The Frontline of Democracy – Serving on Local School Boards in 2023

AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.

By Steph Walker

September 22, 2023

What happens when a hard-right majority takes over a local school board? Steph Walker, a member of the New Hanover County Board of Education, shares how the Board’s new majority is wielding power to ban books.

In the United States, there is no higher form of civic duty than serving in an elected office, especially on the local level. Serving entails absorbing an immense amount of information and sometimes making very tough decisions. 

Based on my own experience, and feedback I’ve received from other elected folks, I truly believe that there is currently no elected office that is more challenging than serving on local boards of education. I even heard our own governor recently say the same thing. This is especially true for political swing districts, like New Hanover County, where by their nature, tend to see more controversy and disagreement amongst their constituency. Throw in a once-in-a-century pandemic and it’s like throwing kindling onto a smoldering fire. 

When I began my tenure on the school board in late 2020, I started to see the beginnings of national grievance issues, like Critical Race Theory, so-called ‘woke indoctrination’, and fights against certain books. The stoking of feelings over pandemic policy helped elevate these issues into election strategy nationwide. Folks started lumping all these issues together under the banner of ‘Parent Choice’, and what better way to try and kill public education in North Carolina than to make people believe they don’t have rights and choices? 

Proud Boys and Book Bans – Here is Where We Are

From my seat on the dais over the last three years, I’ve literally watched our community be torn apart by these grievance issues. Meetings have devolved into fights and shouting matches. One meeting in the summer of 2021 had to take an emergency recess because the audience got out of hand. Building security has been beefed up with metal detectors, wanding, and more police officers. We have received ‘pink slips’ on our car windshields telling us that county taxpayers have fired us. Rude, but kind of funny also.

Local Proud Boys have shown up at a few of our meetings signing in with fake names, fully concealing their identities, and wearing tactical gear. They would all stand at the back of the room, some holding signs with derogatory messages against board members or members of the LGBTQ+ community, shouting the pledge of allegiance in unison, harassing members of the public in attendance, and even heckling students who showed up to speak. 

Some of my fellow board members experienced folks driving by their homes, coordinated ‘prayer walks’ in front of their homes, and leaflet propaganda campaigns at a local bookstore. There have been civil lawsuits filed against the board over masking policies, fake ‘court papers’ served to us on the dais against books in our libraries, and targeted social media campaigns. 

In 2020, the school board in New Hanover County flipped to a Democratic 5-2 majority for the first time.  Only two years later in the 2022 election, our school board majority took a hard right turn. Nevermind that it was a low turnout, midterm election during a Democratic president’s reign. Nevermind that the vote margin was close. Nevermind the insane amount of money spent on a local school board race. To the new hard-right majority, the win meant a clear mandate was born, and they let us all know that the first day they were sworn in. 

On September 1st, 2023, after a five-and-a-half-hour hearing, a board majority banned our first book. The book “Stamped” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi was “temporarily” banned from curriculum in our school district, and all copies were to be sequestered to our high school libraries until a suitable book with an opposing viewpoint could be chosen. 

Newsflash: “Stamped” is never being reinstated for curriculum until at least 2026 (the next election that could flip the majority).

This discretionary hearing was prompted by one parent who had been unsuccessful in removing the book through the school and district appeal process, and whose child received an accommodation with another assignment. But this individual brought their request to the sympathetic board, the majority of whom ran on removing books from schools.

Despite the rhetoric they may employ, ironically, this board majority and this parent actually took parent choice away from tens of thousands of parents, and had no qualms about doing so.

Sadly, the banning of “Stamped” is not just about this particular book, although the message sent by this board was not lost on a community, who is still feeling the generational effects of two of the most significant racial events in United States history – the 1898 Massacre and the Wilmington 10 incident. It also sends a message that we don’t trust our staff to make the professional decisions that we hired them to do. And, to my beginning point about public service, it does not serve our community well either. 

After the hearing, a constituent posed a very valid question to me, “Imagine what the board could do if they spent five and a half hours tackling trauma and mental health issues for our students?” 

Yes, imagine.

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