School boards group apologizes for letter equating parental activism with 'domestic terrorism'

Montana affiliate was "underwhelmed" by evidence National School Boards Association used to justify FBI intervention.

Published: October 22, 2021 6:56pm

Updated: October 25, 2021 12:51pm

A national education group that implied some parental activism is tantamount to "domestic terrorism" is facing revolt from at least 21 state members.

The National School Boards Association had asked President Biden to use the Patriot Act in response to "the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation" against school board members, citing both physical altercations and heated rhetoric at public meetings.

Its board of directors issued a memo to members Friday saying "we regret and apologize for the letter ... there was no justification for some of the language" NSBA used. "[T]he voices of parents ... should and must continue to be heard" when it comes to decisions about their children's education, health, and safety."

The board said it failed to properly consult members, which caused them "strain and stress," and promised to launch a "formal review" and announce "specific improvements soon" on consultation and coordination.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Merrick Garland, who promised to get the feds involved in local school disputes following the Sept. 29 NSBA letter, pushed back against claims that he was siccing the FBI on parents at a hearing Thursday.

"The Justice Department supports and defends the First Amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish about the education of their children, about the curriculum taught in the schools," Garland told the House Judiciary Committee

So far only the Pennsylvania affiliate has publicly quit NSBA, but the Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and Ohio affiliates said they were reevaluating membership for myriad reasons, according to their responses to Parents Defending Education, a grassroots organization working to resist political indoctrination in classrooms.

Florida and Louisiana said they didn't pay membership dues for this school year, which were due in July. And Florida said it would continue to withhold "until further notice." Alabama's letter to local members said "at least a dozen states" are trying to make "essential changes" to NSBA governance and policy.

Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton told Just the News Friday, hours before NSBA's reversal, that his group might have withheld dues if the letter had been sent earlier in the year.

"NSBA kind of went against the collective wisdom of its membership" and now must retract and apologize for the letter as "the first step" to reconciliation with its members, he said in a phone interview. "Right now we need unity."

The Rhode Island Association of School Committees (RIASC) is also facing a potential revolt from members for promising to cooperate with Garland to "potentially adversely engage with our constituents."

The Glocester School Committee unanimously approved a resolution to withhold dues "until further notice." It also cites RIASC's endorsement of a political candidate and request to Gov. Dan McKee to impose a school mask mandate.

Other school committees can now consider that resolution. Coventry School Committee chair Katherine Patenaude told Just the News it will be discussed at its Oct. 28 meeting. Bristol Warren Regional School Committee chair Marjorie McBride said she hadn't seen the resolution.

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Among state affiliates that responded to Parents Defending Education about their potential involvement in the NSBA letter, only Delaware has confirmed to Just the News that it "[c]urrently" has "NO plans to withdraw" from the national group.

"We also have received NO threats from member districts to withhold their dues to the DSBA," Delaware School Boards Association Executive Director John Marinucci wrote in an email. "The DSBA seeks to remain apolitical in our advocacy and actions." 

While Montana's Melton doesn't think the NSBA was trying to apply the "generic label" of domestic terrorism to all heated criticism at school board meetings, he said the national group can't be surprised that it metaphorically set a fire by throwing a match in gasoline.

"I was underwhelmed" by NSBA's examples of supposed criminal activity requiring a federal response, he said. One of them turned out to be a Loudoun County, Virginia father who was arrested at a school board meeting after complaining his daughter was raped in a school bathroom by a gender-fluid boy.

Even if "every one of them were valid and justified the involvement of the FBI, it would not merit being spoken on behalf of 90,000 trustees" of school districts, Melton said.

The NSBA's claim to Biden that it spoke "[o]n behalf of our state associations" drew rebukes even from members who have suggested no action beyond their disapproving words. A handful responded to Just the News queries on whether they have further deliberated on their membership.

"This is a rapidly evolving matter," Indiana School Boards Association Executive Director Terry Spradlin wrote in an email Thursday, saying his group was waiting for "a possible retraction" from the NSBA board.

"GSBA is evaluating what is in the best interest of our membership in Georgia," Georgia School Boards Association spokesperson Justin Pauly wrote in an email. "There are many options to consider."

Kentucky School Boards Association Communications Director Joshua Shoulta said the "situation is still very new and fluid, so KSBA and our board are still assessing."

Noting the agenda isn't set for its scheduled board meeting in December, he said, "We continue to have conversations with our members, and we're closely monitoring what is happening in other states."

"Like many other state school board associations, we have already expressed our concerns to the NSBA on how the letter was developed and issued," Texas Association of School Boards Senior Communications Consultant Theresa Gage wrote.

Her group believes "localized threats of violence are best handled by local law enforcement, and that first amendment rights are paramount to strong communities and local governance."

(CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported the NSBA's federal tax liability.)

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