Opinion: Forest Hills board provides blueprint for how to poison a school district

·3 min read
The Forest Hills School District school board begins a meeting, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at Nagel Middle School in Anderson Township, Ohio.
The Forest Hills School District school board begins a meeting, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at Nagel Middle School in Anderson Township, Ohio.

Want to know how to quickly create bitter divisions in a peaceful community?

Ask the Forest Hills School Board.

Under the guise of rooting out critical race theory, a board majority in two months managed to turn neighbor against neighbor and make the district a regular source of negative news that’s reached a national audience.

It started by canceling Diversity Day, prompting a walkout by high school seniors. It followed with passage of a "Resolution to Create a Culture of Kindness and Equal Opportunity," an Orwellian exercise of double-think and Newspeak, which basically bars discussions of race, same-sex relationships, or anything else that could make someone feel "uncomfortable."

And so the cynical use of critical race theory and anti-diversity rhetoric by Republican politicians to scare and confuse voters for political gain has found a new home in the Forest Hills district, just as it has in Texas where educators might have to start calling slavery "involuntary relocation" and in Florida, where teachers have to try to work around the new anti-CRT and "Don’t Say Gay" laws.

Forest Hills School District board member Linda Hausfeld speaks during a meeting, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at Nagel Middle School in Anderson Township, Ohio.
Forest Hills School District board member Linda Hausfeld speaks during a meeting, Wednesday, May 18, 2022, at Nagel Middle School in Anderson Township, Ohio.

It took awhile for most people to figure out that critical race theory is a graduate school level academic examination of the role of systemic racism, not anything American children are exposed to after nap time in their schools.

The political answer? Broaden the definition, so that anything can be pointed to as a gateway to CRT.

The FHSD board majority slate elected last year with GOP backing has done so. A friend in a nearby community had warned me we had just elected a "QAnon board." I laughed then.

Not now.

For Anderson Township, a largely affluent, usually friendly, bedroom community suburb, and the bucolic village of Newtown, the top-rated schools have long been a source of pride besides a drawing card. Now they are a source of strife.

Anna Elfers, 16, is part of a protest outside of a Forest Hills School Board meeting at Nagel Middle School on June 29, 2022. Elfers says she wants to learn about diversity in school and is against recent policies imposed by board members.
Anna Elfers, 16, is part of a protest outside of a Forest Hills School Board meeting at Nagel Middle School on June 29, 2022. Elfers says she wants to learn about diversity in school and is against recent policies imposed by board members.

At the most recent board meeting, scores of parents and students picketed outside first.

"We want to learn about diversity," said Anna Elfers, age 16. "That’s what education is about, learning about other people’s experiences."

Jamie Schifrin, a web designer, said residents underestimated how quickly "the extreme right" could take control of their schools.

"We made a mistake," he said.

Inside the packed meeting room, some stood with signs such as "Protect Diversity in FHSD," "Let Teachers Teach" and "Pro Anti-Racism."

At the end of the Pledge of Allegiance, many shouted "for ALL!"

The board meeting was interrupted several times by shouts of "Repeal the Resolution!"

Marissa Paolo, a Turpin High School alumnus, stood with her sign throughout a standing-room-only Forest Hills School Board meeting at Nagel Middle School on June 29, 2022.
Marissa Paolo, a Turpin High School alumnus, stood with her sign throughout a standing-room-only Forest Hills School Board meeting at Nagel Middle School on June 29, 2022.

After warning the room could be cleared – two sheriff’s deputies were on hand – the board decided not to pursue passing a new school levy in the current community climate.

"We’ve got to turn the temperature down," said Leslie Rasmussen, a board member who predates the current majority.

It was the latest board-caused setback. Earlier in the day, parents and students filed a federal lawsuit, charging that the resolution violated the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and civil rights laws.

That will add to taxpayer-funded legal costs for a district already sued this year over Ohio’s Open Meetings Law.

Claire Mengel speaks to about 350 students, according to organizers, from Turpin High School who walked out of class in protest of the cancelation of "Diversity Day," Wednesday, May 18, 2022, to the Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Anderson Township, Ohio. Administrators postponed the event on short notice due to parent and board concerns and rescheduled the event for mid-May. The school board then banned the event from occurring on school property or with school funds.
Claire Mengel speaks to about 350 students, according to organizers, from Turpin High School who walked out of class in protest of the cancelation of "Diversity Day," Wednesday, May 18, 2022, to the Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Anderson Township, Ohio. Administrators postponed the event on short notice due to parent and board concerns and rescheduled the event for mid-May. The school board then banned the event from occurring on school property or with school funds.

Other fallout:

The day after the resolution passed, Russ Fussnecker, Edgewood City Schools superintendent, withdrew his name from consideration for the FHSD job. And some in the community are concerned about the impact on property values from all the negative attention.

Gathering material for this column, I was struck by how many people on both sides either didn’t want to be quoted or have their names used. That’s not a good sign.

Maybe the board majority needs to learn a new version of the three R’s: repeal, resign and repent.

Dan Sewell is a member of The Enquirer Board of Contributors who lives with his wife in the Forest Hills School District, as do four of their grandchildren.

Dan Sewell
Dan Sewell

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Opinion: Forest Hills board managed to turn neighbor vs. neighbor