His daughter sat on the city council in tiny Baxter.
Nystrom chose to run for the board of Brainerd Public Schools, which serves a small city surrounded by lakeside resort towns. A pharmacist by trade, he wanted to help lead the district because he believed the area’s top-flight schools were one reason so many visitors chose to stay.
But last fall, Nystrom cut his fifth term short, joining an unprecedented number of Minnesota school board members — many of them living in rural areas — who have resigned prematurely since the start of 2021 in the face of harassment and threats from constituents they were elected to serve.
According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, during the 2020-21 school year and in the first two months of the current one, more than 86 of the state’s 2,200 elected district board members left their posts. So far in 2022, at least 26 have stepped down — six in the last month alone, with the two most recent resignations taking place Monday. In a typical year, 12 to 15 leave their seats before their terms are up.
While some resigned for a job or to run for another office, the number who have simply quit in frustration has mushroomed. Districts have seen multiple resignations — sometimes on the same day. Some of those who quit say they were under public pressure to disobey state and federal policies. Some left because their positions became untenable when their board allies resigned.
Especially in smaller towns, the tensions have spilled over into some board members’ private lives. One was forced to sell her home and move when her 8-year-old was outed as transgender.
“These are supposedly your friends who are yelling at you,” said one former member who did not want her name or community identified because her child is still in school there. “These are people you go to church with.”
The beginning of the end for Nystrom came when critical race theory was added to the list of school-related controversies that had simmered since the start of the pandemic. The night of June 14, he looked out at a small but angry group assembled for the meeting and saw lifelong friends and neighbors.
One speaker was a high school classmate whose family Nystrom knew well. Critical race theory — a graduate school-level framework that education leaders nationwide insist is not taught in K-12 schools — was “demonic,” the man said, going on to reference an Old Testament directive on punishing an enemy who won’t listen.
“I will be back,” the man warned. “I am here to dump hot coals on all your heads.”
It was the last straw for Nystrom. For months, he says, just walking down the hall to get to the boardroom had meant enduring jeers from people waiting to get in. “They would say, ‘Oh, here comes the CRT supporter,’ “ he recalls. “Or, ‘Here’s the guy that requires masks on our kids.’ “
There had been anonymous threats against the entire board, too — people on social media saying they planned to break into members’ homes or beat them. As board chair, Nystrom had asked the district superintendent to make sure police were stationed nearby during meetings. By the end of the summer, tempers had flared to the point where the officer on duty had to stand in the boardroom itself.
“In a small town like this, that’s just never happened,” Nystrom says. “This is scary, that you have to have a police officer in the meeting to protect you.”
‘I don’t need to be the punching bag for everything going on in the world’
Kirk Schneidawind is executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association. He says violent or chaotic school board meetings are still the exception, not the rule. But the wave of resignations is concerning.
During the first year of the pandemic, Gov. Tim Walz used emergency powers to make decisions about things like school closures. But in the second year, individual boards were left to decide how to respond to hot-button topics like mask and vaccine mandates — and to deal with a backlash no matter what they did.
“People just said, ‘There are multiple reasons why this isn’t what I signed up for,’ ” Schneidawind says. “ ‘I don’t need to be the punching bag for everything that’s going on in the world.’ ”
During one week in January, three of six members resigned from the board of the 414-student Clearbrook-Gonvick School District, which serves two towns in northwestern Minnesota. Board members had deadlocked on whether to comply with what at the time was a White House order mandating staff vaccines.
In a small district southeast of St. Paul, members of a now-inactive Facebook group called Concerned Parents of Hastings outed board chair Kelsey Waits‘s 8-year-old as transgender and accused Waits of child abuse. The family was forced to move.
In August, in the wake of intense fights over whether masks would be required in the fall in its four schools, Byron Public Schools lost two board members. One cited his mental health in his letter of resignation. Another said people who had harassed her at board meetings had targeted her real estate brokerage and that she feared her kids were next. A third quit in January.
In Robbinsdale, a board member broke down as she told colleagues she was resigning. “The hate is too much,” said Pam Lindberg. “Continued permission the community members give themselves to say whatever they want and however they want is oppressive, it’s demeaning and damaging.”
After striking teachers picketed his home and posted flyers bearing his face on lampposts, Minneapolis board member Josh Pauly quit. Next door, in the suburb of St. Louis Park, one board member resigned in January and another in February.
In his now-ended “River Ramblings” column in the local Advocate Tribune, Granite Falls Mayor Dave Smiglewski wrote in January that he was hearing about rural and suburban mayors worried they could not recruit replacements for school board and city council members who quit because of a “downturn in civility.”
‘A backwater of American politics has become a fast-moving stream’
Rice University Professor Melissa Marschall has studied both education politics and local elections, including mayoral contests in Minnesota and five other states. People traditionally see holding an elected office with long hours and no pay as a civic duty they take turns fulfilling, she says, sometimes with the added benefit of increased visibility or respect for one’s name or business.
In the past, decisions made at the municipal level have been less ideological and more about distribution of resources, like whose streets get new sidewalks. For school board members, that meant trying to persuade their neighbors to vote in favor of a referendum or to prioritize one construction project over another.
