Incoming Ohio school board association presidents look to the future, away from controversies

By: - December 28, 2021 1:00 am

Rain falls on counter protesters who support race education in schools. The demonstration on Tuesday in front of the Ohio Department of Education ran opposite an anti-critical race theory demonstration. Photo by Susan Tebben

The Ohio education scene is attempting to move on from different hot-button issues, like the use of racial history as a fire-starter in board meetings, and push further on how funding should be spread among districts.

School boards across the state have had to listen to a very recent conservative political movement that claims, by conflating a theory taught in law schools with elementary school education, that teachers and school districts are teaching racial issues in a way that makes white students uncomfortable. It further falsely claims the use of Marxist ideologies in elementary education.

The Ohio legislature currently has two bills from Republican sponsors seeking to regulate curricula regarding race and so-called “divisive” subjects.

The two people coming in to lead the Ohio School Boards Association are taking their histories and the histories of their communities along with them as they look to the future of education in the state. They hope to create a landscape that avoids political controversies and moves forward with getting student learning back to normal post-pandemic, with proper funding from the state.

Robert Heard

Former police officer and 17-year member of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Robert Heard gets set to take the presidency of the OSBA in January. He is not worried about so-called critical race theory in schools.

“It has not, as far as I can understand, it is not being taught as a theory in any school districts that I’m aware of,” Heard told the Ohio Capital Journal.

Robert Heard. Photo courtesy of the OSBA

As the son of parents who refused to raise their child in 1950s southern Georgia, leading to their move to Cleveland when he was a child, Heard understands there are ugly parts of history that may be hard to talk about for some, but doesn’t believe that should preclude teachers from giving the lessons.

“Every nation on this planet has an ugly part of their history,” Heard said. “Does that mean we shouldn’t teach it?”

What he does worry about is the increased presence of politics in education and curriculum. He understands that part of education policy is “bending the ears” of legislators, but sees a less-is-more approach to political intervention as the best policy for schools.

“Politics just has no place in our classrooms, it’s too divisive, it’s too one-sided,” he said. “Education should be a little bit of everything for everybody.”

With that in mind, Heard supported the decision of the OSBA last year to part ways from the National School Boards Association after the national organization spoke on behalf of all member organizations in a letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal intervention at local school board meetings.

The letter, which the NSBA has since apologized for, called demonstrations against critical race theory and other “disruptions” of board meetings and educational events “heinous actions (that) could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

“When you refer to parents as being domestic terrorists, that’s a problem,” Heard said. “When you send a letter out that your memberships don’t know about, that’s a problem.”

In his tenure as president, he hopes to leave curricular decisions to the school districts, where they should be.

“There are so many school districts in Ohio, I wouldn’t venture to tell them, or make a blanket statement as to what they should or shouldn’t be teaching in a school,” according to Heard.

Christine Varwig

OSBA’s stance as a group has always focused on local control, something Toledo Public Schools Board of Education member Christine Varwig knows intimately as both a leader and as an involved parent.

“I can’t and I shouldn’t dictate to maybe somebody down in the Appalachian area what they should be doing in their buildings,” Varwig said.

Christine Varwig
Photo courtesy of the OSBA

Varwig, who has been on the Toledo board for eight years, will spend her New Year as president-elect of the OSBA, which she said will allow her to learn the ropes before becoming president in 2023.

Starting as a student of Toledo schools, then becoming mother and grandmother to Toledo students drove her to the school board, and also inspired her focus on what students and parents need in the district and in the state.

One of the things she sees as a benefit to all districts is increased communication between schools and the statehouse, and a connection between local legislators and their education constituents.

“I’m pushing for legislators to become substitute teachers for a day,” Varwig said. “I would welcome (legislators) going to our schools, because you use what you know.”

She sees building those relationships as a way of bringing down divisive tones, and teach everyone involved what funding for schools would bring. Varwig isn’t a fan of the EdChoice private school voucher program or backpack bills pushed by religious lobbies and private school supporters to divert education funds away from public schools.

“We create opportunities, and so when we talk about school choice, we’ve got it here in Toledo Public Schools,” Varwig said. “Think of what a billion dollars could do for public schools, we could be…growing our own communities.”

Broadband and a way forward

Heard also wants to see a real effort in changing the way schools are funded, especially after multiple rulings by the Ohio Supreme Court calling the state’s funding system unconstitutional. He called the Fair School Funding Plan, wrapped into the most recent state budget, “one of the largest changes that’s happened in a while.”

Both Heard and Varwig want to see school funds and OSBA attention drawn toward progress for schools, rather than divisive issues and misinformation about schools.

As the five-year strategic plan comes up again next year, Heard thinks there was much to learn from the pandemic about how to support students and keep them learning, even when they can’t do it the traditional way.

“We need to, as an organization, continue to address and shine lights on those disparities across he state, whether it’s broadband or access to health and wellness facilities,” Heard said.

Varwig said parents are expecting more and more out of their child’s education, and in the last few years, schools have been area resources just as much as they’ve been learning facilities.

With taxpayer dollars going to these districts, it makes sense that they become places a community can count on for kids to get medical attention or food where it’s needed, according to Varwig.

“It’s just like people going to the school’s Friday night football game,” she said. “I think the same effort needs to be made around our schools when it comes to becoming a community hub.”

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.

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