From St. Augustine Record:
St. Johns County School Board members to national board: We don't need federal protection
Colleen Michele Jones
St. Augustine Record
St. Johns County School Board member Beverly Slough speaks at a ceremony in 2020. [FILE PHOTO]
Two St. Johns County School Board members have publicly opposed a letter issued by the National School Boards Association requesting federal protection for public education officials as political volatility continues to drive the climate at school board meetings in some communities across the U.S.
Beverly Slough and Kelly Barrera, both registered Republicans, say they do not stand behind the NSBA's statement which was sent Sept. 29 to President Joe Biden to express concerns about "extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings," according to the letter.
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The issue came up at Tuesday's school board meeting with Slough using her comment period to defend her and Barrera's stance while some in the audience held signs in support stating they were "Moms, not domestic terrorists."
Slough, who is a member of the NSBA Board of Directors, said she sent an email on Oct. 1 to Chip Slaven, the NSBA's interim executive director.
"Something of this magnitude should never have been sent without the concurrence of the full Board of Directors," Slough wrote in the email. "While I realize that we have all been under duress at our meetings, I do not feel that it rises to the level of asking for federal law enforcement to manage the meetings."
Barrera did not immediately return a call by The Record before press time Tuesday.
The Florida School Boards Association — of which the rest of the St. Johns County School Board is a part of — is refusing to pay membership dues to the NSBA after the Washington, D.C.-based organization cited more than 20 instances of harassment or intimidation as reason that the country’s “public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat.”
School board meetings nationwide — and here in St. Johns County — have become increasingly contentious, and political, with debate around safety protocols, such as masks and vaccinations, related to COVID-19.
St. Johns County School Board seats are nonpartisan.
In May, parents staged a demonstration in front of the school administration building in St. Augustine demanding administrators lift a mask mandate, while others in the community have pushed for more protections.
In more recent school board meetings, the tenor has bordered on raucous at times with speakers insulting each other or board members; citing passages from the Bible; yelling and booing; and wearing apparel with profane language at the microphone.
In response to the national organization’s letter, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Oct. 5 directed the FBI to work with local officials to stamp out “harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” to school board members following what Garland called a “disturbing spike” in such incidents.
However, in an interview with The Record following Tuesday's board meeting, Slough said, "Whatever controversy we've had, it's nothing we cannot handle at a local level" and had never reached a point of violence.
School board chair Patrick Canan agreed.
Reached Tuesday by The Record, Canan said he respected speakers' First Amendment rights to express their opinion but that comments sometimes did cross the line in terms of personal directness or offensiveness.
"I think we as a community have to be role models for our children in terms of demeanor, kindness and civility," said Canan.
Canan, a registered Democrat, said he did not believe that national politics were at play as much as parents' vested interests in the well-being of their children.
Several parents commented at Tuesday's meeting to thank Slough for the position she'd taken. But one speaker suggested she hold a press conference on the issue and/or consider stepping down from her position on the NSBA.
In addition to the organization in Florida, 11 school board associations in Louisiana and Virginia have denounced the letter sent by its national counterpart, contending local law enforcement is well-equipped to handle any threats directed at school board members.
Both the VSBA and LSBA said the NSBA did not consult with their state associations before drafting the letter and sending it to the president.
Representatives from the NSBA did not immediately return a call for comment.
The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.