It’s much easier to agree to disagree on these types of issues than on the things that have divided people during the last couple of years, Marschall explains. A tax debate, for instance, “You can talk your way through,” she says. “It’s about your community, and it’s a collective good. Whether you have kids in school or not, the quality of your schools [influences] your home values.”
But the current acrimony is different. “It’s personal, it’s people deciding you’re a bad person because you differ in your beliefs or your opinions or your preferences about some public policy,” she says. “Where it’s completely detached from facts, how do you try to convince someone that isn’t even willing to look at evidence or rational arguments?”
Indeed, Nystrom is worried that the next election might be won by people who have shouted conspiracy theories at board meetings — or are just interested in a narrow set of issues. Even if that doesn’t happen, he says, districts may suffer from the loss of institutional memory. School boards make decisions involving huge amounts of money and potentially impacting every household in the community. As members serve, he says, they develop expertise to make these technical decisions.
At the same time, elections could serve as a backlash against protests. In early April, voters in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, re-elected three school board members who had been targeted as “woke bureaucrats” by Fox News. The losing candidates had protested district policies regarding LGBTQ students.
And there is the possibility that heightened interest in school boards can be a positive disruption, drawing candidates with fresh perspectives. “Local school boards in America have been kind of a closed shop for a very long time,” says Chester Finn, distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Now, “what has been a backwater of American politics has become a fast-moving stream.”
But Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University Teachers College, is concerned that groups at the national level are roiling local political waters. The incentives to serve in elected office in small communities, he says, are different than in cities — and are dwindling. There, school boards are not a springboard to higher office, and when constituents are so divided in basic values, the amount of effort needed to reach consensus and address challenges can be herculean.
“What would make someone stay in a job like that,” he asks, “when they’re getting so much grief and spending so much time and have marginal prospects of really doing good, which is often the motivation for people, especially in smaller communities?”
School boards can almost be viewed as political pawns. Inserting culture war issues into local elections can be “a way to motivate rural voters and get them more involved not just with school boards, which some of these national actors don’t care that much about, but in order to affect turnout in November congressional elections, in particular,” Henig says. “There’s a clear sentiment among some Republicans that this is the way to recapture some suburban communities that they lost under Trump.”
‘My phone literally blew up’
In October, Jodi Sapp, chair of the school board in Mankato, located about an hour south of the Twin Cities, asked a man who wanted to speak during a meeting’s public comment period to provide his address. The policy had been in place for all of her 21 years on the board.
Within days, a district video of her exchange with the man had gone viral, followed by stories on Fox News, in the Washington Examiner, the Daily Mail and the Daily Wire, among other conservative outlets. It was posted to the website “School Board Watch,” along with board members’ photos, contact information and an inaccurate description of the meeting.
Sapp received hundreds of calls and emails, virtually all of them from out of town or from bots. “My phone literally blew up,” she told The 74. “Just call after call. I couldn’t even call out to the superintendent.”
“Payback is a b****, right fascist Mankato MN school board dictator Jodi Sapp?” @marypatriott tweeted to her 55,000 followers. “You forced a parent to reveal their address so they could be doxxed & harassed. Hopefully people feel free to contact you now too.”
Some of the messages threatened violence, so Sapp notified the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Department. “A couple implicated my grandchildren or my animals,” she says. “Those were upsetting.”
Republican Roger Chamberlain, head of the state Senate Education and Finance Policy Committee, introduced a bill that would prohibit school boards from asking for commenters’ names or addresses. And a right-wing Minnesota site, Alpha News, continued paying attention to Mankato Area Public Schools.
In December, for example, the site reported that the school board had voted to pay non-white staff extra. In fact, in accordance with state law, board members had voted for stipends for teachers of color and Native American educators willing to mentor junior colleagues in an effort to increase the number who stay on the job.
Nonetheless, the Twitter handle @libsoftiktok — recently described by the Washington Post as “an agenda-setter in right-wing online discourse” — sent a clip of the vote to its more than 600,000 followers.
Sapp didn’t quit. “I hate bullies,” she says. Plus, she adds, the threats against her probably wouldn’t be carried out: “But if they are, so be it. This is the sword I am willing to fall on.”
In Brainerd, Nystrom worried about resigning. Two longtime incumbents are not running for re-election to the six-member board in the fall, and the district is facing some serious issues. Enrollment dropped over the course of the pandemic as families unhappy about Brainerd’s mask requirement or distance learning moved their children to smaller districts nearby or to private schools.
Fewer students means less state and federal funding, which will translate to layoffs or other cuts that will be especially painful as students and teachers struggle to recover from the effects of the pandemic. The district can ill afford new board members focused more on banning books or stamping out diversity and inclusion efforts than on ensuring schools continue to contribute to the community’s high quality of life, he says.
Nystrom assumed he would get a lot of flak for stepping down, but folks were understanding, he says: “People came up to me in the grocery store or at the gas station and said, ‘I want you to know I’m really proud you resigned because you decided you were going to take care of yourself.’ “
Lead illustration by Meghan Gallagher for The 74
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