School boards enter the forefront of partisan culture wars. It’s just the beginning.

Board members face threats, harassment, recalls and a fired-up far-right machine preparing for the 2022 elections

When essential oil salesman Bill Liebich became a member of the Vail Unified School District in April, it wasn’t because he won an election or was appointed to fill a vacancy. 

Instead, he and a group of anti-mask activists stormed the school board, forcing the actual board members to cancel the meeting and leave. The mob held a fake election in the lobby and declared Liebich and four others as the new board, voters be damned. The “new board” immediately voted to remove the district’s mask policy at the time.  

As a bewildered local TV reporter explained in a live shot outside the school board meeting, that’s not how any of this works. 

Still, the story spread far and wide in conservative circles, including on Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast, despite multiple fact checks finding that simply declaring yourself a board doesn’t actually make it so. 

Vail’s “mini Jan. 6” was a striking sign of the brewing battle over school boards, an early red flag in a long list of school board blow-ups this year.

Around Arizona and the nation, school board members are under attack as parents and, more often, political activists with no ties to the district set their sights on school boards. 

The school board became the new front in partisan culture wars, with agitators taking on the tactics and rhetoric that dominate swampy national politics.

Political parties and partisan organizations are recruiting, training and funding partisan warriors to flood school board races in the 2022 election. Any parent considering running for school board is stepping into a hypercharged partisan arena that is sure to be as nasty as any congressional campaign. 

“School board elections in 2022 are gonna be no joke,” Chris Kotterman, government affairs director for the Arizona School Boards Association, said. 

“There’s this perfect storm of right-wing organizations, your Steve Bannons and Stephen Millers who generally have an interest in stirring up angst about race and Critical Race Theory,” he said. “And COVID added gas to it.”

Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit with close ties to Donald Trump, is one of the many conservative groups targeting school board elections across the country.

It created a “school board watch list” that “finds and exposes school board leadership that supports anti-American, radical, hateful, immoral, and racist teachings in their districts.” Three Arizona school districts — Scottsdale, Mesa and Chandler — are on the list. 

Its website seems to encourage brawls and disorderly conduct as an acceptable tactic.

On the website, “The Battle To Save America’s Classroom” is scrawled over clips of people fighting with police, shouting down school board members and getting arrested at school board meetings. 

Charlie Kirk, Turning Point’s founder who has spread disinformation about COVID-19 and is spearheading a campaign to spread vaccine resistance in teens, has become a fixture at Arizona school board meetings in recent weeks. 

His appearance at Tuesday’s meeting of the Scottsdale Unified school board, one of the districts on his watch list, was typical. He accused the board of “abus(ing)” children by requiring masks at school as the delta variant spikes, and claimed there is “zero evidence to show that children are at a significant risk of catching or dying from the Chinese coronavirus.”

“Your time is soon up,” he warned the board. “The people of this state and this school district are waking up, there are recall efforts in place. You have awoken a sleeping giant.” 

Trey Terry, a conservative Republican, former legislative candidate and new governing board member at Agua Fria Union High School District, agrees there will be a wave of conservative Republicans preparing to run for school boards in 2022 and conservative groups ready to back them. He’s excited to see Republicans make gains.

But candidates need to realize that a school board is not the place to wage partisan wars, he said. Rather, the office offers a chance to bring conservative values to the mission of supporting students, and find compromise on good policy. 

Vail Superintendent John Carruth said groups like Turning Point USA and the Patriot Party, which organized the Vail protest and whose leader was later arrested at a Chandler school board meeting, are symbols of the win-at-all-costs mentality that has seeped into the lowest level of democracy.

“Where is that anger coming from? I think there’s a will to take over school boards at the local level because you can win the culture wars that way,” Carruth said.

“The strategy is to divide because there’s money in dividing us.”

Watch any random school board meeting these days and there’s a good chance it will go completely off the rails. 

Just this week in the Valley: 

  • A Litchfield Elementary School District Governing Board member abruptly resigned, saying as the only Black board member, she felt harassed and targeted amid the ongoing Critical Race Theory debate. 

