COLUMBUS — The Ohio School Board Association announced on Tuesday it was ending its affiliation with the National School Board Association after the national group sent a controversial letter to President Joe Biden and the Department of Justice in late September.
The NSBA compared chaos, threats and violence at school board meetings to "domestic terrorism" twice in the letter and asked for the Federal Bureau of Investigation to look into threats against school board members. The NSBA issued an apology for the letter to its members in a message sent on Friday, Oct. 22.
"On behalf of the NSBA, we regret and apologize for this letter," the message to its affiliates said. "To be clear, the safety of school board members, other public school officials and educators, and students is our top priority, and there remains important work to be done on this issue. However, there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter. We should have a better process in place to allow for consultation on a communication of this significance."
OSBA CEO Rick Lewis told WCPO there were three major problems it had with the national group's letter, which were reasons why it decided to end its affiliation with the group.
"We have a problem when people with dissenting views are referred to as a domestic terrorist," Lewis said. "If someone threatens a school board member, or the board, or the community in any way, we strongly believe that should be addressed. But local boards have strong relationships with local law enforcement and that should be handled at the local level and not at the federal level. Also we had problems with calls for federal lawsuits. As a result of the letter, it has eroded confidence in the national association."
The NSBA's original letter to the president cited Ohio twice, once when discussing anti-mask proponents inciting chaos during school board meetings, another when it referenced a school board member in Worthington who received a hate message through the mail with a letter stating, "We are coming after you."
Lewis said there's been an increase in strife at local school board meetings, most of it brought on from the COVID-19 pandemic and differences over masking. But school board races are becoming increasingly political and partisan. In May, a conservative political action committee called the 1776 Project was started to fund school board races to take on issues such as Critical Race Theory in curriculum This is despite a recent survey of teachers that showed 96 percent reported the theory wasn't being taught in their K-12 public school.
Indiana is changing rules in the state to have school board members register as Democrats or Republicans. Right now in Ohio, school board candidates don't register by party because the races are non-partisan, but that could change if the races become more political. Lewis said some candidates in Ohio are putting Republican and Democrat logos on their signage. The partisanship is also drawing more candidates to the field. According to NPR, Ohio has 50-percent more school board candidates running this year than it did four years ago.
"The school board elections are becoming much more politicized," Lewis said. "More than I've seen in my years with the association."
But school boards have always been a tense high-wire act at certain moments in history.
"We've always had difficult issues," Lewis said. "Go back to the 50s, we were dealing with segregation and that certainly wasn't an easy issue to lift. In the 60s, it was burning text books or banning text books. In the 80s, it was whether or not HIV positive students should be allowed on school grounds. There's always been those kind of issues, but what's different is the emotions attached to the arguments with the issues. I think we're all better if we find ways to have constructive dialogue."
These issues have come to a head locally. On Oct. 14, the Hamilton school board was repeatedly interrupted while going over data on masks, before the board called a recess and cleared the chamber.
Two days earlier, U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel was ejected from a Lakota schools board meeting when he tried to speak on behalf of parents who were against the district's mask policy. That Mandel, a candidate in an important U.S. Senate race, was taking his race to a local school board, shows how important school boards have become in the eyes of state and national politicians.