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school board elections
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump invites a group of children on stage during a campaign rally at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater November 6, 2016 in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

“Stop the madness.” We need to fight to restore the “Clovis way of life.”

She “is old and crazy. Maybe she can wear some more scarves to hide her turkey neck and dress like a homeless lady.”

Raising the grade,” we can make West Windsor-Plainsboro great again!

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is famous for noting that all politics is local. And when it comes to politics, it just doesn’t get any more local than community school board campaigns.

No matter how outrageous national politics can get — Donald Trump said Hillary Clinton would be in jail if he were elected — we have long held onto the notion that local politics best reflect our values and our beliefs.

Those days may be over. Local school board politics now reflect vitriol of the national stage and this year we seem to have reached the moment where civility and community has been completely sucked out of school board elections.

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Six years ago, I had the privilege of running for local school board in a high-achieving school district in the D.C, suburbs. I remember a great deal of door knocking and almost as much hand shaking. Perhaps I have already romanticized the experience – not that serving on a local school board has anything to really romanticize – but I recall all of us on the ballot focusing on what we could do, singularly or together, to further improve a good school district.

Oh, how times have changed.

Since seeing my own name on a ballot, local school board elections have become huge dollar, mass advertising, us versus them political extravaganzas.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars from across the country pour into school board campaigns in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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Candidates have been sued in New Jersey over whether a teachers union official can serve on a school board that negotiates with said union.

“How can we expect our kids to learn and demonstrate these important skills if the adults entrusted with their educations can’t model it themselves?”

And more and more folks are treating the local campaign for a job that is usually unpaid while demanding a huge number of volunteer hours as if it is the pursuit for the title of supreme commander of intergalactic forces.

The 2016 race for local school boards, though, brings political nastiness to new low. In the Fresno area, they are seeking to “stop the madness” in an effort to restore Clovis to the good ol’ days when school boards didn’t have to discuss issues like transgender students.

In Washington, D.C., the personal politics of destruction has an incumbent board member being gutted over her personal appearance by an anonymous attacker using someone else’s social media persona.

In my local New Jersey community, there are two candidates running a scorched earth campaign against the schools superintendent, seeking to restore one of the top districts in the state to greatness by focusing on teaching grammar and restoring final exams.

The days of the little red school house are over. Yes, local school boards need to reflect the times.

Even in the smallest of communities, local school boards have the most complex of jobs. Managing the interests of the whole with the needs of the individual learner, our school boards must balance operational, instructional, and financial demands.

They need to ensure federal and state requirements are met, while honoring the wishes of the local community. They must ensure every student is succeeding, every educator is exceptional, and every tax dollar is well spent. And they must do it all while recognizing that the role of a school board member is severely limited, with many school boards tasked simply with approving the annual district budget, hiring a superintendent when needed, and reviewing said superintendent annually.

While the job of a school board member isn’t necessarily to serve as a rubber stamp for a superintendent, it is a job that requires working with a disparate electorate. It requires finding common ground with everyone from a headstrong superintendent to the most vocal of activist parents.

One simply cannot begin that service through a political campaign of blame, scare tactics, or fear. And it cannot be done by pitting one part of the community against the other in the hopes of cobbling together enough of the community to secure the necessary votes to win.

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There may be no hope for electioneering in general. This election season may have crossed a precipice we can never recover from, one where mutually assured political destruction is the norm and where it is an issue of voting against a candidate we detest rather than for the candidate we believe it.

Yes, our future races for president, senator, or governor may be heavily paved with negativity and vitriol. But maybe those pursuing seats on local school boards can chart a different path. Maybe, just maybe, school board campaigns can reflect the very lessons our school boards are seeking to teach our kids. Teamwork. Collaboration. Problem solving. Achieving goals.

After all, how can we expect our kids to learn and demonstrate these important skills if the adults entrusted with their educations can’t model it themselves?

Patrick Riccards is the chief communications and strategy officer for the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. He is also the former chairman of the Falls Church, Virginia Public Schools Board.

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