Bubble Illustration
Order in the
district trustees tackle unprecedented times head-on
by Heather Kemp

he COVID-19 pandemic has brought many challenges for local educational agencies, from figuring out how to conduct classes online on the fly to becoming tech centers, food pantries and general lifelines for students and families in their communities. Reopening schools has come with its own set of challenges, including one that was perhaps unexpected: the alarming rate of contentious and sometimes unsafe circumstances school board members across California and the country are facing as they attempt to conduct the public’s business.

From name calling and threats to unruly protests and disruptions, school board meetings have become a hotbed for people to vent their dissatisfaction with state-mandated COVID-19 mitigation strategies on K-12 campuses as well as topics like ethnic studies curriculum. While public participation is always encouraged, hazardous situations that cause boards to recess or adjourn a meeting altogether can have major consequences.


eople don’t realize that the nuts and bolts of running a district come from boards taking action,” said Natomas Unified School District Trustee Lisa Kaplan. “I know every board member loves hearing from their community members on issues … But when you have people from outside the community or those seeking to specifically disrupt, we may not be able to pass resolutions that fund hiring more teachers or create programs to address the social-emotional services that students need or provide raises so we can get more substitute teachers because there’s a teacher shortage … When we can’t have a meeting, the board can’t make decisions that benefit every child.”

Kaplan, a 19-year school board member and CSBA Delegate, recalled a September 2021 meeting unlike any other she’s experienced — and the first to leave her afraid. Though the district was aware the meeting would likely be more heavily attended than usual, “I, as a board member, did not anticipate the anger and vitriol, nor did I anticipate that no one was going to enforce the mask policy,” Kaplan said.

Natomas USD Board President and CSBA President Dr. Susan Heredia, another longtime board member, also said it was the first meeting where she was in fear for her safety as well as the well-being of attendees. The meeting, she said, centered around recorded comments from a teacher. The teacher’s statements drew the attention of local news outlets and social media users.

“Although protocols, safety measures and law enforcement were in place during the meeting, the collective harassment, threats and unruly behavior of multiple audience members led me to call for two recesses,” Heredia recalled. “The board did not return after the second recess at the advice of law enforcement and the superintendent.”

Kaplan estimated that about 50 people in the board room were not wearing masks. School resource officers, who are members of the Sacramento Police Department, did not enforce the public health order nor did they assist in restoring order. It was later determined that to enforce the masking rule, district staff or private security, hired at the LEA’s expense, could also be used.

This was not the only instance of local law enforcement falling short of assisting in re-establishing a safe and conducive environment for elected officials to conduct district business.

Alarmed at this uptick in contentious board meetings, CSBA sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sept. 24 calling for his support in protecting the critical work school boards conduct during their meetings. CSBA has also released two related sample resolutions (csba.org/Advocacy/Resolutions) boards can utilize whether they have experienced disruptive meetings themselves or just want to stand in support of LEAs that have. “Nothing’s going to stop until people know there are consequences for threatening public officials,” Kaplan noted.

Virtual meetings and student vaccines
On Sept. 16, Gov. Newsom signed Assembly Bill 361 into law — amending the Brown Act to give boards the ability to hold remote meetings during a proclaimed state of emergency without following certain procedures in the Act’s teleconferencing rules. AB 361 sunsets on Jan. 1, 2024.

Under AB 361, boards do not have to follow the teleconferencing rules if they find that there is a proclaimed state of emergency and state or local officials have imposed or recommended social distancing or meeting in person would present imminent health or safety risks for attendees due to the emergency. If a board chooses to use the option provided in AB 361, it must make findings every 30 days that the board has reconsidered the circumstances of the state of emergency and either the state of emergency continues to directly impact the ability of the members to meet safely in person or state or local officials continue to impose or recommend measures to promote social distancing.

Natomas USD’s board passed a resolution proclaiming a state of emergency and planned to meet virtually in October, Kaplan said. She did, however, take issue with the fact that if the board has not made the findings described above (for example, by passing a resolution setting forth the finding) and a trustee opts to participate remotely — if, for instance, they are feeling under the weather or have safety concerns — the trustee would have to advertise their home address or the location they are participating from during a period when threats are being made.

“The collective harassment,
threats and unruly behavior
of multiple audience members led me to call for two recesses. The board did not return after the second recess at the advice of law enforcement and the superintendent.”
Susan Heredia, Natomas USD Board President and CSBA President
Under a provision of the Brown Act that has existed since before AB 361, board members may appear by teleconference if the following requirements are met: the location from which they teleconference into the meeting must be available and open to the public, the location must be listed on the agenda, and the agenda must be posted at the teleconference location. In addition, at least a majority of the board must participate from within district boundaries. Where the board has not followed the requirements of AB 361, these requirements must be followed for a board member that opts to participate remotely.