  • Angry parents descended on Gilbert Unified School District to warn the district not to implement a mask policy (it had no plans to do so), hurling threats and insults at board members who pleaded with parents to mask their children up, even in lieu of a district mandate. 

  • The Scottsdale Unified governing board locked down its meeting, only allowing one member of the public in at a time to complain about its mask mandate after a string of threats and scary moments in recent months.

School boards have always been venues for heated debates. 

But during the pandemic, schools have become a proxy for our great national debates over quarantines, masks, vaccines and how we teach history in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the country in the first summer of the pandemic. The temperature has increased dramatically, and officials worry it’s only a matter of time until that boils over into violence. 

“This is an extremely volatile environment,” Kotterman said. 

Jann-Michael Greenburg, president of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board, readily admits that during his own 2018 campaign, he was “mean” and “harsh” to members of the board who supported former Superintendent Denise Birdwell, who was later indicted for taking kickbacks from school construction firms and hit with 27 charges ranging from conspiracy and misuse of public monies to filing false tax returns.

His dad even created a parody site about another school board member that was “vicious,” he said. 

But there’s a difference between angry political speech and hate speech — a difference between real problems and conspiracies, he said. 

And far too often, the agitators have crossed that line into racism and conspiracies.

Scottsdale Unified doesn’t teach Critical Race Theory curriculum, but has been repeatedly accused of doing so. As that debate took off, so did the antisemitic attacks on Greenburg, he said, including frequent allusions to the conspiracies that Jewish people control the world and at least one remark about circumcision. Someone recently littered a Scottsdale school campus with copies of a white supremacist comic.

Earlier this month, a person who is neither a parent or resident of the district showed up with a group of protesters and was arrested for trying to break into a school building, wrongly believing the board was secretly meeting inside, rather than virtually, as could clearly be seen on the video stream. 

“You could see my bed and my ceiling fan in my room in my video shot,” he said. “I mean that is the level of conspiracy thinking that we’re dealing with — they thought we were actually in the boardroom with different (virtual) backgrounds holding a meeting.”

When the Scottsdale Unified School Board met this week, there were more than a half-dozen cops on site and as many on standby in case the meeting got out of hand. Greenburg’s fear is that if someone is riled up enough to try to break into a building, next time they might bring a gun. 

Greenburg said school boards are having a QAnon moment — a dark and dangerous time that is the fruit of “decades of coddling a dangerous level of ignorance.”

He’s not conflicted about who’s to blame: those on the fringes of the Republican Party. 

But for Carruth, the Vail superintendent, assigning blame isn’t as easy. Yes, there’s a dangerous level of conspiratorial thinking and conspiracy theories about schools spreading in far-right circles. He spends a fair amount of time these days trying to intervene with facts and open communication when he sees parents going down the kind of online rabbit holes that inspired what he calls “the insurrection in Vail” or “our mini Jan. 6.” 

But it’s not all conspiracies. 

Education is largely a liberal institution, and in a conservative community like Vail, it’s important for teachers to keep their own biases in check, he said.

He’s heard stories about teachers asking students their pronouns on the first day of class, and while he respects a students right to choose their pronouns, he can understand why that rankles parents and leads them to think schools are trying to indoctrinate students with liberal ideology.

“We need to be very careful about filtering the answer to things through the lens of our values, and we need to seek to understand the values of our parents here too,” he said. “When you do things through only your own lens and don’t understand who you’re serving, that’s where the tension comes in.”

Terry, the new board member at the Agua Fria Union High School District, said he’s gone through great lengths to try to separate his political activism from his job as a volunteer school board member, because even though he’s a conservative Republican, the office is nonpartisan and he’s there to represent his constituents and support the staff and students. 

Terry opposes Critical Race Theory and voted to end his district’s mandatory mask policy. But there’s so much more to the job than that, he said.

“I’m fully supportive of more conservatives and Republicans running for school boards, but they need to recognize that the board is a unique and demanding job itself,” he said. “If you’re running on America First and hating on China, and that’s your only issue, I don’t think being on the local school board is a good spot.”