These days, it’s not hard to find news stories about school board-related conflicts — even right here at home.
From recall elections in San Francisco to controversial book bans and confrontational board meetings between parents and administrators, it’s easy to wonder if school boards have become the next big battleground in American polarization.
The rise of misinformation and charged talking points on COVID-19 mask mandates, critical race theory and revised sexual health education have created an increasingly politicized environment in a sphere where important decisions are made to benefit the welfare of children in the public education system.
These issues have been localized, in Lynden and Ferndale school districts.
Last fall, longtime Lynden school board member Steve Jilk lost an election to newcomer Tonya Hickman. Jilk, despite serving over 11 years on the board, was ousted by more than 3,000 votes — a significant margin in a smaller Whatcom County community — in favor of Hickman, a first-time campaigner who partially homeschools her children through a parent partnership program in the district.
On the surface, anything besides the margin of victory isn’t necessarily of note. But in looking at the differences between the two candidates, a gap eventually emerges over how school boards should engage with parent feedback, and even more so, how much control parents should believe they have over the public education of their children.
‘A voice for parents,’ not kids
Jilk and Hickman seemed to find at least basic agreement on their roles as school board members: abide by the district’s mission statement of creating an educational environment in which every child has an opportunity to succeed.
Beyond that, Hickman differentiated her views during her 2021 campaign in several ways.
In a 2021 Q&A with the Lynden Tribune, Hickman stated a desire “to protect youth from the progressive agenda to overtly sexualize youth by the progressive ideology that is infiltrating the public education system.” No examples were given in the interview.
Hickman stressed being a champion for parents’ rights as a board member, saying she hoped to see more parent involvement in school board meetings and what they would like to see offered in their children’s education.
“My goal is to keep government out of the role of parenting our children,” she said. “I will deliberately promote direct parent involvement in issues facing our district.”
In an October 2021 “Make it Public” podcast episode, Hickman spoke even more strongly on that goal.
“I’m a voice for parents,” she said. “When I’ve talked to previous people that have served on school boards, a lot of times I hear, ‘It’s for the kids.’ But I’m like, that doesn’t make sense. Because the kids aren’t paying taxes, it’s the parents. What do the parents want to see?”
Hoping to learn more about Hickman’s transition to the school board and her opinions on these issues, Salish Current reached out to Hickman for an interview. She declined.
Jilk did grant Salish Current an interview, and said he doesn’t believe the Lynden school board itself has become more politicized in the last several years.
What has happened, he said, is that community discussion with the board has turned increasingly political over topics it either has little to no ability to change — like statewide pandemic mandates —or has already taken steps to address, such as with comprehensive sexual health education reform.
“It’s drawing the attention away from the school board to conduct its business,” Jilk said. “I do think that school boards — locally and across the country — really need to be able to focus on issues at hand.”
Some local parents, however, don’t appear to see things that way.
Danielle Groeneweg, a Lynden parent of three children, had never attended a school board meeting until August 2021. She was among around 200 parents at the beginning of the school year in a three-hour meeting about COVID-19 mandates.
Her biggest concern now, she said, is that the school board needs to pass a written resolution officially recognizing parents as primary stakeholders in their children’s upbringing. This would be something similar to North Dakota’s Resolution 3049, which declares parents “chief stakeholders of the future and education of their children.”
Groeneweg said she brought this matter up a recent board meeting and attempted to speak personally with the school board president Brian Johnson and district interim superintendent Mike Stromme, but said they either refused to address the matter or changed the subject.
Groeneweg is part of a coalition of parents and grandparents in the district seeking to encourage increased parental control and recognition over what their children are being taught.
When it came time to vote last year, Groeneweg herself ran in the school board primary but didn’t garner enough votes to reach the general election. Instead, she threw her support behind Hickman, as did most of the parents in their coalition.
Regarding Jilk, Groeneweg said that while the community appreciated his long service to the board, the last several years provided unprecedented challenges parents wanted to be heard on.
“He was not hearing us,” she said. “He did not seem to have respect for the parents’ wishes or wants or needs, and was not very communicative with any of us, even regarding his thoughts on things except for briefly during board meetings.”
Since he left, Groeneweg said the board seems to be more communicative with parents, responding more frequently and openly. But many concerns still remain.
Fact or fiction
The question, of course, is how many of those concerns and fears are based on accurate information.
With mask mandates soon to expire, this is especially relevant to changes to curricula based around both critical race theory and reformed sexual health education in Washington state.
Although Groeneweg said she understood the district was implementing changes carefully and considerately, she cited her understanding that reformed sex ed in our state will allow children as young as 13 to receive hormonal treatments from school nurses if they wish to change their gender, and to do so without parental consent or knowledge.
However, Stromme categorically refuted Groeneweg’s comment.
“The Lynden School District does not provide hormonal treatments to students,” he said; further, he added, “I am not aware of any Washington state law or proposed law that would allow a school district to provide such treatments.”
Unfounded assertions have also found their way into voters’ pamphlets.
The statement against the recent Ferndale School District levy claimed the school district was “brainwashing” children by teaching “all subjects through the lens of Critical Race Theory, hidden behind the innocuous-sounding ‘Social-Emotional Learning’ and ‘Diversity, Equity, Inclusion’ frameworks.”
