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Kathy Gebhardt poses for a portrait on Sept. 28, 2021, in Boulder. Three out of seven Boulder Valley School District Board of Education directors have seen recall petitions filed against them for implementing safety measures against COVID-19 and mandating masks. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Kathy Gebhardt has been called a Nazi and a child abuser because of her unwavering support for requiring masks in schools.

Now she and two of her colleagues on the Boulder Valley School District board are facing a new reprisal by parents outraged over mask mandates — a recall petition seeking their removal, an undertaking that would likely cost the school district more than $650,000.

It’s the latest turn in a school year that’s been defined by disagreements between school boards and the communities they represent across Colorado and the country. Fueled by schools’ COVID rules aimed at keeping students and staff safe, the disputes are playing out in shouting matches at school board meetings, social media threads condemning board decisions and attempts at recall elections to oust board members like Gebhardt. All the friction has brought school boards under attack at a time board members — who are unpaid — say they’re trying to protect kids and teachers by following the advice of public health and medical experts.

And all the name-calling, accusations of child abuse and public disputes threaten to undermine public education, school board members say.

“It’s so much a fabric of our society and to see it being torn apart by partisan fights is something that we just can’t allow to happen,” Gebhardt said.

BVSD isn’t the only Colorado board that has been the target of recall attempts this year  — there have been 13 filed for school board members, mayors, city council members and other officials. At least four of those were driven in part by anger over the pandemic response, and, according to Ballotpedia, some have already failed. 

In Weld RE-4 School District, two school board members are the subjects of recall campaigns launched by constituents who say, in part, their objections to mask requirements are being ignored.

Cheri Wrench, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said school board members have found themselves caught in the middle as they try to listen to community members, parents and public health officials.

School boards have long faced an undercurrent of tension from the public, but the pandemic has driven a new wedge between school board members and some of the people they represent, resulting in a “lack of civility,” she said.

“Remember that our children are watching and learning from the adult behaviors that they’re seeing, so let’s try and teach them how to interact with civility and how to model appropriate discourse,” Wrench said. 

School board meetings have turned volatile across the country, said Chip Slaven, interim executive director and chief executive officer of the National School Boards Association.

He sees the fierce debates around things like mask mandates sprouting from what was already a heated environment leading into the pandemic from the last presidential election.

“Temperatures were already running hot at that point,” Slaven said.

NSBA doesn’t track the number of recall elections directed at school board members across the country, but Slaven said he’s observed an uptick during the pandemic, citing Ballotpedia’s accounting of recall elections.

In most communities, the majority of constituents support their school board members or at least respect their decision-making, Slaven said. But groups of dissenters are often the ones who make the most racket and draw the most attention because of their volume. He worries the disruption caused by hot-button issues around COVID protocols is sidelining other pressing needs — from solving teacher shortages to helping students who lack internet connectivity at home.

“It’s frankly time for people to take a step back now,” Slaven said. “It’s gone on too long. It’s interfering in some places with the operations of the schools. It’s not helping the students at all.” 

“In the crosshairs”

One of the major challenges Gebhardt, now in her sixth year on the board, has faced during the pandemic has been figuring out how to make sure everyone feels heard.

She said she’s struggled “trying to figure out a way to listen to those dissenting voices and to try to figure out how we navigate a path where we are meeting the needs of all of our students.”

Critics sometimes insist that school board members who disagree with their perspective aren’t listening to them, Gebhardt, 64, said.

Kathy Gebhardt poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Boulder. Three out of seven Boulder Valley School District Board of Education directors have seen recall petitions filed against them for implementing safety measures against COVID-19 and mandating masks. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“I hear the dissenting voices,” she added. “I just feel that I need to follow public health and what public health is telling me is in the best interest of my community and that doesn’t mean I’m not listening and I’m not paying attention to what other people are saying.”

Kirsten Leslie is one parent who said she felt unheard. Leslie, who lives in Boulder and has one child enrolled in BVSD, is part of a committee of parents pushing to recall Gebhardt and her board colleagues Lisa Sweeney-Miran and Richard Garcia.

“We don’t feel heard and we don’t feel respected,” said Leslie, who signed a petition to recall Garcia.

