Anyone wondering why the Florida Constitution mandates that school board elections be nonpartisan need look no further than what’s happening in our county, where the invasion of take-no-prisoners political forces has produced the most ugly and hostile that I have seen here.
The harsh rhetoric, bigoted attitudes, and underhand tactics we’ve witnessed these past few months should be beneath the good people of our community, who, until recently, seemed to be protected from the political polarization and tribalism that has left our nation dangerously divided.
It wasn’t until four years ago, in fact, that local Republican and Democratic parties ignored the spirit of the law and began supporting School Board candidates.
But now it’s much worse.
Endorsements are not enough. Political opponents are now seen as enemies who must be demonized and defeated. As a result, our once-neighboring community, Mayberry-by-the-Sea, has become a culture war combat zone in a battle to determine the future of public education in the county.
There has certainly been a trickle down of our national politics, which are more toxic and corrosive than at any time in my adult life. You’ll notice, though, that we don’t see any of the same poison, sewer-rat behavior in the two County Commission races.
That’s because supposedly nonpartisan School Board races have been infected by the most aggressive and ambitious political newcomer in recent years: a fledgling group calling itself “Moms For Liberty,” which is more than a little ironic, given their uncompromising positions and their refusal to tolerate different points of view.
For those who don’t know: Indian River and Brevard counties are the birthplace of the 20-month-old moms movement, which was co-founded by Tiffany Justice, a Vero Island resident who served a tumultuous stint in the our school board, where he too often engaged in petty sniping with then-president Laura Zorc and, curiously, defended an obviously out-of-touch superintendent.
The mothers say they have 195 chapters in 37 states and nearly 100,000 members, not enough to fill the University of Michigan football stadium, and have focused their political efforts on taking control of school boards to change the culture of public education in the United States.
They say they stand up for parents’ rights, but they refuse to accept that their rights end when they infringe on the rights of other parents who hold different views.
They also say they will not co-parent with the professional educators who lead our public schools, accusing teachers and administrators of trying to indoctrinate children with liberal beliefs.
They want to take our public schools back to the “Happy Days” era of the 1950s.
If they succeed?
It is only a matter of time before teachers can no longer participate in discussions about controversial current events and social issues. Books that can make even a student feel uncomfortable would be removed from school libraries.
And, yes, it could happen here, where next week’s School Board elections will likely be pivotal.
Locally, mothers are a small but vocal fringe group that has spent as much time and effort attacking their naysayers and opponents as they have supporting their approved School Board candidates: District 2 incumbent Jackie Rosario and Thomas Kenny, District 4 challenger.
All indications are that mothers do not represent the majority of parents with children in our public schools, but they do make noise.
Local mothers’ leaders and a handful of supporters have been a constant presence at school board meetings, where for the past two years they have opposed campus mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, the critical theory of race (which was “t taught here) and library books they mistakenly considered pornographic.
The public comment segment of those meetings occasionally became contentious, prompting the district to bring in additional sheriff’s deputies to ensure security.
However, it has been during the current campaign season that the behavior of mothers’ supporters, especially those who support Rosario, the movement’s lone voice on the School Board, has become disturbing.
Overzealous supporters have tried to intimidate political opponents at public events, such as Main Street Vero Beach’s monthly Downtown Friday celebration, where they were seen shouting, “This is Rosario’s country” and “We don’t want Democrats or RINO (Republicans in name only). ).”
The antagonistic and confrontational tone of the downtown rallies convinced event organizers to ban political booths, starting this month.
Supporters of Moms and Rosario have also been active on social media, especially on Facebook, where they have rushed to the defense of their candidate and fiercely attacked anyone who dared to say or write anything that put her in a negative light.
Armed with their own political hack disguised as an online journalist, they have also resorted to smear campaigns against Rosario’s critics and opponents.
The campaign’s most repulsive political ploy, however, can’t be pinned on the mothers or their supporters, though my former Press Journal colleague Russ Lemmon believes Rosario’s supporters are behind it.
In a column that appeared last week in a 30,000-copy “special edition” of his locally distributed publication LemmonLines, Lemmon wrote that “racism is being used as a campaign strategy” and called it the tactic “most sinister” he has seen on a local level.
He then described the mysterious campaign signs, which contained an unflattering photo of LaDonna Corbin, a black woman trying to unseat Rosario, along with the words, “Crazy Corbin Says Scan Me.”
The signs also carried a large QR code that, when scanned, took viewers to what appeared to be a fake Instagram account full of content that Lemmon claimed was “intended to enrage a certain segment of the white population.”
It’s bad enough that Corbin, a political novice, was forced to explain early in her campaign a controversial TikTok video in which she appeared to be having a mental health crisis, claiming she was acting, but for targeting her with such a blatantly racist stunt. it was despicable.
That’s why Lemmon valiantly tried in his column to connect the dots in a complex puzzle to expose the evil brain behind the signs. Despite his investigative efforts, however, he admitted to the press that he was unable to uncover enough evidence to establish any direct connection to Rosario’s supporters.
As expected, moms took to their keyboards to dispute Lemmon’s conclusion, criticize his journalism and question his motives. Some of the group falsely claimed that the special edition was a political ad funded by one of Rosario’s opponents.
The barrage of comments posted on the LemmonLines Facebook page by Moms chapter president Jennifer Pippin prompted Lemmon to block her because she said she was trying to “hijack the page.”
Lemmon defended his decision to write and publish the column — production costs were covered solely by ads and he made no profit — saying he was sickened by the sordid attempt to inject racism into an already heated campaign .
The mothers and their followers, of course, will never believe it. They don’t believe anything they don’t agree with, regardless of the facts, and I no longer expect them to.
Instead, I appreciate your response, which sometimes goes beyond the mundane “fake news” retort. Occasionally it’s funny, like when they say I work for “Barefoot Media,” because I’ve often agreed with School Board Member Brian Barefoot’s political positions.
My favorite verbal insult, though, is being called “McNasty,” which might look good on a t-shirt.
That’s considerably better than what the mothers’ sponsors did to District 4 incumbent Teri Barenborg, the current board chair who earlier this year refused to give in to their demand that 150 books that the group considered objectionable to be removed from school libraries.
They created a Facebook meme referring to her as “Baren-porn”.
Unfortunately, this is the slime-filled channel into which mom supporters have dragged the local School Board elections, now located at the unregulated intersection of politics, culture, and education.
We are supposed to vote for candidates based on their backgrounds, qualifications, ideas about education, and visions for the future of our public schools, not their party allegiance.
Now, unfortunately, everything is political and anything goes.