On Oct. 1, Newsom announced a vaccine mandate for California students ages 16-18 for whom a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccine is available. The Governor, utilizing the emergency regulation process provided the administration in the 2015 school vaccination bill, Senate Bill 277, added that as vaccines receive full Food and Drug Administration approval for youth in other age groups, they will be required to be vaccinated too. Medical, religious and personal belief exemptions will be available.

This is yet another topic boards will likely be hearing about for the foreseeable future as the 2022–23 school year, when 12- to 15-year-olds will likely have to be vaccinated, approaches. In addition, a recently introduced bill, Senate Bill 871 (Pan, D-Sacramento), proposed to add COVID-19 vaccines to California’s list of required inoculations for attending K-12 schools and remove the personal belief exemption — a subject that is bound to be debated by the public.

While Temecula Valley USD trustee Sandy Hinkson supports consistency and said statewide guidance is “greatly appreciated,” she also expects public commenters will ask the district not to be more restrictive than the state. “It’s hard to tell because there’s a statewide mandate about students wearing masks at school and we continue to hear about that with the expectation that we as a local school board can override it,” Hinkson said.

Best practices for managing contentious meetings
Prior to the pandemic, Hinkson said that Temecula Valley USD’s board meetings were generally low key and focused on curriculum and improving educational experiences for students. While the same goals still exist, the way meetings were being conducted was much different by early October.

Following a meeting with an estimated 200-300 attendees where individuals were pressing and pounding on the conference room’s glass windows holding signs and creating distractions and safety concerns, the Southern California district moved meetings to a high school theater that can accommodate 800 people. Luckily, they’ve had support from law enforcement. A security director now begins meetings with a statement on acceptable demeanor.

Outside of meetings there is signage to indicate that masks are required, and the board president has prepared statements to read should things go awry. Overall, Hinkson said more time goes into planning and staff pays attention to social media activity that may indicate more attention focused on a meeting than usual. For their protection, trustees are escorted by security from the building and have special parking spots.

“You just have to be conscious of consistently adjusting as things come up,” Hinkson advised.

Long Beach USD Board President Juan Benitez and his colleagues have had similar experiences as Temecula Valley USD. Toward the end of summer, tensions were high as officials and families prepared for a full return to in-person learning.

He recalled protestors outside of chambers with people yelling, not wearing masks inside and refusing to leave when their public comment time was up. The board meets in a conference room with clear windows and the district has resorted to closing the shades so people won’t be a visual distraction, though they can still be heard.

Below are some resources LEAs may find helpful in successfully planning and executing virtual and in-person meetings during contentious times:
CSBA Q&A: An in-depth look at AB 361 and virtual board meetings: bit.ly/3alGOHE

CSBA webinar “Governing in a Time of Chaos: Board Meetings in the age of COVID and CRT”: bit.ly/3iKpBwa

CSBA Crisis Communication Services for California Schools & Districts: bit.ly/3DfwJse

Donovan Group Communication Support sheet: bit.ly/3oJxXrD

Flying arrow
Speakers often running over their allotted time has led to a plan to turn off the microphone once time has expired. Additionally, only one person was allowed in the room at a time for public comment and they were reminded to wear a mask, of their time and to not address anyone but the board president.

Benitez underscored the need to adjust plans based on what has and hasn’t worked in the past. As board president, he suggests preparing with the superintendent and planning for potentially tough meetings in partnership with school safety or police officials. Knowing Brown Act procedures for when and how to do things like call for a recess or clear the room are important.

Benitez has focused on using de-escalation tactics, from tone of voice to eye contact. “We set the example, even when we don’t agree or even when there’s tense topics, we can remain civil and respectful,” he said. “After everyone makes a comment, I thank them.”

Having good communications practices in place can also alleviate hardships. In addition to being proactive in planning and knowing board policy, releasing key information before a meeting to dispel rumors or misinformation may stop things from getting contentious in the first place, noted Lori Mueller, a partner in the school public relations firm, the Donovan Group.

