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An unprecedented number of Minnesota school board members are resigning early after an unrelenting year of community angst over school closures and mask debates, budget cuts, reckonings over social justice and battles about curriculum.

In a typical academic year, 12 to 15 board members statewide leave their seats before their terms end. This year, there have been more than 50.

The reasons for those departures vary, but board members in districts of all sizes — rural, suburban and urban — have similar stories to share: e-mail and voice mail in-boxes filled with passionate and sometimes threatening messages about what will happen if they vote to require mask wearing, or if they do the opposite. Packed school board meetings where community members disregard rules and common courtesy to vent their frustrations, sometimes on topics over which the board has no control. Personal, stinging accusations that school board members don't understand or care about students, families or the communities where they live.

"If you think of it as a volume knob, everything that would normally be at a 3 or 4 is at an 11," said Kevin Boyles, a Brainerd school board member.

School boards have always dealt with controversies. Talk about budget cuts, changing school boundaries or replacing school mascots can quickly become heated issues for school systems and their communities. But some board members say the past year, with emotions and fear running full blast, has been something different altogether.

Among those who have resigned is Pam Lindberg, who said she enjoyed the first few years she spent on the school board in Robbinsdale.

After retiring from a long teaching career, Lindberg said she was looking to serve her community and thought her experience might be of use, so she ran and was first elected in 2014.

Things started to change a few years later, when the district was embroiled in a controversy over a principal's reassignment that led to an audit of the district's finances and management.

Lindberg said that situation prompted a wave of often-personal criticism from community members. And when the pandemic hit, with frustrations mounting over a long list of new topics, it started to feel like a tsunami of anger. Lindberg hit a breaking point in April, when she and other board members received what she described as a "particularly egregious, abusive" e-mail.

She waited it out until the end of the school board meeting last week, mostly because she was concerned about the cost the district would incur if she stepped down earlier and triggered a special election.

State law requires school districts to hold a special election if more than a year remains on a board member's term, and costs can rise into the tens of thousands of dollars.

At the Robbinsdale meeting, a visibly emotional Lindberg said she'd had enough.

"The hate is too much," she said. "I no longer feel respected, nor effective."

New personal attacks

Rochester school board Chairwoman Jean Marvin said neither she nor any of her colleagues plan to resign. After seven years on the board, she knows listening to criticism and dealing with community members' frustrations is a big part of the role.

She's accustomed to the constant flow of e-mails, which hit close to 100 per day at the height of the pandemic. But she said the level of personal attacks lobbed at board members this year is new.

"It wasn't the majority of them, but there were some frequent flyers who kept coming and coming and coming. It was not about the issue anymore, it was about that we were substandard human beings and morons and didn't understand: 'You don't get how this works, you don't understand children and what do you know about education,' " she said.

At a recent meeting in Rochester, several people disregarded meeting rules and shouted over board members, protesting mask-wearing and the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept that is not part of Minnesota's statewide curriculum standards but has become a political flash point in recent months.

Similar scenes have played out across the state, including in a recent board meeting in Brainerd, where one man quoted the Bible and threatened to dump hot coals on the heads of school board members if critical race theory was taught in the district's schools.

Teaching that concept, which suggests racism is built into the legal and political systems that shape American society, was not on the evening's agenda, or that of any upcoming board meetings.

Jackie Magnuson, chairwoman of the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school board, said she understands why people have been coming to their school boards with frustration and anxiety this year. She said she tries to talk with people to understand their specific concerns and answer questions but finds some don't want to have a conversation — they just want to vent.

Sometimes, the angry messages that fly her way aren't even from people with a stake in the district. She's had e-mails from people in such places as Texas and New Hampshire, saying she should be ashamed to show her face in her own community.

"People are afraid, people are scared, people are grieving, and that all comes out sideways," she said.

Single-issue candidates

Magnuson said she has no plans to step down, but she wonders if the events of this year might give would-be school board members reason to pause before signing up for the job. After all, it's hardly glamorous. Board members might get a few thousand dollars a year for a position that can demand 20 hours a week of work, including mundane responsibilities related to budgets and other routine parts of public schools.

Greg Abbott, spokesman for the Minnesota School Boards Association, said he worries school districts and communities will lose if people interested in the wide-ranging topics that shape education decide to sit out — and people fired up about a single subject fill those gaps.

"You may attract a lot of one-issue people to run," he said. "But education has multiple, multiple issues to deal with and once that issue is dealt with, then what do you do?"

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790