Notes from a school board takeover
This isn’t leadership, it’s vandalism
A hard-right faction took control of the 4th-largest school district in South Carolina last night and immediately got to work smashing anything that wasn’t nailed to the floor.
On the same night they were sworn in to the Berkeley County School Board, a slate of candidates backed by Moms for Liberty and the local Republican Party fired the district’s first Black superintendent, fired the district legal counsel, voted to cut property taxes, approved a ban on “critical race theory” in the classroom, and set up a panel to begin reviewing and banning books containing sexual content that they deem inappropriate.
I was there when it happened, part of an overflow crowd of community members who told the board what they were doing was shameful. We might as well have delivered our little speeches to a brick wall. What we witnessed last night was more like vandalism than leadership.
I live-tweeted the meeting last night if you want to take a closer look. Because this newsletter has a national(-ish) audience, I wanted to share some broad observations that might be helpful as conservatives put all of our schools in their crosshairs.
They came prepared
The temptation is to think of our political opponents as stupid or insane. They might in fact be both, but we can’t think strategically about defeating them without assuming a base level of cunning on their part.
The Berkeley County Republican Party is a well-oiled machine. From the moment the newly elected conservative super-majority members took their seats in the boardroom last night, it was obvious they had a plan and they were sticking to it.
The new members didn’t deliver any flashy soundbites. They hardly discussed their policy proposals at all, aside from a running narrative by their newly installed board chair, Mac McQuillin. McQuilin is one of the longer-serving board members and knows Robert’s Rules of Order. He knew when to call a vote, and his allies on the board dutifully cast their votes in a 6-member bloc. On a 9-member board, they didn’t need to bother with persuading the other side.
This is called party discipline, and Democrats are terrible at it. Progressive activists and politicians could learn a thing or two about tactics here.
They take cues from the national level
Two rallying cries of conservative activists in this country right now are banning uncomfortable discussions of history under the guise of “critical race theory” and forbidding students from learning about the existence of trans people. The messaging is clear and consistent from Tucker Carlson’s mouth to your racist cousin’s ears.
Unlike with Statehouse-level legislation, where watchdog groups like ALEC Exposed track the spread of “model legislation” from the American Legislative Exchange Council, we don’t have a robust way of tracking the spread of billionaires’ pet projects at the level of local school boards (Or maybe we do! Let me know if you have a good resource).
Read enough local news and you start to see the patterns, though. Conservative county council and school board members have no qualms about copying and pasting policies from each other.
Earlier this month in South Carolina, the Horry County School Board set aside a “restricted access” section of school libraries where students can’t read books without parental permission. Book bans and “library consideration policies” were on the agenda in Lexington 3 and Beaufort County school districts this week too, borrowing ideas from Florida’s latest book ban laws.
Following the template, Berkeley County’s school board voted last night to approve a similar book-banning regime, effectively overriding policies that were written by the district’s own school librarians last year.
Aside from conservative media outlets, a vector for the spread of these policies is faux-grassroots organizations like Moms for Liberty, which now boasts 16 chapters in my state alone according to the Post and Courier. M4L-endorsed candidates just won 6 of 9 school board seats in Berkeley County and 5 of 9 seats in Charleston County where I live.
Media Matters had a pretty good summary of their tactics here:
Moms for Liberty is run by Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, two former school board members serving in neighboring Florida counties. The group was incorporated on January 1 and has since “grown to 135 chapters in 35 states, with 56,000 members and supporters, according to the organization’s founders,” per the [Washington] Post.
Moms for Liberty has county-specific chapters across the country that target local school board meetings, school board members, administrators, and teachers. The group advocates to strip districts of protective COVID-19 measures and modify classroom curriculum to exclude the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) and sex education, all in the name of “parental rights.”
If this doesn’t sound familiar yet, it will soon.
Partisanship is out in the open now
School board seats in most school districts are non-partisan positions, meaning that candidates don’t display an (R) or a (D) beside their name on a ballot. Their members are often deeply enmeshed in local party machines, though, and they’re starting to be more brazen about it.
