It’s long past time to tone down the behavior at school board meetings

Arun K. Ramanathan is the CEO of Pivot Learning, an Oakland-based nonprofit that works to raise academic achievement in public schools.

People think school board meetings are dull affairs knee-deep in educational jargon. Much of the time, that is true. But every now and then, they transform into the theater of the absurd. I once watched each member of a five-person board repeatedly vote for themselves for board president before realizing they were being mocked on social media. More commonly, during budget cutting and contract negotiating times, they are the bureaucratic equivalent of a shark attack — hours of boring presentations punctuated by a sudden upheaval of public rage that rips district leaders apart.

The vast majority of school board members are decent, dedicated public servants doing a difficult job for little or no compensation. But like all politicians, there are some who abuse their power. I’ve witnessed board members serially humiliate the leaders and staff of their school systems, treating them with a level of contempt that is the definition of harassment and toxic work environments. I have seen them allow powerful constituents, particularly labor leaders, do the same without having the decency to intervene on their behalf.

I have seen them spend hours responding to a couple of local gadflies with the free time to peruse board agendas and then change decisions with multimillion-dollar implications based on a few ill-informed public comments. I have watched them be condescending and cruel to each other.

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