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Nebraska group may cut ties with national association over letter criticizing upset parents

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A group representing Nebraska school boards appears ready to join other states that are cutting ties with a national school group whose leaders equated angry parents with domestic terrorists.

The executive committee of the Nebraska Association of School Boards earlier this month voted to recommend canceling its membership in the National School Boards Association.

The national group found itself in a political firestorm after sending a Sept. 29 letter to President Joe Biden seeking federal help dealing with alleged threats to school board members across the nation.

The National School Boards Association is a federation of state associations that advocates and lobbies on public education issues.

In the letter, two leaders of the national association cited several incidents and requested that the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other federal law enforcement agencies investigate and prevent threats from parents angry about mask policies and critical race theory.

The letter was signed by Viola M. Garcia, the national group’s president at the time, and Chip Slaven, then-interim executive director and CEO.

In the letter, they wrote that America’s public schools and its education leaders were “under an immediate threat” from individuals and “hate groups.”

The letter created a backlash as parents and particularly conservatives viewed it as an attack on free speech and an attempt to chill criticism. Conservatives have been pushing for more parental access and involvement in their children’s education.

Several days after the letter was sent, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI to discuss with U.S. attorneys strategies to address the alleged threats. That prompted criticism from Republicans in Congress, including calls for him to retract the memo. In November, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts said that it was meant to “browbeat” parents into not attending school board meetings and that local authorities should handle such threats.

An attorney hired by the national association to review events and procedures surrounding release of the letter issued his findings May 20.

The review concluded that Slaven was primarily responsible for drafting the letter, but “it appears that Mr. Slaven did consult with high level NSBA staff members and the NSBA officers prior to sending it.”

“During these consultations, there is no evidence that anyone suggested to Mr. Slaven that the letter should not be sent or that substantive changes should be made before sending,” the review said.

According to the review, no other members of the national board of directors were shown a draft or given an opportunity to review the letter or comment on whether it should be sent.

The review found that the Biden administration knew ahead of time that the letter requesting federal help was coming and that Slaven provided the administration an advance summary of its contents. The review, however, did not find evidence that the administration requested the letter.

The same day that the attorney issued his findings, the seven executive committee members on the Nebraska Association of School Boards board of directors voted unanimously to recommend cutting ties with the national group.

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The committee members are: President Brad Wilkins, Ainsworth Community Schools; President-Elect Kim Burry, Bayard Public Schools; Vice President Sandy Noffsinger, Dundy County-Stratton Schools; Past President Stacie Higgins, Nebraska City Public Schools; Shavonna Holman, Omaha Public Schools; Stacy Jolley, Millard Public Schools; and Sarah Centineo, Bellevue Public Schools.

The full board will consider the recommendation at its June 11 meeting. The membership dues for the national group are due on June 30.

“I don’t know that there was a smoking gun in the report that absolutely made us make a decision one way or the other,” Wilkins said.

He said the fact that there was an interim director “who acted on his own, pretty much, in initiating the letter was a real cause for concern.”

Wilkins said the committee members believe the annual dues, about $40,000, “might be better used invested in our state, doing board-member development and the things we do as the NASB.”

John Spatz, executive director of the Nebraska association, sent a email to its membership notifying them of the recommendation.

“We commend the NSBA’s efforts conducting this investigation, and the changes they have made internally since the release of the September letter to President Biden,” Spatz wrote. “However, it has become clear to us the long-term viability of the NSBA is in question.”

On Monday, the Texas Association of School Boards joined the list of state associations ending membership in the national group.

Dan Troxell, executive director of the Texas group, said: “With this report now available, it’s clear that NSBA’s internal processes and controls do not meet good governance practices that TASB expects and requires in a member organization.”

Wilkins said his board’s members didn’t want to act “knee-jerk” when the controversy first blew up.

“We wanted to see it play out and see how the organization was going to make changes before we decided we wanted to re-up, to continue our membership,” he said. “In the meantime, 22 states have left, and so we just have some real concerns about the viability of the organization, financially and just as a critical mass.”

He said his organization has always promoted parent involvement in their children’s education. During the pandemic, school board meetings became an outlet for public frustration.

The atmosphere has gotten better since the fall, Wilkins said.

“It really seems like as we’ve gotten into this year, 2022, and COVID has kind of died, school board members have been able to focus on the work at hand, which is really educating our kids,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse responded to the review findings with a statement calling Garland’s memo “a political hack job, drummed up by progressive activists and their partners in the Biden White House to chill parents’ exercise of free speech.”

Sasse said that everyone is against mob violence and threats of intimidation, but that “parents shouldn’t have to worry about getting a call from the FBI if they speak up at school board meetings.”

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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