Berkeley County, in the growing inland suburbs of Charleston, underwent a sort of out-in-the-open Republican surge already in 2016. Back then, the county Republican Party gave money and support to 4 candidates who won their races, bringing the number of Republicans on the board to at least 5 out of the 9 seats. The focus at the time was on slashing taxes, which they did while handing out more corporate tax subsidies than all but 2 districts in the United States.
This year saw a subtle shift as the party openly endorsed candidates and put up huge signs advertising their slate of candidates on roadsides across the county. So the Berkeley County School Board is still technically a nonpartisan body, but that’s a distinction without a difference. In local races where candidates traditionally run on shoestring budgets with very little local news coverage, the name recognition from a splashy advertising campaign is often enough to sway the voters.
What we saw last night was the fulfillment of an entire Republican wishlist condensed into 3-and-a-half hours. The conservative board members had more or less broadcast their plans in advance for anyone who was paying attention. We have to contend with the possibility that, beyond cynical ad buys and low-information voting patterns, the majority of Berkeley County voters actually wanted all of this to happen.
They don’t care about losing teachers
I initially went to the board meeting last night to speak against the teacher censorship and book banning proposals — but when I got there, half the room was buzzing with a rumor that the newly elected board would vote to terminate the widely liked superintendent, Dr. Deon Jackson.
The rumors were true. The board apparently discussed the matter behind closed doors during an executive session, but they didn’t explain their reasoning in public. They fired Dr. Jackson in a 6-3 vote along party lines as he sat beside them on the dais, and as he stood to leave, so did nearly all of the teachers in the boardroom. There was jeering and booing, and plenty of people (myself included) warned the school board they were about to worsen their already critical teacher shortage. More and more teachers are ready to walk out for good. The 6-member supermajority did not appear to care at all.
Open theocrats are back
This is a matter of degrees, as religious spectacles and performative prayer never left public meetings in the South, but there was a lot of Bible quoting at last night’s school board meeting.
Ann Conder, a conservative former school board member, used her portion of the public comment period to read from Ephesians 6, in which the Apostle Paul exhorts Christian believers to “put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Based on context, I can only assume the devil’s schemes involve the teaching of American history and human sexuality.
At another time during the meeting, one pro-censorship pastor said he had been meeting regularly with the 6 new school board members in what he described as “more like prayer requests and Bible study” than political organizing. One public commenter said they were glad to know the new board members would be guided by the Holy Spirit to make correct decisions.
In this as in so many other arenas of public life in the United States, the mask is all the way off.
They are immune to shame
According to my notes during the public comment session last night, the Berkeley County School Board heard passionate opposition to their proposals from current teachers, school librarians, and representatives of the Goose Creek NAACP, Charleston Black Lives Matter, Charleston Jewish Federation, Pro Truth SC, and South Carolina Association of School Librarians. Some of us were measured with our words, some of us were not, but together we clearly outnumbered the handful of Moms for Liberty members and Republican operatives in the crowd.
Here’s the thing: It is good to tell them the truth. It is good to confront them. But they don’t care. They won an election and they are going to run roughshod over the schools until we defeat them.
What do we do when our political enemies can’t be persuaded by reason or by shame? What is our plan now that the incoming state superintendent of education, anti-CRT zealot and school privatization activist Ellen Weaver, has gone on camera for an interview with a Proud Boy-adjacent right-wing media mogul to openly brag about her plans to censor teachers and attack public funding of education?
I attended the meeting last night not because my kids are directly affected (we live one county over), but because the attacks on teachers and librarians follow a pattern that I know the Moms for Liberty crowd will try to replicate in all of our schools soon. To the extent that I can fight, speak out, and organize across South Carolina with Freedom to Read SC, I am going to do so. We have to get organized between now and the next election, and we have to do it better than they do.
Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter about class struggle and education in the American South. If you would like to support my work and get access to the complete archive of subscriber-only content, paid subscriptions are $5 a month.