Flying arrow
Communication tips
Tips on communications strategies from CSBA business partner and school public relations firm, The Donovan Group.
Before the Meeting
Before the meeting
Review your district’s policies for board meetings and consider whether or not there is a need for the superintendent to seek legal counsel

Anticipate the worst and prepare the board members and superintendent for possible scenarios at the meeting, and develop plans for action in response to each

Remind board members of the district’s chain of command for communications regarding public concerns or complaints

During the meeting
During the meeting
Request a sign-in for individuals who would like to publicly comment that seeks their name, address and topic of discussion. Use this form for calling public forward to speak to the board

Establish norms for proper decorum at the onset of the meeting

Coach the superintendent and board members to be intentional in not confronting or becoming emotional with the public

After the meeting
After the meeting
Follow the meeting up with a prompt press release with key messages for both internal and external stakeholders

Consider whether or not there is any negative impact to students, staff or families from the meeting and if so, take action to address it

Debrief as an administrative team and board to determine ways to improve in the future and tend to any potential trauma for members

“We believe trust is built with genuine relationships and engagement, as well as ensuring ongoing and transparent communication with the public,” Mueller said. “Boards and districts must be strategic in telling their stories, getting out factual information about the operations of the district, and being accessible to constituents for deeper levels of engagement.”

Social media can be used to do this and can be monitored during challenging times to know what stakeholders are seeing. “We recommend that districts and boards designate a school official to monitor social media platforms and work in conjunction with the superintendent in determining appropriate interactions,” Mueller said.

In addition to actions CSBA has taken to support boards, including the letter to the Governor and sample resolutions, the association’s legal and member services departments hosted regional training sessions, called “The Importance of Governance Training During Times of Chaos.”

“These free, virtual sessions, which include an interactive Q&A period, have proven valuable for governance teams as they learn how to navigate this new and unfortunate era of public conduct and facilitate productive school board meetings,” said Naomi Eason, CSBA’s Assistant Executive Director of Member Services. “The training offered promising practices and honest discussions on how school board members and district staff can restore order and get back to the work that must be done on behalf of students.”

Self-care and staying focused
As the old adage goes, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Board members must remember to take care of their own social-emotional and mental health needs if they want to effectively do so for others.

“The job of a school board member is hard work and oftentimes misunderstood by those less informed about our role and responsibilities,” said CSBA President Heredia. “Although we are accustomed to controversary, the constant barrage of hate mail, the threat of a recall or personal harm, unruly audience members, et cetera, it undoubtedly takes a toll on board members. We need to reach out to one another and our state organization for support and advice, engage in professional development opportunities that strengthen our ability to govern and remember to remain focused on supporting and educating students.”

We do have to take a moment
to breath and reflect, otherwise it’s easy to get consumed in what can be perceived as negativity.”
Juan Benitez, Long Beach USD Board President
Presenting a united front as a board when it comes to supporting staff and students and remembering why he took on the job in the first place, to do good by young learners, are some ways Long Beach USD’s Benitez stays positive. Trustees share affirmations, words of comfort and have conversations with each other about what’s taking place.

“We do have to take a moment to breath and reflect, otherwise it’s easy to get consumed in what can be perceived as negativity,” Benitez said.

Though he receives dozens of “very unkind and non-supportive” emails each day, Benitez also gets positive feedback from community members.

For Natomas USD’s Kaplan, being part of CSBA’s Delegate Assembly and connecting with trustees across the state brings comfort and a reminder that many LEAs are going through the same things. Afterall, who can understand the pressures trustees are experiencing more than their peers?

In Temecula Valley USD, trustees were faced with the challenge of building relationships remotely as they welcomed three new board members following the 2020 election. The board is offering each other support as they navigate current times, according to Hinkson.

“As a board over these past few months, we’re certainly strong in our collective bond because of the crisis management we’ve had to do. Everyone is emotionally tired, and it’s been a rollercoaster ride,” Hinkson said. “Most of us got into this wanting to do good things for kids and have good intentions for things we want to have an impact on. Hearing threats and constant criticism is a difficult position, especially for a new board member.”

Hinkson feels it’s important to celebrate the positive.

In her district, some recent successes include getting students back on campuses and offering them supports. They’ve also launched the Home INstead Innovation Academy for K-8 students and more opportunities for high schoolers to take classes online, in person and at other campuses.

In Natomas USD, the nation’s second most diverse district, the board recently adopted an equity plan, “Theory of Action for Student Success,” and have funded programs to implement the plan.

And in Long Beach, the board is continuing to work to meet the needs of their students at a time when they need it most. “It’s a really hard time to be an educator or school board member, but it’s the best time as well, because we are serving a very important role … there’s a chance to influence positively the lives of families and students right now,” Benitez stated.

Heather Kemp is a staff writer for California Schools.