The school district in my county has been a ripe source of conflict as of late. The district is predominantly failing, with the exception of one or two upper class predominately white schools. The zoning areas are obviously gerrymandered, placing 98% of the African American, Hispanic, and latinx students into only three of the twelve high schools (and of course their handful of feeder schools). This has occurred despite the recent data concerning our neighborhoods showing that the entire county is fairly well integrated with 40% white, 40% African American, and 20% “other” in the average neighborhood. Socio-economic differences are additionally wrapped into the segregation, with the three high schools listed above bearing the most poverty stricken families in the county. Recently, these schools have been placed in a different and distinct district called the “Opportunity Zone,” without proper legislation or state interference to back up the decision. For the most part, the cries of the parents of the two wealthiest schools created this rift. The school board gave to their pressure against the outcry of the community, citing that the two zones would be “separate but equal,” creating reminiscent and warm feelings of the times of Jim Crow and Brown v Board.
Since this action, these “Opportunity Zone” schools have been passed up for much needed renovations and building improvements. While the wealthier schools receive new football fields, the Cross Country coaches at the Opportunity Zone are paying out of pocket to get their courses mowed, the buildings have no hot water, and they are riddled with electrical and pests violations. A budget was proposed that would expand and assist these schools. Although there was overwhelming community support, the budget only barely passed the school board and then failed at the County Commission office. The reasons for the failure was simple: they did not see the benefit of padding the pockets for teachers and admins who were already creating such a failing school zone.
In general, this is a tale of an elected School Board coupled with a County Commission who care very little for the voices of the general community. Almost every decision they have made in regards to the Opportunity Zone schools have been in stark defiance to the overall community outcry. Instead, they have been following the leanings of a handful of wealthy citizens whose only aim is to not sully the reputation of the upper class white children in the district. Although not as extreme as many parts of the world, it is a local government pandering to the voices of a few who have money and influence at the incredible detriment of many thousands of the county’s children.
In response to the actions of these officials, local organizations have been collecting petitions, community members are writing opinion pieces for the paper, more people are showing up to school board meetings, and the phone calls and emails pouring into the offices have been staggering. The School Board is now faced with a backlash that they never intended and could not prepare for, and their decision was to begin hosting listening meetings around the district.
I attended one of these listening sessions. The School Board was accompanied by the Superintendent. The event began with a scent of bureaucratic pleasantries. “We have become aware that you feel unheard, and we would like to guide us through a discussion of where we might have miscommunicated our mission and goals.” The idea being perpetrated here that it was not the Board that wasn’t hearing the community, but rather the community who did not grasp the concepts of the Board’s actions. This continued with a few questions about resources, where the complaints were dismissed with flippant disregard: “We see everything that is happening in the county, and we send money where it is most needed.” Similar questions were also regarded in style.
However, after the first twenty minutes of the meeting community members and teachers were becoming visibly agitated. In a microcosm of a listening meeting, we began to see accountability of government play out. The board was called out for pandering to wealthy members. The Commission was openly blamed for being in bed with the board and not supporting the budget increase. The few board members who had fought valiantly for our children were praised and acknowledged.
The community also took time to systematically call out the inconsistencies in the answers of the board members. In response to the excuse about sending money where it is most needed, one teacher spoke up. “How can you sit there and tell me that Central needed their track updated (it had been recently built only 2 years before), while I put in an order for books for AP Psychology six months ago and I haven’t received any. How can you call me out on not following standards when you won’t as much as get me the teacher’s manual so I can at least make copies…from my own money?”
The Board was increasingly at a loss for words to retort. After years of functioning with little -or at least very buffered- backlash, they finally had a face to face with the community members they had so deeply disappointed. As the truth came rushing at them in quick arrows, they rarely had a moment to utter a response. Eventually, an aid begin writing down specific concerns out of sheer appeasement. It ended with one of the most beautiful phrases in modern democracy: “We will not forget what we said here. We will not forgive you. Elections are coming.”
*Photo by “Day 316 Nov 2” by sj_sanders is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Edcel John Ibarra
This is a dramatic mini-ethnographic account of a school board listening session. It describes an elected school board seemingly abusing their institutional powers to trample on the rights of minority groups, and the local community asserting their power to vote the erring board members out.
I hope to add two points to the discussion.
First, democratic erosion can happen at the local level too. The literature on democratic erosion largely concentrates on the perversive attempts of the chief executive (the president or the prime minister) to diminish the quality of democratic institutions at the national scale. But local executives (in this case, the school board, the superintendent, and the county commission) can also pervert democracy at a smaller scale, often with lesser likelihood of detection and, thus, resistance. This—the local dimension of democratic erosion—appears to be understudied. Democracies, when viewed as a whole at the national level, could be robust, but in reality, subnational authoritarians could be lurking sans scrutiny beneath the surface.
Second, elections serve as one key check against leaders with authoritarian tendencies, but there are two caveats. One, electoral resistance strategies would only work when the electoral playing field is fair. I thus hope school district elections in the US are generally equitable. Two, elections are also the way through which would-be authoritarians gain access to power within democracies. In this sense, the local community stands against a tall order to convince as many as possible to ensure that the erring board members would be voted out and that more responsive representatives would be voted in as replacements.