By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – The past year has been a roller coaster of uncertainty because of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a decision one week is outdated the next.
Lacking direction from state and federal officials, school boards have been tasked with making decisions on in-person and virtual learning – stretching the scope of board members’ roles.
It’s no secret members of the Green Bay school board have received a heightened level of scrutiny due to their decision to begin and remain virtual thus far for the 2020-21 school year.
Trustees have spent countless hours discussing this at nearly every school board meeting since last March.
The discussion recently found its way to the Green Bay city council, led to the creation of a parents group advocating for a return on Facebook and has even prompted some parents to display “Return to School” billboards.
Hundreds of parents have spoken out during virtual board meetings, posted on social media platforms and contacted board members directly through phone calls, emails and text messages.
The increased feedback has brought an increase of negative comments, and board members have characterized some feedback as harassment.
Board President Eric Vanden Heuvel said he has received harassing messages, voicemails and texts, and has even had some people contact his boss at his full-time job to complain about him in regards to his work on the school board.
“It is expected, and frankly, a part of a healthy democratic process, for people to be able to share their opinions on topics,” he said. “It is obvious that there are different perspectives on this, and it has been challenging to make decisions that you know will upset a large portion of the community. But when people express themselves in mean and unprofessional ways, it only adds to the challenges we are trying to overcome.”
Vanden Heuvel said he has talked to other board members who are receiving similar pushback.
Trustee Dawn Smith said while she absolutely welcomes and encourages community feedback, some of it has crossed the line.
“The past several months there have been parent groups who have been aggressive in their push on the school board to get our schools to open, regardless of what’s going on with COVID in our community,” Smith said. “There have been repeated emails, sometimes 50-plus from the same person, phone calls and Facebook posts with our home addresses encouraging people to picket in front of our houses. I don’t find these strategies overly effective, and I’ve worked hard to ensure I’m listening to everyone who reaches out – not just the people who are talking the most.”
Smith said she looks at every issue from all angles.
“The school board is in a difficult position, and no matter what decisions we make, we’re going to make some people angry,” she said. “We don’t get to evaluate this situation from the perspective of a single student or family. We’re obligated to look at this from the perspective of all stakeholders, which includes students, staff, their families and the broader community. My goal has always been to open our schools when it is safe to do so, and to be able to keep them open.”
Former school board vice president Kristina Shelton wouldn’t go on record connecting harassment as a contributing factor to her resignation, but she did say the overwhelming amount of communication she received from all sides did have a part in it.
“I experienced a high volume of engagement on many sides of the issue,” she said. “It exacerbated the already difficult work. Navigating the complex current reality to transition from virtual, hybrid to in-person learning has required additional time and commitments for all board members. It is already a high-demand job, and now you are making decisions sort of outside the normal realm of how school boards function. It made it increasingly difficult to have the role fit into the scope of my life and my professional career. It became impossible for me to do both.”
Shelton was elected as representative to the 90th Assembly District in November, and resigned from the school board Jan. 15.
Trustee Rhonda Sitnikau, who has been vocal for months to get schools open, said she has received some harassment from teachers, but has received a lot of positive feedback from them as well.
“This is a very intense time for everybody regardless of where you sit,” Sitnikau said. “And I think the hardest part is that people don’t necessarily feel comfortable in any position that they are in. It’s a fluid and complicated time.”
Board member Andrew Becker said he received communication from people with different perspectives advocating strongly for their position, and has not received any harassing messages.
“I really try to listen to and respect opinions on both sides of this issue as I work to get schools reopened safely,” he said. “Obviously, I support respectful disagreement and do not support harassment of anyone.”
The school board is currently down a member due to Shelton’s resignation.
Vanden Heuvel said the board received 24 applications to fill the vacancy.
Trustees will narrow it down to eight at 5 p.m. Monday, Feb. 15.
Virtual interviews of those eight applicants will be held Monday, March 1.
The appointee will serve until April 10, 2022.