When Things Fall Apart: The Abuse of School-Board Power

It takes a village (of people working on the same side).

Coming down off of a well-deserved, hard-earned high like improved test scores and boosted school morale is a scary thing. I imagine it’s how an artist feels after producing a smash hit or winning an Academy Award for a once-in-a-lifetime performance: expectations are high and stress is even higher.

Although we were still enjoying the fruits of our collective labor, my colleagues and I noted a shift in the school’s atmosphere when election time rolled around. I’m not talking about the presidential election, but the school board kind. You see, our district was part of a very small and very diverse community. I wish diverse meant all types of people with various interests and abilities, but in this case, diverse simply means divided. The divide was never more evident than when White men swooped down upon our female principal and Black assistant principal, deeming them inappropriate and not good enough for our school.
I distinctly remember the day I opened my classroom door to welcome the parents who had come for conferences, only to have a big burly fellow in a track suit brush past me and ease himself into one of the desks. In retrospect, the visual was actually pretty funny: dressed like he had just finished a Richard Simmons work-out, a man I had never met before waltzed into my room like he owned it and stuffed himself into a desk meant for someone half his size. I probably would have appreciated the humor had it not been for the menacing look in his eye. Rather than ask about his daughter’s progress in my Honors English class, he asked if I liked working for our principals.
I had been warned this may happen. I knew this man in particular made no secret about his disdain for our current administrators, and on the night we should have been discussing open-ended essay prompts and the upcoming Advanced Placement curriculum, he was testing the waters to see which teachers would help or hinder his ultimate goal of replacing our principals.
As it was, our school was flourishing. Maybe not compared to the bigger, richer districts that parents constantly used to contrast and downplay our successes, but compared to our humble beginnings, we were the poster child of improvement. But this particular parent didn’t care about how far we’d come; he wasn’t interested in increased productivity in the classrooms, nor did he listen as I gushed about how I loved my job—and gushed I did. He came to my classroom that evening for one reason only: to make a promise that a change was coming. “A new broom sweeps clean,” was his preferred expression.
He visited all the teachers he could that night, unfortunately scoring a few allies along the way, and that was all the fuel he needed to light the place on fire.
Community members confirmed that this parent and his little posse went door-to-door making ludicrous claims about our principals, citing irrelevant or exaggerated circumstances as cause for their removal. He accused them of wrongdoing and brought other false allegations against them, but because it was “only talk among friends,” no legal recourse was possible.
But I knew the truth. So did many others. We saw through the lies and concerned facade; inspired by bigotry, this parent simply wanted two minorities to remember their place, and according to him, the place of a woman and a Black man were not at the head of the table.
With School Board elections finally upon us, the sad realization that this parent had garnered enough support hit us square in the jaw. He wasn’t a stupid man; in fact, he was highly intelligent and exceptionally motivated…by hate.
We watched helplessly as he and his constituents were elected, and by now, you can guess what their first order of business was.
It is all but impossible to keep controversial topics out of the mouths of babes—in other words, the students were talking. And they were talking loudly. A group of seniors who were the living, breathing results of our principals’ efforts to make our school a better place decided to make their voices heard. They wore t-shirts with their support for our administrators emblazoned across their chests; they held signs and spoke eloquently at the public board meeting that, because of overwhelming attendance, had to be moved from a conference room to the cafeteria. The tension was palpable, but I felt inspired and hopeful to be among such a movement. Watching students take their place at the microphone, articulating their thoughts and opinions in such a respectful manner, is something I’ll never forget.
Students, teachers, parents, and other community members took turns at the microphone, despite it being obvious the new Board members weren’t exactly receptive to their words. In fact, the new Board president—AKA: Mr. Richard Simmons—refused to make eye contact with anyone who took their place in front of him. One of our teachers actually called him out on it, making an accurate contrast between the professionalism of 16-year-olds as opposed to the blatant disrespectful nonchalance of a grown man in a position of authority.
At the end of the three-hour meeting, we knew we had been heard. We had done everything in our power to let the new Board know we would not allow their personal vendetta against our principals. We had cited both factual and anecdotal evidence in support of our administrators. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter.
Within days, there was a new position that needed to be filled ASAP. Many of us suspected that the new position had been created solely for the sake of having somewhere to move our principal. It was essentially a passive aggressive move, because our principal had always been telling the higher-ups how important it was to dissect the data and understand where our students were struggling. So when a data analyst position was created, it was basically like the board saying, “Here, this is what you wanted, isn’t it?” Because it was a temporary position, it seemed clear that she’d have a job only until they hired another principal and once they did, the data analysis responsibilities would be absorbed into the new principal’s role.  A hazard of this new position was that it could be terminated at any moment, unlike a contracted administrative position …
The writing was on the wall for our Black assistant principal, too, and as a father of three, he had to worry about what his unemployment would mean for his family. He began looking elsewhere and was soon hired at another district, and who could blame him?

Injustice and intolerance were responsible for our school’s upheaval. I left shortly thereafter because, quite honestly, the whole situation took quite an emotional toll on me. As a young teacher, recently married, I had been talking with my husband about starting a family, and we knew I had to break away from a place that had the potential to affect my overall health. That school wasn’t just a job for me; it was more than a career. That school and those students were my life, and while I have never regretted dedicating myself to them, I do wish I could hold the good times in my memory for a few seconds before the bad memories overcome them.

Though remembering my former school leaves me feeling deflated, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Individual snapshots like earning my college diploma, getting married, and giving birth to my children make up the big picture of my life. The four years I spent at that school surrounded by some of the most incredible young minds and generous educators in our country is another one of those snapshots. Despite how and when it ended, my time there remains a highlight of my career.

School-Board-power

Posted by Stephanie Jankowski

English teacher by trade, smack talker by nature, Stephanie Jankowski loves words and has a knack for finding the funny in everyday life. A mother of three in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stephanie subscribes to the mantra: “Life is too short, laugh!” Visit her site, WhenCrazyMeetsExhaustion.com, for more!

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