October 6, 2022

Liesandseductions

Education

School Boards Are No Match for America’s Political Dysfunction

It should have been an unremarkable community gathering. At first, it looked as though it might be. On October 25, a cold wind whipped against the cars filing into the East Middle School parking lot in Grand Blanc, Michigan, for a school-board meeting. The audience piled into the six-feet-apart, gray folding chairs in the cafetorium. A group of unmasked community members slid their chairs closer together; a few women stepped to the side to pray.

The meeting began with a single bang of a gavel. The board and its constituents stood in unison to pledge their allegiance to the flag before observing a customary moment of silence. Then things deviated from the standard script.

“The board of education is gathered here tonight to conduct school business,” the president of the board, Susan Kish, said, reading aloud from a prepared statement. “Please keep the board’s need to conduct school business in mind as you observe our meeting tonight.” If the audience could not abide by the board’s rules, she said, the room would be cleared for a recess. If there were additional interruptions, the meeting would be adjourned.

School-board meetings do not have a reputation for excitement. But since the early days of the pandemic, school boards have become the center of some of the most explosive fights in American life—over book bans, mask and vaccine requirements, and how and whether the history of racism is taught. The cost of these fights is immense: The basic functioning of one of the workhorses of the American system—an institution whose thankless and typically invisible work powers the country’s schools—is impossible when it is swept up in the nation’s divisive politics.

Grand Blanc’s experience has been no different. Though nothing particularly divisive was on this agenda, recent meetings had featured verbal disputes between board members and jeers from the audience, as well as raucous public-comment periods when masking policies, “critical race theory,” and vaccines were discussed, and when audience members trained their ire on others in the crowd as much as on elected officials. The acrimony had spilled out beyond the board meetings as well. One woman in Grand Blanc was arrested in August for threatening the county’s health director, who had issued a mask mandate for students in kindergarten through the sixth grade.

Most of the October meeting’s agenda was standard fare for a school board. The principal of Indian Hill Elementary brought a video to show how students had played with engineering manipulatives that a teacher had purchased with money from a grant she’d received. The board honored two students who had been named National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, and it listened to a report on a recent budget audit before its members lobbed questions at the presenters. The 62 people in the audience—40 masked, 22 unmasked—mostly sat patiently and watched. But as the meeting wore on, some of the unmasked attendees became noticeably annoyed. This was not why they were here.

One man turned to the group, shaking his head. “They’re fucking filibustering,” he said. He and other parents wanted to talk about mask mandates. They wanted to talk about vaccines—some even wanted to talk about the infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci. The normal board business prevented that. The work of running the schools, to this man’s mind, was the filibuster.

Grand Blanc school board member Amy Facchinello at a meeting in August 2021. (Jake May / The Flint Journal / AP)

Many of those who had grown agitated felt that one person on the board understood their plight: Amy Facchinello.

Ahead of the 2020 school-board election, Facchinello wanted to shift the body’s balance of power to the right. Though she served as the vice chair of the Genesee County Republican Party, Facchinello had a typical résumé for a school-board candidate: She’d earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, spent decades teaching in both public and private schools, and had children in the district. But, as she told the local newspaper, the Grand Blanc View, she had become “concerned” with the way the schools were being run. “Our students deserve an education where they are taught how to think and not what to think,” she said in a candidate interview. “As a board member, my goal is to be a conservative voice and to protect the rights of teachers, parents, and students from government overreach.”

Facchinello’s campaign was largely focused on national, cultural issues and what she saw as disturbing trends in education. “We have many third-party actors trying to push their agenda on our students,” she told the Grand Blanc View, pointing to The New York Times’ “1619 Project” as an example. “In an age where what was once right is now wrong and what was wrong is now right, I want to make sure that the staff are being supported and commended for doing what is right for our students,” she continued. “One thing that we overlook is that our parents/taxpayers are our boss. Educators work for you.”

Four candidates ultimately ran for the two available seats on the board—the two incumbents, James Avery Jr. and Jay Hoffman, as well as Facchinello and 18-year-old Joe Johnson. The winners would serve a six-year term. When all the ballots were counted, it was clear that Facchinello’s message had resonated with a significant contingent of the community; she received 10,070 votes, or 26 percent of the total, the second-highest tally behind Avery. Hoffman, the other incumbent, finished third, with 8,769 votes.