The parents who filed the recall petitions criticize the three board members for ignoring opinions they don’t agree with and say they “demonstrated a callous disregard for students’ physical and mental health by mandating masks indefinitely and without solid grounding in science for all students as young as age 2.” 

The parents also say board members have “aggressively” encouraged students to get vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has consistently touted masks as a necessity in keeping people protected against COVID and even encourages individuals who are fully vaccinated to continue wearing masks indoors when in areas with high transmission.

An analysis from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment shows that school district mask mandates are associated with lower rates of coronavirus infections. Higher vaccination rates are also associated with lower infection rates.

Leslie said a mask mandate could harm her 14-year-old son, who was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12 and is now in remission. He struggles to tolerate wearing a mask all day, and his family worried that he would be bullied by teachers and peers and that as a student requiring a medical exemption, he would stand out. She said the board was dismissive of the other side and that it should allow parents to decide whether their children wear masks.

“In the end, who knows the needs of their child better than the parent?” Leslie said. 

BVSD school board member Sweeney-Miran, also a target of the recall effort, shares Gebhardt’s difficulties in reassuring some parents and community members that the board hears them.

“Their opinions have been heard,” Sweeney-Miran said. “We simply don’t agree.”

Lisa Sweeney-Miran and Joe, 8, pose for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Boulder. Three out of seven Boulder Valley School District Board of Education directors have seen recall petitions filed against them for implementing safety measures against COVID-19 and mandating masks. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Now in her second year on the board, Sweeney-Miran said she wants to make clear she and her colleagues work dozens of hours each week for free because they’re passionate about education, not because they’re public health experts.

“Being put in the crosshairs of this argument and this conversation has been difficult,” she said.

Sweeney-Miran, 41, said the board has a legal and moral obligation to follow public health guidance, regardless of the opposition. But she also understands the heightened emotions after 18 long months of the pandemic.

“The fact that feelings are intensified and that tempers are running higher than usual, I think it’s very understandable,” she said.

She added that school board meetings are one of the most accessible ways for the public to engage in politics and become a place where “these tensions can come to a head.” 

None of the three targeted for recall intends to step down before their term is up.

“I think if anything it’s made it more worthwhile,” Sweeney-Miran said. “I think we’ve seen how important public schools are to the infrastructure of our community.”

Garcia, 77, who is wrapping up his sixth year on the board, has long been involved in BVSD’s education programs, saying he helped establish a bilingual education program in the district in the 1970s while a community activist and student at the University of Colorado in Boulder He later became the director of bilingual education for BVSD. He also watched two of his children graduate from the district.

Garcia said he was surprised then angered after learning of the recall efforts, noting the district has a long list of critical expenses to cover, including pay for substitutes and bus drivers.

But he’s committed to serving the rest of his term — a little more than two years — so that he can help the district support its most vulnerable students.

“We’re finally getting somewhere after decades of nothing,” he said.

Garcia is grateful that most of the emails he’s received during the pandemic have come from people supporting the board’s decisions.

Richard Garcia poses for a portrait on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Boulder. Three out of seven Boulder Valley School District Board of Education directors have seen recall petitions filed against them for implementing safety measures against COVID-19 and mandating masks. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“That’s encouraging because we know that we’re on the right track and we’re doing the right thing for our kids,” he said.

Gebhardt, who graduated from BVSD and whose five children have attended district schools, said she is saddened by how partisan and divided education debates have become, but stands by her position on masks.

“To try to recall somebody over a difference of opinion seems like a costly effort that our community I hope will not stand for,” said Gebhardt, who is term limited in 2023. She said money could be better spent addressing staff shortages and making sure kids have what they need to make up for all the disruptions to their schooling last year.

She hangs onto hope that tempers will simmer.

“What are we teaching our students and our fellow community members when we believe it’s OK to lack such civility when we talk to each other and how is that actually helping us solve a problem?” Gebhardt asked. “By yelling and screaming and name calling and accusing us of child abuse, how is that solving any problems?” 

Erica Breunlin is an education writer for The Colorado Sun, where she has reported since 2019. Much of her work has traced the wide-ranging impacts of the pandemic on student learning and highlighted teachers' struggles with overwhelming workloads...