The association of school boards took wrong sides in a political debate, according to it
The independent report published on Friday afternoon revealed that the group was not acting at the behest of the White House. But he was consulting and pressing the administration to act on what his executive director saw as a serious threat to local school board members from activists who showed up, angry and sometimes vocally confrontational, at meetings.
The letter caused a huge backlash among Republicans, conservative parent groups and members of the NSBA itself. In the aftermath of the controversy, nearly half of public school board associations left the group or said they planned to do so.
In response, the NSBA approved policies emphasizing its support for “local control” and its commitment to “parental engagement”, core tenets of conservative education policy today. The group stressed that it is non-partisan.
The National School Boards Association stumbles into politics and is wiped out
The NSBA letter, sent in September, came at a time when parents and other conservative activists were crowding school board meetings, often shouting and disrupting proceedings or sometimes acting violently or threatening to do so. They were unhappy with pandemic-related restrictions such as mandatory masks and the way schools taught and talked about race.
“As these acts of malice, violence and threats against public school officials have increased, classification of these heinous actions could amount to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the letter mentioned.
The Biden administration responded almost immediately. Attorney General Merrick Garland ran the FBI work with U.S. attorneys across the country to meet with federal, state, and local leaders to discuss threats.
The letter did not use the term “parents”, but since school board activists are usually parents, critics believed that conservative parents were branded as terrorists. The protests came from Republicans in Congress, the NSBA board and activist groups, who accused the NSBA of siding against conservatives in a highly politicized environment.
If the purpose of the school board association was to stifle conservative protests by parents, it had the exact opposite effect. It diverted attention from some chilling threats and decidedly aggressive behavior — in Loudoun County, Virginia, for example, a school board member endured months of abusive, profane, and threatening emails, Facebook messages and phone calls. — to a provocative defense of freedom of expression and local control.
A few weeks after the letter was sent, as complaints piled up, the NSBA apologized, saying “there was no justification for some of the language included.” On Friday, the group went further, outright denouncing the letter.
“The letter directly contradicts our fundamental commitments to parental engagement, local control and political impartiality,” said John Heim, who was appointed executive director after the controversy. “The sentiments shared in the letter do not represent the views or position of the NSBA. The NSBA does not seek or advocate federal law enforcement involvement in local school board meetings.
The NSBA has published the 57-page report and 551 pages of documents who support him. The NSBA hopes the report along with its new policies will persuade state associations to return to the group. As of Friday, eight states had left the group and 14 others said they planned to do so.
The investigation, led by law firm Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, placed responsibility for the letter almost entirely on former executive director Chip Slaven, who was fired as the controversy mounted. He shared the letter with the four leaders of the association before sending it, but not with the entire board, as some later said he should have done. (The report noted that there was no precedent or policy that required Slaven to share communications with the board before sending them.)
In a statement, Slaven said there was nothing wrong with his original letter.
“The attack on public schools is very real, as evidenced by the many false attacks on the NSBA letter,” Slaven said. “The organization owes no one an apology for speaking out against violence and threats. I am saddened to see that the current leadership of the NSBA seems afraid to stand up for members of local school boards and students who attend public schools.
The report found that Slaven toned down the letter compared to the rhetoric of an early version written in part by staff. For example, he removed a suggestion that the Army National Guard and its military police would be deployed in certain school districts.
The original letter was co-signed by Slaven and Viola M. Garcia, a school board member in Texas. Shortly after Garcia got the call from Biden, she was appointed to the National Assessment Administration Council. Some have suggested the White House wanted the NSBA letter to justify its own desire to crack down on conservatives at school board meetings and rewarded Garcia for sending it with the nomination. The report found no evidence of this.
Nicole Neily, president of the conservative group Parents Defending Education, helped mobilize opposition to the original letter. She said Friday that the report confirmed her earlier claims that the White House and NSBA were working together behind the scenes. Requests for his band’s open recordings provided evidence of behind-the-scenes communications and fueled controversy.
“Thanks to today’s report, we now know that these concerns were well-founded,” she said. “Trust between families and the educational institution has frayed over the past two years, and incidents like this are one of the many reasons for that.”