But less than two weeks after the election, Lucas Hartwell, then a senior at Grand Blanc High School, found Facchinello’s Twitter account—full of QAnon-related posts. There was a photo she had posted of a flaming Q with we the people are pissed off written inside it, and a tweet about the coronavirus being a hoax. There was a video she had shared claiming that George Floyd’s murder was a “deep state psyop” for a “New World Order” and another claiming that the baseless, far-right conspiracy theory had been confirmed by then-President Donald Trump. Hartwell’s tweets about what he’d found received some traction. Soon, media organizations across the country were covering Grand Blanc.

“Is QAnon Radicalizing Your School Board?” one headline read. Another asked whether conspiratorial candidates could be stopped. For her part, Facchinello, who declined numerous requests to speak for this story, has denied that she has anything to do with QAnon or conspiracy theories. “I’m a victim of cancel culture,” she claimed last May. “I think they’re using the QAnon narrative to cancel conservatives … If you question their narrative, they label you a QAnon conspiracy theorist.”

Facchinello has avoided posting such things since joining Grand Blanc’s school board, and her Twitter account no longer exists, but she has divided the board in other ways. One fellow board member criticized Facchinello for a Facebook comment “ridiculing” a new parent in the district who had asked a question about masking. In another post, Facchinello suggested that the board should have a priest come with holy water to bless its meeting against “Demonic powers and Principalities” in its midst—those powers and principalities being, ostensibly, her colleagues. In January, Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, turned over to federal prosecutors the details of a year-long investigation into Michigan Republicans who had submitted documents falsely identifying themselves as the state’s 2020 presidential electors and declared that Trump had won the state. (Joe Biden won Michigan by more than 150,000 votes.) To date, no formal charges have been filed, but Amy Facchinello was one of the 16 false GOP electors.

An hour and 15 minutes into the October meeting, the public-comment period began. Though not all districts are required to allot special time for this section of the meeting, most do as part of their obligations to their constituents. How do political leaders know what their communities are thinking if they don’t listen to them? Kish reiterated the rules: Comments were to be directed at the board, not the audience; there was a time limit; all comments were to be about the work of schools. But few abided by those rules.

The first commenter stood to support mask and vaccine mandates; the second argued that Fauci was the leading proponent of a conspiracy to experiment on children—experimentation that the board was facilitating; others stood to attack critical race theory, a topic on their minds because of a photo circulating on social media of a whiteboard activity in a Grand Blanc classroom that supposedly revealed a teacher’s bias against white people and Trump supporters. The superintendent had debunked the misleadingly cropped photo earlier in the meeting after an extensive investigation into the matter. Another parent, Sandra Jobin, suggested that ingesting ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine would be better for her child than receiving the vaccine or wearing a mask.

As Kish adjourned the gathering, Jobin, who had come from neighboring Burton with her daughter, told me that creeping authoritarianism had brought her to the meeting and would keep bringing her to board meetings. “I feel that tyranny is happening, and not enough people are waking up,” she said. “If the vaccine works, how come you guys are signing up for three, four, or five boosters? Where do you stop? Where is your line drawn as to how far this tyranny happens?”

The room emptied out. The teacher who doubled as the A/V coordinator stacked chairs and wrapped cords. Two students were standing to the side. They hadn’t offered public comments; perhaps the most important voices in the room that night hadn’t spoken.

I approached one of them, Isaiah Grays, a sophomore at Grand Blanc High School who serves as a student representative to the school board and attends its workshops for ironing out thorny agenda details—which he finds to be the more productive exercise. I asked him what he thought of the evening. “The regular meeting, I thought, was very productive, just like the workshops that they do,” he said. “As for the public comments, it was really partisan. I don’t really like a lot of partisan stuff, because this is supposed to be a nonpartisan school board … We don’t go around the hallways saying that we’re conservative or liberal—we come here to learn.”

