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Politics

School boards face extra pressure over mask mandates. Some worry it may discourage citizens from serving on them

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Ellsworth School Board Meeting
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Ellsworth resident, Donna, speaks at a school board meeting against a mask mandate on August 12, 2021.

In Maine, local school board meetings have traditionally been the place to discuss budgets, class schedules and new teacher assignments. But as districts have been faced with tough decisions around mask mandates and vaccination policies, those meetings have, in some instances, become much more hostile. And some officials worry that the situation could discourage citizens from serving on school boards, or prompt sitting members to resign.

As a school board meeting got underway inside the library at Poland Regional High School earlier this month, parents packed into seats amidst the posters and bookshelves. The scene was similar to other board meetings across the state and country this fall, as, one-by-one, parents criticized the district's universal mask mandate.

The atmosphere turned from civil to tense when one parent, Jennifer Bessette of Minot, began to speak. Bessette shared views resembling those espoused in online conspiracy theories, falsely alleging that by making children wear masks, the district is taking actions similar to those used by human traffickers. As the accusations flew, board members interrupted, saying they need to move on with the meeting.

"We are moving on with our agenda," a member said as, the parent continues to speak over her.

Before the meeting adjourned a few hours later, Board Chair Mary Martin warned the audience that the rules will have to change in the future.

"So we will need to, I would say, put some time limits on it that are strict and may not make everybody happy. But I think our job is to get our business done. And definitely tonight interfered with that," Martin said.

The meeting in Poland wasn't an isolated event. Police had to be called upon at school board meetings in Ellsworth in August, in one case after a woman accused board members of lying and holding illegal meetings, then continued to complain and interrupt other speakers later.

"You can feel attacked and yelled at — it's unlike anything I've ever seen. Ever seen," said Becky Fles, the school board chair for Gardiner-based MSAD 11, and the president of the Maine School Boards Association.

Fles says people across the country have fought against masks, diversity and equity initiatives, and even school reading lists. While local officials point to misinformation as one likely cause for the increased pressure on school boards, Fles said she also understands the anger: that parents have struggled for months with remote and hybrid learning options, and that board meetings have become one of their only outlets to vent.

"And so that's where I do think, perhaps, a huge amount of frustration can enter the room," Fles said. "And they just need to be mad. And I can't take that away from them. And I wouldn't want to. You've got to express it. It's got to get out. I wish we wouldn't hurt each other."

And Fles worries that the stress being placed on school boards across the country could lead qualified members to step down.

"I've heard some, 'I'm all done. I don't want to do this anymore. This is way too hard. I didn't sign up for this.' I have heard that. We have a board member that we're losing who is just a dear, wonderful board member. But she said, 'I just can't keep doing this.' So people are tired," she said.

In a September letter, the National School Boards Association called on federal, state and local law enforcement to help public schools nationwide as "threats and acts of violence" have become more common.

Local officials say that in most towns, board meetings have remained civil, but more districts have requested police presence. Others have altered rules. In Ellsworth, school board chair Kelly McKenney said meetings were moved to a larger space — a local school cafeteria — and public comments were limited to two minutes. She said that made the sessions more civil for now.

"What I would ask is just, be kind. I mean, school board members are volunteers. We are giving our time to give back to our community, because we really care about our kids. Andwe care about our schools. And our teachers. And we're doing our best," McKenney said.

Later this month, the Maine School Boards Association is offering specific clinics for local members about working in a divided community, and how to deal with the personal attacks and accusations that are becoming more rampant.