Anyone wondering why the Florida Constitution mandates that school board elections be nonpartisan need look no further than what’s happening in our county, where the invasion of take-no-prisoners political forces has produced the ugliest and most hostile local campaign I’ve seen here.
The harsh rhetoric, intolerant attitudes and underhanded tactics we’ve witnessed these past few months should be beneath the good people of our community – which, until recently, seemed to be sheltered from the political polarization and tribalism that has left our nation dangerously divided.
It wasn’t until four years ago, in fact, that the local Republican and Democratic parties ignored the spirit of the law and began endorsing School Board candidates.
But it’s far worse now.
Endorsements aren’t enough. Political opponents are now seen as enemies who must be demonized and defeated. As a result, our once-neighborly, Mayberry-by-the-Sea community has become a culture-war combat zone in a battle to determine the future of public education in the county.
Certainly, there has been some trickle down from our national politics, which are more toxic and corrosive than at any time in my adult life. You’ll notice, however, that we’re seeing none of the same venom and sewer-rat behavior in the two County Commission races.
That’s because the supposedly nonpartisan School Board races have been infected by the most aggressive and ambitious political newcomer in years – a fledgling group that calls itself the “Moms For Liberty,” which is more than a little ironic, given its uncompromising positions and refusal to tolerate diverse points of view.
For those who don’t know: Indian River and Brevard counties are the birthplace of the 20-month-old Moms movement, which was co-founded by Tiffany Justice, a Vero island resident who served one tumultuous term on our School Board, where she too often engaged in petty sniping with then-chairwoman Laura Zorc and curiously defended an obviously overmatched superintendent.
The Moms claim to have 195 chapters in 37 states and nearly 100,000 members – not enough to fill the University of Michigan’s football stadium – and they’ve focused their political efforts on seizing control of school boards to change the culture of public education in America.
They say they advocate for parental rights, but they refuse to accept that their rights end when they infringe on the rights of other parents with differing views.
They also say they will not co-parent with the professional educators who run our public schools, accusing teachers and administrators of attempting to indoctrinate children in liberal beliefs.
They want to take our public schools back to the “Happy Days” era of the 1950s.
If they succeed?
It’s only a matter of time before teachers no longer would be allowed to engage in discussions about controversial current events and social issues. Books that might make even one student feel uncomfortable would be removed from school libraries.
And, yes, it could happen here, where next week’s School Board elections likely will be pivotal.
Locally, the Moms are a small-but-vocal fringe group that has spent as much time and effort attacking their naysayers and opponents as they have propping up their endorsed School Board candidates – District 2 incumbent Jackie Rosario and District 4 challenger Thomas Kenny.
All indications are that the Moms do not represent a majority of the parents who have children in our public schools, but they do make noise.
The local Moms’ leaders and a handful of supporters have been a constant presence at School Board meetings, where over the past couple of years they’ve opposed on-campus mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic, critical race theory (which wasn’t being taught here) and library books they wrongly deemed pornographic.
The public-comment segment of those meetings occasionally became contentious, prompting the district to bring in additional sheriff’s deputies to provide security.
It has been during the current campaign season, though, that the behavior of the Moms’ backers – especially those who support Rosario, the movement’s lone voice on the School Board – has become disturbing.
Overzealous supporters have tried to intimidate political opponents at public events, such as Main Street Vero Beach’s monthly Downtown Friday celebration, where they were seen shouting, “This is Rosario country” and “We don’t want Democrats or RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).”
The antagonistic and confrontational tone of at the downtown gatherings convinced the event’s organizers to ban political booths, effective this month.
Supporters of the Moms and Rosario also have been active on social media, particularly Facebook, where they’ve dutifully rushed to their candidate’s defense and fiercely attacked anyone who dared say or write anything that cast her in a negative light.
Armed with their own political hack masquerading as an online journalist, they’ve also resorted to smear campaigns against Rosario’s critics and challengers.
The most repulsive political ploy of the campaign, however, cannot be pinned on the Moms or their backers – though my former Press Journal colleague, Russ Lemmon, believes Rosario’s supporters are behind it.
In a column that appeared last week in a 30,000-copy “special edition” of his locally distributed LemmonLines publication, Lemmon wrote that “racism is being used as a campaign strategy” and called it the “most sinister” tactic he has seen on a local level.
He then went on to describe the mysterious campaign signs, which contained an unflattering photo of LaDonna Corbin, a Black woman who is trying to unseat Rosario, along with the words: “Crazy Corbin Says Scan Me.”
The signs also bore a large QR code that, when scanned, took viewers to what appeared to be a fake Instagram account filled with content Lemmon contended was “meant to infuriate a certain segment of the white population.”
It’s bad enough that Corbin, a political novice, was forced to explain earlier in her campaign a controversial TikTok video in which she appears to be having a mental health crisis – she claimed she was performing – but to target her with such a blatantly racist stunt was despicable.
That’s why Lemmon tried valiantly in his column to connect the dots in a complex puzzle to expose the evil mastermind behind the signs. Despite his investigative efforts, however, he conceded in print that he was unable to uncover enough evidence to make any direct connection to Rosario’s supporters.
As expected, the Moms took to their keyboards to dispute Lemmon’s conclusion, criticize his journalism and question his motives. Some in the group claimed falsely the special edition was a political advertisement funded by one of Rosario’s opponents.
The barrage of comments posted on the LemmonLines Facebook page by Moms chapter chairwoman Jennifer Pippin prompted Lemmon to block her because, he said, she was attempting to “hijack the page.”
Lemmon defended his decision to write and publish the column – the production costs were covered solely by advertisements and he made no profit – saying he was sickened by the sleazy attempt to introduce racism into an already heated campaign.
The Moms and their supporters, of course, will never believe that. They don’t believe anything they don’t agree with, regardless of the facts, and I no longer expect them to.
Instead, I welcome their response, which sometimes goes beyond the mundane “fake news” retort. Occasionally, it’s amusing, such as when they say I work for “Barefoot Media,” because I’ve often agreed with School Board member Brian Barefoot’s policy positions.
The verbal slur I like most, however, is when they call me “McNasty,” which might actually look good on a T-shirt.
It’s considerably better than what the Moms’ backers did to District 4 incumbent Teri Barenborg, the current board chairwoman who earlier this year refused to cave to their demand that 150 books the group found objectionable be removed from school libraries.
They created a low-brow Facebook meme that referred to her as “Baren-porn.”
Sadly, this is the slime-filled gutter into which the Moms’ supporters have dragged our local School Board elections, now located at the unregulated intersection of politics, culture and education.
We’re supposed to vote for candidates based on their backgrounds, qualifications, ideas about education and visions for the future of our public schools – not their party allegiance.
Now, unfortunately, everything is political and anything goes.