Rachel Gaydos, a senior at the school, agreed. “I thought it was really disappointing when it got to the public-comment section of the meeting,” she said. “I’ve experienced, firsthand, parents taking things completely out of context and pushing their own views onto children.” To her, the masks weren’t a big deal—“just a new article of clothing that you’re putting on.”

If you listened only to the public comments, you might believe that Grand Blanc schools were dystopian, authoritarian dumps. But both Gaydos and Grays lauded their education in the district; they just wished the loudest voices in the room would listen.

A woman holding up a sign with "Down with Indoctrination" and a woman yelling.
Jake May / The Flint Journal / AP

Many Grand Blanc parents have been deeply alarmed by Facchinello’s tenure. “My issue with her isn’t even necessarily QAnon,” Michelle Ryder, a parent of three students in the district, told me. “I mean, it’s disturbing, and I would definitely have some questions, but my issue with her is the division and the chaos that she brings.” A day before the October board meeting, Ryder and a group of other parents met at a restaurant in town to sort through what they could do about Facchinello. Perhaps the board could censure her? That might only enrage her supporters, they reasoned. Maybe they could organize a recall? But they quickly realized that a recall was not a realistic option; the process couldn’t begin until January—and even then, Facchinello had not yet done anything as a member of the board that would warrant one.

Other school-board members seemed to worry about Facchinello as well. In August, several suggested that she had violated the board’s code of ethics. “This past January, all of the board members here signed a code of ethics,” Meredith Anderson, who joined the board in 2017, said 10 minutes into the board meeting on August 23. “It reads, in part: As members of the Grand Blanc Community Schools district board of education, we realize that to be the most effective advocates for children, we as a board must function as a team and at all times treat each other and the people we serve with the utmost courtesy, dignity, respect, and professionalism.” Members had all signed on to keep confidential conversations confidential; to avoid using their position on the board for partisan gain; and to disagree without being disagreeable. Violating the code had no formal consequences, Anderson conceded, but she did question “why anyone would sign it if they had no intention of following it.”

Immediately after Anderson’s remarks, Facchinello had her turn to offer comments. “This isn’t a dog-and-pony show,” she quipped. “We’re not sitting up here having a dog-and-pony show, trying to show the public how great we get along. That’s not why they elected us.” She then turned her attention to mask mandates, arguing that the Genesee County Health Department’s recommendation that students be masked was unconstitutional. Holding up a pocket-size Constitution before propping it back up on the table in front of her, Facchinello lambasted mask mandates, to nodding approval from a contingent of supporters. She believed that the board could be sued if it continued its policy. “I want Mrs. Carr”—the recording secretary—“to put it down in her notes, in our board minutes, that are a legal document, that I do not consent to this, because I am not going to get tied up in any lawsuit that might be brought against this board,” she said. “And if it makes it look like I’m not playing nice in the sand—well then, so be it.”

The chair, Kish, banged her gavel three times as several members of the audience applauded. “Thank you!” one shouted. “Boo!” said another. Kish sought to rein her meeting back in. “We will have order,” she said, as the applause continued. “We will have order!”

In the months since, such boisterous back-and-forths between board members have been less frequent. Facchinello has settled into her role as one of the many, allowing the work of the board to continue, and—save for her advocacy of mask-mandate removal and her maskless appearances at meetings, even during moments of high COVID caseloads—has largely been in step with her colleagues. Her limited influence in regard to some of the other concerns she ran on, such as how history is taught, betrays the reality that one board member cannot easily change a system.

Facchinello is right in one way: Elected officials do not have a responsibility to agree with one another, but to serve their constituents. School boards have a vital democratic purpose, though, and they need to be able to function. They decide budgets, approve curricula, and hire school officials. School boards are micro-local, too—a part of the democratic system to which people have easy access.

School boards, at their core, are composed of people who have chosen to be public servants, many of whom still hold down full-time jobs. Though the role can be a launchpad to other political opportunities—former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first elected position was a seat on a school board—it is the sole political ambition for some. But with the increasing hostilities of the job, many school-board members have seen resignation or retirement as their only way forward. In Wisconsin, a board member resigned after receiving threats and seeing a car idling outside his house while his children were home; in Tennessee, members were called child abusers and harassed for supporting mask mandates. “My most recent time on the board has impacted who I am as a person and my inability to have peace and joy in my life,” one school-board member in Indiana wrote in a resignation letter last year. “If the past two years have taught me anything, it is that life is precious and that time is short.”

