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Missouri lawmakers want recall procedures for school board members

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Wentzville school board opposes mask mandates as cases rise in teachers, students

Wentzville School Board members Dale Schaper, left, vice president Dan Brice, president Betsy Bates and Superintendent Curtis Cain listen to a speaker during the public comment portion of a board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022 at Liberty High School in Lake Saint Louis. At a special board meeting Jan. 10, Cain recommended a mask mandate at schools with a 3% positivity rate among students and staff. The board declined to vote on the matter. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — Proposals targeting Missouri school boards have gained early momentum this legislative session, with House and Senate education committees hearing bills Tuesday to establish new recall procedures for board members.

The legislation comes as school boards have faced intense public pressure as they’ve tried to respond to the extraordinary challenges of the pandemic, including litigation brought by the state’s attorney general. They also face pressure on curriculum-related matters.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Chuck Basye, R-Rocheport, establishing a recall procedure for school board members, advanced out of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee.

The committee also held hearings on legislation from Basye that would allow voters to add agenda items to school board meetings through a petition process, as well as another measure sponsored by Rep. Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, moving school board elections to November.

The Senate Education Committee conducted a hearing on a bill from Sen. Mike Cierpiot, R-Lee’s Summit, similarly creating recall election procedure.

Keith Rabenberg, a member of the Brentwood School Board since 1996, described the position during his testimony as “local, nonpartisan, masochistic volunteer work.”

Parents and school officials filed testimony describing typical procedural meetings being overtaken by heated debates on mask mandates and race-related curriculum.

“As you all have probably seen, all throughout the country it seems that a lot of school boards are not aligned with local community values,” said Andrew Wells, of No Left Turn In Education, citing disagreements on masking and transgender issues.

Political disagreement in at least one St. Louis-area district has led to increased threats from residents and increased police presence and protective measures at meetings.

Ongoing issues have also pitted board members against state officials.

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, as of Monday, had announced 45 lawsuits against school districts over masking rules.

Meanwhile, schools overrun with COVID cases are struggling to stay open, with 62 having closed for at least one day this month because of the rise in cases, a representative from the Missouri School Boards’ Association said Monday.

School board recalls are possible in 23 states, with two bills presented at Tuesday’s hearings attempting to make Missouri the 24th.

The recall procedure bills would require 10% or 25% of the district electorate to trigger recall procedures. The legislation also limits the number of recalls per member per term to one and stipulates the time period during which a member can be recalled.

Both bills outline the grounds under which a petition to recall can be filed, including lack of responsiveness to parents’ concerns and promotion and implementation of measures that are counterproductive to students’ best interests.

Several of these grounds were brought up by parents throughout several of the bills’ hearings, many of whom testified about experiences having difficulty reaching or communicating with school board members about concerns.

Critics of the bills contended the extra elections would be a waste of money and a “constant election cycle” would bring politics into decisions meant to be about children’s best interests.

“If you want to turn over the school board completely — all new members — it takes three years. Every year there’s an election for school board members,” said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “There is always an opportunity every year to elect some school board members who believe in values aligned with yours.”

Cierpiot said at the hearing that even if his bill for recall elections failed, he hoped at least efforts to move the election date to November would pass.

“With something that would get more turnout, more people in the community to weigh in,” Cierpiot said, “I think the board then would be better accepted, more in line with the community.”

Advocates of the legislation to move the election date contended that the races would receive less attention in the “silence” of a low-turnout municipal election, with opponents countering that the races wouldn’t receive due consideration in the “noise” of a general election.

Other proposed legislation would require school board and other municipal election candidates to declare a political party.

The bills discussed are Senate Bill 657, House Bill 1747, House Bill 1750, and House Bill 2306.

Originally posted at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25.

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