Heated debates over masks, sex education standards and critical race theory have transformed once-dull school board meetings in Nebraska into skirmishes in a national culture war — and there could be fallout at the ballot box.
Before the pandemic, parents rarely filled local and state board rooms, and when they did, it meant that a band or gifted program was getting cut.
But now an agitated, mobilized and partisan public is showing up in numbers, packing board meetings, shouting, clapping, cheering and sometimes jeering.
School officials are adding security to meetings, reducing the time that people have to speak, cutting speakers off mid-sentence and sometimes even escorting them out for violating rules or decorum.
An attempt is underway to recall board members in the Norris Public Schools over a mask requirement for younger students. Another recall is underway for the board president in the Wahoo Public Schools in an argument over the state’s proposed health standards.
A North Platte woman has already announced that she will run against incumbent State Board of Education member Robin Stevens in 2022.
Elizabeth Tegtmeier says on her website that she would “represent values of western Nebraskans and listen to their concerns” and “protect children from sexually inappropriate and racially divisive material.”
Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen, whose eight years on the State Education Board were uneventful compared with today’s raucous meetings, doesn’t think that the rising discontent reflects a change in Nebraskans.
“It’s not the opinions of the citizens that have changed,” he said. “It’s the proposals of the board members that have changed.
“What is happening is there is an increasing number of people who are looking at some of our elected offices and asking, ‘How do we elect people who are more in line with what we believe is the right path to take?’ “ he said.
The rancor of these skirmishes was on display at the Aug. 6 meeting of the state board, where proposed state health standards incorporating gender identity drew a crowd.
Sam Schlegel, an opponent of the standards, felt that the board members weren’t listening to opponents.
He stepped to the mic and, in a loud voice, expressed his frustration.
“So what is it going to take?,” he told the board members. “How many of us do you need to stand up? How many Jan. 6ths do you people need to see? I’d suggest you start paying attention.”
His reference to the deadly melee at the nation’s Capitol worried board member Deborah Neary of Omaha.
“I just know it scared me,” she said.
Neary, commenting at the meeting, said she heard “a tremendous amount of racism” and threats to board members and State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt in the testimony. She said someone confronted a department administrator over her colorful mask, believing incorrectly that it had “dangerous symbolism.”
“I’m sad about all of the attacks on the Department of Education today, as well,” she said. “I believe we have a top-notch leader who’s hired a top-notch staff.”
Schlegel told The World-Herald last week that he wasn’t threatening anyone, just making the point that elected officials seem to have their minds made up and don’t care what the people say.
“I honestly don’t know why that woman would have ever felt afraid of me,” he said. “I pose no threat to anyone.”
Schlegel said he was angry.
“I got up there, I showed some passion and I showed some heat, and I got some criticism, and I got a lot of people who say, ‘Hey, way to go, way to stand up for what you believe in,’ “ he said.
Neary, Blomstedt and board Chairwoman Maureen Nickels said they didn’t report the comment to police.
“I don’t think there was anything that would be actionable” in a legal sense, Blomstedt said.
Schlegel said he was angered by what he perceived as the board’s indifference.
“When do we start listening to the masses?” he told a reporter. “When they’re standing at the gate of the castle? Storming the castle?”
He dismissed the notion that he’s an adherent of the QAnon theory of a worldwide conspiracy — an accusation fueled by the Q pattern on the shirt he wore.
“People come to random conclusions out of anything that they find,” he said. “Stupidity doesn’t take much reason.”
Sue Greenwald, one of the leaders of the Protect Nebraska Children Facebook group opposing the standards, said that the state board members are public figures and that the public has a right to criticize them.
“It’s so disingenuous to say ‘I was threatened,’ “ she said. “Good gravy!”
She said the public is responding to the tone of the education officials, and the tone they project, she said, is: “We dismiss you.”
Greenwald said that over the past five months, opponents have taken off work, arranged for child care and traveled four times to testify against the standards, but all they got from the board was “five months of opaqueness and obfuscation.”
Greenwald said some of the comments directed at opponents have been disparaging. She pointed to State Sen. Megan Hunt’s testimony at the meeting.
When her time expired and some opponents cheered, Hunt told the board: “The Christians would like me to stop.”
Hunt, of Omaha, told The World-Herald that opponents in the room had acted rudely and disrespectfully to a number of LBGTQ students who were sharing their personal stories while testifying in favor of inclusive standards.
She said she was mid-sentence, finishing her testimony, when people in the crowd urged her to stop.
“No, I do not regret calling out the Christian adults in the room who were booing the children who this curriculum would directly impact,” she said. “My comment was not a broad swipe at all Christians.”
Another woman went to the microphone and accused the opponents of being un-American conspiracy theorists against masks and vaccinations.
“They voted for Trump, and Trump lost,” the woman said. Turning to face the crowd, she said: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to deal with it.”
She said of the opponents, “They don’t believe in science. They shouldn’t even be in the same room with all of you.”
Real estate agent Whitney Weeks, whose 5-year-old son started kindergarten in the Omaha Public Schools this year, was escorted from the podium during the Aug. 9 school board meeting after he tried to speak beyond the three-minute limit.
Weeks said he confirmed with the district before the meeting began that speakers would have five minutes — the amount of time commenters typically have to comment on board activity. But that night, a board member moved to limit public comment to three minutes to allow more speakers to voice their opinions on masking.
As Weeks tried to keep speaking after three minutes, officials cut the audio from the microphone and eventually escorted him to his seat.
In an interview, he said the board meetings are the public’s best chance to make their views known. Cutting down on speaking time limits that interaction, he said. Weeks said his experience working with OPS students in a volunteer capacity has taught him that many parents are unable to attend meetings because of their work schedules. Those barriers should prompt board members to go above and beyond to seek community feedback, he said.
“You’ve kind of got to go out of your way to figure out what the parents are actually wanting for their children,” Weeks said.
He said he spoke that night in part to ask the district for “consistency” on masking. He questioned why the district is requiring masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when it has never done the same for influenza, which can also send children to the hospital.
National analysts on school politics say what Nebraska is experiencing is happening across the country.
John Halpin, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, said many of these new battles are more an outcome of America’s never-ending culture wars and ideological polarization “fueled by daily consumption of inflammatory news and social media.”
“Everyone has an example of some moral outrage in the schools or communities that drive people to express themselves in forums such as school board meetings,” he said. “The fact that this involves what kids may be learning or not learning makes people even more intense in their thoughts and feelings about it.”
Jon Valant, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said these battles are going to affect who runs local school boards going forward.
“It’s going to affect the politics of school board elections in ways that I don’t think are very healthy,” he said. “I think we’re going to see some really extreme candidates who are running on issues that are really irrelevant to the day-to-day” concerns of school districts.
Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, is a critic of critical race theory who recently spoke to crowds in Aurora and Omaha.
Gonzalez doesn’t think that parents are at fault for being aggressive.
He said school board members have operated under the radar for decades with little scrutiny from their constituents, so they aren’t accustomed to being challenged — either at meetings or at the polls. It’s not always easy for voters to learn where school board candidates stand on the issues.
“The last person you got to, in doing your research, is members of the school boards,” he said.
World-Herald staff writer Reece Ristau contributed to this report.