This spate of departures will leave seats open, seats for which only the loudest voices in the room might be willing to run. Who else would want to?

In November, voters in Grand Blanc will go to the polls to decide the future of four seats on their school board—a slate of openings that worries Ryder and other parents. Facchinello can do little as a board member on her own, but what would the school board look like if she were no longer in the minority?

On February 28, the cafetorium at East Middle School was once again brimming with community members. It had been 10 days since the district had eliminated its mask mandate in schools and on buses—along with close-contact quarantine requirements—as COVID caseloads declined. Kish opened the meeting with their new routine: the Pledge of Allegiance, a moment of silence, and an audience warning about misbehavior.

The board carried out its standard business: A middle-school student presented her winning paper from the Martin Luther King Jr. essay contest sponsored by local colleges; the board listened to a presentation about social-emotional learning and heard a budget report. During board-member comments, Facchinello congratulated a departing football coach and wished the girls’ varsity cheer squad well as it headed to the state tournament.

“Just to listen to tonight’s meeting thus far: Here we are talking about field trips again; here we are giving shoutouts to students again on accomplishments they have achieved,” Curtis Jablonski, a board member, said. “I’m not sure what normal is or what normal will be, but it sure feels like it’s a step in the right direction.” The board had also welcomed a new member—Avery had recently resigned after being appointed to the county board of commissioners—and gave him his committee assignments. The meeting, to that point, was what school-board meetings are supposed to be.

An hour and 37 minutes after the meeting began, though, it was time for public comments. Kish took a deep breath before reading a statement. “We know that everyone has their opinions, and we are asking you to please respect each other,” she said. The board was composed of seven people who made decisions as a board but who also had First Amendment rights as individuals, she added. Fifteen people had submitted requests to make comments, and Kish anticipated that at least some of them would be directed at Facchinello and the investigation into the slate of electors.

Ryder spoke first. “Now, unfortunately, I have to talk about some disturbing news that has come to light about one of our board members,” she said. A friend had sent her an article about the electors. “In this article was a copy of the signature page, which I have provided to each of you. I will refer you to the last signature in the first column. You will also find a picture of this board member’s Facebook bio, where they proudly—”

“Point of order,” Facchinello said into a microphone.

Kish paused Ryder’s time and reminded her that she could not use the public-comment period to address board members about what they’d done as individuals—it needed to be about board business. After the warning, she restarted the clock. Fifteen seconds of silence passed as Ryder collected her thoughts.

“There doesn’t seem to be a place to address this, and I think that it’s important for the parents and the public and the community to have some sort of answers,” she said. “This isn’t a light allegation … We’re talking about a criminal investigation.” Then Facchinello called for another point of order, Kish issued another reprimand, and Ryder demanded Facchinello’s resignation before the rest of her time was nullified. (Neither the board president nor the board attorney responded to requests for comment for this article.)

Two other audience members stood to give similar remarks, and both were told to address board business.

Sasha Keller, who had spoken about Fauci at the meeting in October and is a fierce masking critic, stood to speak. “I’m glad that we’re moving on past” masks, she said. “But keep in mind, I’m not going to forget. And I’m not going to go away—I’m not going to forget what’s been done to my child for political gain.”

The masks have already begun to go away, but what Keller articulated is something that political scientists who have studied schools have been worried about since the pandemic began.

The nature of school politics has always been emotional, Joseph Viteritti, a political scientist at the City University of New York’s Hunter College who studies education policy, told me. “Because it involves their kids … [parents] think they’re fighting for their lives.” But after the past two years, researchers worry that the temperature around this vital institution has been raised irreversibly. They worry that, even as districts sunset mask mandates and vaccines become standard, the battles at school-board meetings will rage on. And they worry that too few reasonable people will want to devote themselves to ever getting things back on course.