In a less than five-minute meeting, the White Bear Lake school board canceled its public forum in response to members of the audience who chose to attend the in-person meeting without wearing masks.
District policy currently requires face coverings for ages 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status. For those unable to wear masks, the district had provided a separate space within the District Center where attendees could watch a livestream broadcast of the meeting. However, maskless individuals still chose to be present in the main meeting space.
On noticing this, the board quickly passed its consent agenda, explained the reason the public forum would be skipped, and then adjourned.
The sudden ending of the meeting caused uproar in the audience, with one individual comparing the action to “Nazism.”
“We needed to send a message that that’s not going to be tolerated,” Acting Board Chair Kim Chapman said after the meeting. “It’s a board policy. Students have to wear it, all staff have to wear it, everybody on school district grounds in the buildings wear masks.”
The public forum has been a contentious space over the last few months, with the board passing new public forum rules at the beginning of last month’s meeting. The holding of a public forum is not a legal requirement for school board meetings, but is offered as a way for members of the public to bring information relevant to the function of the district directly to the board’s attention.
“The school board is responding to pressures that are being put on by certain folks in the community that don’t want to adhere to the school board policies and protocols,” Chapman said. “If people aren’t going to listen and adhere to those rules, they force our hand to a great extent, because we don’t want these public forums to become combative or escalate into something nobody wants to see happen. It seems like the last several board meetings have been escalating.”
Friction at school board meetings, particularly regarding mask requirements, has been a nationwide occurrence in the last few months. In some cases it has resulted in threats and physical violence between members of the community. A recent New York Times article on this topic observed that schools have long been at the forefront of societal conflict, and that such interactions are often a reflection of the question of what it means to be a human and an American in our current place in history.
The board’s two operational items were moved to the consent agenda and passed immediately before the meeting was ended. The first item was an update in the pay rate of substitute teachers. The second was the approval of an agreement with the White Bear Lake Area Educators teachers’ union.
The brevity of the meeting prevented the usual district updates and student recognition.
For those wanting to address the board through public forum, district Director of Human Resources Matt Mons, who also serves as the board’s general counsel, advised getting in touch with board members or the superintendent individually by email or phone.
“The school board has it as a tool for engagement with the public, and I think they really value it, but they want to make sure that that dialogue is from the public to the school board, which hasn’t necessarily been the case recently,” Mons said.
The next school board meeting will take place at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at the District Center.