The statement continued, calling the state’s comprehensive sexual health education curriculum “pornographic,” and claiming it “grooms and sexualizes children, teaches kindergartners about the clitoris, and suggests 7th graders build intimacy through mutual masturbation.”
The statement was authored by a committee composed of Andrew Gustafson, Dam Pham, Peggy Selby, Ben Davenport and Matthew L. Aamot.
In the rebuttal to the argument against the levy, supporters Jay Julius, Jake Locker and Larry Brown underscored the community values they see evidenced in their public schools, writing, “Ferndale Pride: a character built over time and passed through the generations. A commitment to generosity, community and taking care of our neighbors. No one better exemplifies this character than our schools. Every day they reinforce our community values and character.”
What is being taught?
In Lynden, Julie van Wijk, the school district’s director of teaching and learning, said she and Stromme have received a few parent inquiries regarding what is covered in the state’s implementation of comprehensive sexual health education reform under Senate Bill 5395, which went into effect in December 2020.
They generally try to address concerns by sharing a Frequently Asked Question handout from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. The previous occupant of van Wijk’s office also created a document to help parents understand what is taught and what isn’t.
“I think it’s important that we honor the concerns of families that we serve,” she said. “Parents with whom I have spoken have shared they feel relieved when they learn what we are teaching in Lynden.”
This includes the knowledge that the new bill’s K through 3 instruction on “social-emotional learning,” which already existed in some form before the new legislation, contains no sexual content, van Wijk said.
Specific changes for grades 4 through 8 include content covering bystander training (such as standing up for someone being bullied) and basic consent in some interactions (like asking for a hug instead of just giving one). No other changes to existing curriculum, van Wijk said, are occurring in the district.
Groeneweg also voiced concern over teachers unions possibly empowering teachers to feel entitled to teach whatever they want, and said she and others were upset with district teachers who’d displayed gay pride flags in their classrooms, or taught what she called “privilege chains” to children.
“CRT isn’t just [that] a curriculum’s proposed, and they vote on it and implement it,” she said. “It is teacher-taught, too. And it’s more, how are they going to oversee that and correct that as necessary? We’ve brought things to their attention. They seemed to have addressed them. But they tell us that they’re not allowed to share how those staff or teachers were disciplined.”
Other Lynden residents, like former Village Books owner Chuck Robinson, expressed doubt about the amount of knowledge Hickman and others who rally against CRT and sex ed reform actually have regarding those subjects.
“I doubt she, or most of those who voted for her, can clearly define what CRT is,” Robinson said. “It seems there’s a large movement in the country to ‘protect’ children from being ‘uncomfortable.’ The idea of CRT, or more accurately teaching real history, is not to make anyone feel guilty but to understand that minorities have been denied many of the privileges that the rest of us have enjoyed.”
Robinson pointed out that his third great-grandfather was a slave owner. It’s a fact he can’t change, but also one he said he doesn’t need to feel guilty about. But that information, he said, helps inform him about what African Americans in the U.S. have faced, and how slowly things have changed for them.
“The only way we are going to achieve a more equitable society is to understand where we’ve come from and acknowledge those errors,” he said.
Controlling the future
Prior to the pandemic, Jilk said that most comments made to the board by parents revolved around a specific issue related to their children. This included those with disability-related challenges like dyslexia, or matters of class scheduling, athletics and state-based standardized testing.
But with COVID-19 and sensitive topics like CRT and sexual health education coming up shortly after, previously limited direct community input at board meetings became less limited.
“Public attendance and comments — 99% of the increase was based upon those issues surrounding the pandemic — the masking and vaccination, the issue of choice, and then the sex education and critical race theory,” he said.
Jilk theorizes that the increase in school board meeting attendance and contention in recent months is partially the result of parents thinking they could sway board opinion on issues simply by showing up and being heard, regardless of how little the board could actually accommodate their views into actionable decisions.
While most meetings he attended were calm, several did skirt the edges of civility, Jilk said. Those particular meetings, all of which were about masking and vaccination concerns, were ones in which the board was aware of the potential for trouble, but never had to actually contend with.
Some school boards, of course, did make decisions not to follow state masking mandates. They did so at their own peril, Jilk said, and it remains to be seen whether those districts will see funding restrictions or other penalties based on their choices.
Parents like Groeneweg don’t see things that way.
“The school board, unfortunately, is always going to try and say that they have to do what the government told them to do,” she said. “You’ve got to answer to the parents and the taxpayers, not big government.”
Two more school board positions may open up this year, Groeneweg said, and there is already a line of parents interested in running for them if they become vacant.
Jilk, meanwhile, doesn’t take it personally that he was voted off the school board, saying it is just part of the process.
“This is not about me losing as much as it is this is something that the community decided at this point in time that they wanted to change,” he said.
What he does care about, however, is the board’s ability to focus on properly providing the vast array of educational opportunities the district should for each and every student. The school board needs to listen, and the public needs to communicate, he said, but the ultimate objective should always be a focus on the children in the classrooms.
“Let’s not lose focus on what the main thing is,” he said. “You have listen to everybody, but you sort of have to focus on what you have to decide on as a school board member. Make sure the noise in the community is a broad representation of the entire school district, and not just a few that have decided to voice their concerns.”
— Reported by Matt Benoit
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