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School board member's social media action is unacceptable

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American school boards date back to the mid-17th century, when the first public school was founded within the Massachusetts Bay colony. The purpose of the original school board was the same as it is for school boards all over the country today, to ensure that local communities play a citizen governance role in guiding school district policy and vision. In this sense, school boards are vital; they guarantee that the essential work that schools do to educate children is adapted to the communities they serve.

This is why it is so disturbing to find that April Smith, a Fairbanks North Star Borough School Board member since 2020, used social media to solicit people from Anchorage to forward messages supporting “mask choice” to her fellow school board colleagues. “I know most of you are Anchorage people,” Ms. Smith wrote in a Facebook post that has since been deleted, “but please send an email to Fairbanks school board and new superintendent and thank them for keeping mask choice in our schools. The people demanding mask mandates have really turned on the emails. I am on the board and getting hundreds of pro-mask emails.”

Setting aside the question of whether a mask mandate is appropriate for our local schools at this time of increased Covid risk, it is deeply disturbing to find that a school board member would deliberately request members of another community to influence the policies of our own when it is precisely the role of the local school board to facilitate our community’s wishes, not those of Anchorage.

When a school board member receives hundreds of emails from members of our community in support of any policy I expect her to give that policy serious consideration. Basic respect for a majority opinion is the minimum requirement for leadership in a democratic society. It is the very purpose and function of a school board to facilitate the will of the people in rendering decisions that affect our schools.

For a school board member to ignore these “hundreds of emails” is problematic. But to actively request that the Anchorage public take the place of our community in making decisions that will impact us, and not Anchorage, is unacceptable. During this era of irreducible polarization it can seem impossible to locate an area of overlapping consensus. In this case, however, I expect we can all agree. We cannot allow an elected official to ask outsiders, who play no part in electing our school board members and experience no consequences whatever our school board policies, to shape those policies.

I have tremendous respect for our school board, whose members — often the most generous and unsung heroes of our community — face tremendous challenges in making effective and responsible decisions. In this case, however, Ms. Smith has betrayed the most basic and fundamental obligation of the school board, namely, to focus on being an advocate of, for, and by our Fairbanks North Star Borough community.

Alexander Keller Hirsch is director of the Honors College and an associate political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. 

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