She Joined The School Board To Serve Her Community. Now She’s Getting Threats

School boards and superintendents are facing backlash over mask and vaccination policies. What were once non-partisan public service jobs have now become more political –- and dangerous.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Local school boards across the country have had to deal with the wrath of parents angry about mask requirements. That’s because in many states, local officials and health departments are leaving that decision up to school board members. As WFYI’s Farah Yousry reports, that is adding stress for people who joined the school board out of a sense of civic duty.

FARAH YOUSRY, BYLINE: Elaine Murphy is in her 60s. She is slender, with short blonde hair and green eyes. She lives in New Albany, a small city in southern Indiana. Her home is lined with family pictures.

ELAINE MURPHY: This is Hazel (ph), my oldest granddaughter. She’s 10 now. And then the baby there is Everleigh (ph).

YOUSRY: Murphy has served schools here her entire career. She’s now the president of the local school board. And she says it used to be that school board meetings here were low-key – but no more.

MURPHY: You know, we’re making decisions now that, you know, two years ago, it’d be like, what? You know, a pandemic what?

YOUSRY: Still, nothing prepared her for the last boisterous and confrontational school board meeting.

(CROSSTALK)

MURPHY: OK, I move that we have a recess.

YOUSRY: Nearly 200 people filled the hall. Some carried big flags and signs that read my body, my choice. Emotions were raw.

MURPHY: It’s sad to say that, you know, now when I see someone come in with a flag and a flag pole, I’m thinking, well, that’s a potential weapon. I’ve seen that before.

YOUSRY: The day of the meeting, Murphy’s son, Ryan Gunterman, drove two hours from Bloomington to be with her.

RYAN GUNTERMAN: I wanted to take her in my car. I didn’t want the protesters to see her in her car. And we went in the side entrance.

YOUSRY: A few days later, infection rates surged, and the school district required masks. Now Murphy keeps a baseball bat next to the door at home. In many states, it’s school board members who are on the frontlines, and that’s taking a toll. Charlie Wilson in Worthington, Ohio, is the past president of the National School Boards Association and is a school board member himself. He says it’s become so partisan that any decision he makes is deemed political.

CHARLIE WILSON: Literally daily getting hate emails and sometimes phone calls and frankly, occasionally, people knocking on my door and, you know, threatening to do all kinds of things.

YOUSRY: Most of these people are Wilson’s neighbors and former friends.

WILSON: And so literally, I was waking up at night dreaming about a child losing a parent or a loved one because of a virus that the child got at school.

YOUSRY: Wilson does not plan to run for office again. Vladimir Kogan studies state and local government at the Ohio State University. He says school boards had to weather heated partisan debates like school prayer and sex ed. But this time around, things are a bit more intense.

VLADIMIR KOGAN: I think it’s exactly this idea of blame shifting – that no matter what you do, you’re going to piss somebody off. So you’d rather another entity or another official make that call and get the blame from whoever is mad.

YOUSRY: Kogan and others say guidance since the start of the pandemic has been evolving. And some parents are understandably concerned and confused. Layer that with political tribalism, and you get something of a perfect storm facing school board members all across the country. For NPR News, I’m Farah Yousry.

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