In a bizarre and potentially devastating Douglas County emergency school board meeting Friday night, the newly elected 4-3 conservative majority did exactly as expected.
The DougCo Four voted to fire Superintendent Corey Wise. They made the move over the loud objections of teachers, staff, many parents and, of course, the holdover three school board members. They voted him out, without any serious chance for public input, after accusing Wise of having colluded with teachers in their sick-out. Wise denies it.
New board president Mike Peterson explained the need to fire Wise immediately, saying Wise had lost his trust and that the superintendent was too close to holdover member, and former board president, David Ray. In turn, Ray accused the DougCo Four of ushering in “the Dark Ages” with their decision.
So, yes, the culture wars have quickly turned political. Or did the political wars turn cultural? In these hyperpartisan times, when school board elections are being hotly contested across the country, it basically amounts to the same thing.
The easiest takeaway from the volatile, tear-stained, accusation-filled meeting is that dysfunction and division will be the rule in the DougCo school system for years to come. That is, of course, unless a nascent recall movement against the recently elected majority turns into the real thing, at which point anything could happen.
In the meantime, the board will be looking for a new superintendent, who must, at once, be capable of dealing with angry teachers, a school board at war with itself and the likelihood, if we use history as a guide, of an all-too-brief tenure.
Wise was hired in April. And, as we know, DougCo changes superintendents about as often as you’re supposed to change your motor oil. It’s a whack-a-mole school board game, and over the past week or so, the whacking has gone deadly serious.
It’s as serious as the 1,500 teachers who participated in the sick-out last Thursday, one that forced the district to cancel classes. And it’s as serious as the thousand or so teachers, parents and other supporters marching in protest Thursday afternoon against the new board and its earlier, apparent violation of state open-meeting laws in handing Wise a private ultimatum to resign or be fired.
Before we get too far in the weeds here, let me go on record again as admitting I’m biased in favor of teachers, having married one. That said, I wouldn’t need to know a single teacher in order to take a wild guess that this board is more likely to get in the way of educating its students than in helping them.
Check out this truly bizarre moment when it came time for the board to vote, and one of the DougCo Four, Becky Myers, a former teacher who seemed unhappy with angry emails she was receiving from former colleagues, voted first to keep Wise. After Peterson asked to confirm her vote, she quickly changed it to firing Wise, saying, in tears, “Oh, can I go home?”
If only it were as simple as that.
As they promised during the campaign, the DougCo Four have moved quickly to make masks optional in schools, even though most students have not been vaccinated. And they went after the school system’s equity policy because, I guess, of the perceived danger of having too much equity.
It’s all about the bogus issue, pushed by Republicans, of Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is not taught in Douglas County schools or, as far as I’m aware, in any school district in the state. Most people, and you know this without taking a poll, have no idea what CRT even means. If you want to play catchup, here’s a link to an explanation for the previously obscure academic debate.
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But in other places, we’ve seen a movement to restrict teachers from teaching anything about race that might make even one student feel uncomfortable — like, you know, that we fought a Civil War over slavery and that many of the sainted Founders were slaveholders themselves and that race remains a critical issue in America today.
And too often, you see districts move from there to banning books, as one district recently did for eighth graders in Tennessee, banning Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel in which Jews are drawn as mice and Nazis as cats. The school board objected to some “rough” language and to the pictured hanging of a naked mouse. The problem is, there’s no comfortable way to teach the Holocaust, to teach the Civil War, to teach racism.
In any case, lines are being drawn. And that’s just the start. On right-wing social media, there had already been accusations that a one-day sick-out would do serious harm to students, as if, say, a one-day snow closing would also be apocalyptic. And I wonder how many of those chastising the teachers for using a well-established labor tactic have ever kept their kids out of school on days they weren’t ill. Anyone? I know I have. And I can confidently hazard a guess that no students were harmed in the making of the protest.
And then there are those who want to doxx the teachers who participated in the sick-out by having the district release their names. George Brauchler — former DA, current DougCo parent, op-ed contributor and serial office seeker — is prominent in the doxxing move, even though a certain percentage of teachers involved might have actually been ill. And even though, in this crazed climate, releasing the names could very well put teachers in danger. In a similar case, Jefferson County was once forced by the courts to release teachers’ names. Try to imagine how the release would play today on certain benighted social media sites.
There’s no question that politics are at the center of this. That’s why there was so much money raised in the last school board election. Republicans, like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, are now getting elected running on anti-mask, anti-CRT platforms. In fact, Youngkin has even set up tip lines for parents to report what’s being called “inherently divisive” teacher activity. If only Joe McCarthy had lived long enough to see this.
Most people, I’d guess, are actually pro-equity. But I’d have thought that most people were also in favor of keeping kids as safe as possible during the pandemic while also keeping the schools open. Go figure.
The fact that 1,500 DougCo teachers were moved to participate in a sick-out should give everyone pause. That’s a lot of teachers, and while it’s easy and popular to blame teachers unions rather than individual teachers for actions like these, DougCo teachers have a relatively weak union that is not even allowed to collectively bargain.
If you talk to anyone who knows the history of DougCo schools and school boards, we can guess where this is heading — back to vouchers for religious schools, a favorite hobby horse of a particular subset of so-called reformers, in the hope that the now-Trumpist Supreme Court may look more favorably upon them than previous courts have. But before we even get to vouchers, we’ll probably get to recalls.
These battles represent a recurring theme. And if there’s anything that the school board’s rush to fire Wise and the teachers’ response should teach us as we head into the midterm election season, it’s that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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