Transcription of the episode “School district battles: Protecting education from bans”

[00:00:15] Jon M: I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:17] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Mike Gottesman, a retired attorney who founded and leads the New Jersey Public Education Coalition, a nonpartisan group dedicated to ensuring that New Jersey public schools embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion, and combating attacks on children’s opportunities to learn.

Welcome, Mike. 

[00:00:41] Mike G: Thank you. 

[00:00:44] Amy H-L: What were the specific developments in New Jersey schools and school districts that alerted you to the need for this sort of organization? 

[00:00:53] Mike G: Well, it started around two and a half years ago when I began to notice that groups were growing in different school boards across the state who had an agenda that was very anti inclusion and anti-diversity, and even in some cases anti teaching things like racism and the Japanese internment camps and other darker periods in our history. And people were claiming that they were concerned that their children were being taught this, and in fact, were becoming ashamed of being white. So I got involved in my own local district where this was happening and immediately recognized that these groups had n’t been grown organically. These groups were being grown by actors from outside our state. And on our side of the aisle, there were very few people speaking. And those that were speaking were being intimidated and harassed and catcalled and interrupted in board meetings. So I decided something had to be done. There had to be a better way for us to present our side of the argument. I decided that the way to do that would be by empowering the people who came down to the meetings and leveling the playing field. And getting in there with an equal number of people so that people would feel comfortable standing up and speaking. 

[00:02:19] Jon M: What are some of the most hot button issues that you’ve worked on? 

[00:02:23] Mike G: Well, we’ve gone through the CRT argument. We’ve gone through DEIJ and SEL. For people who may not know the initials, okay. So we’ve gone through the claims that that K through 12 are being taught critical race theory. And we know that’s not true. It’s only taught in graduate schools and law schools. We’ve also have gone through the claims about social emotional learning, SEL, and also the claims about diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice.

So those were the initial acronyms that were thrown out there. And then it’s a unique situation in New Jersey. Every four to six years, they review the student learning standards. And in New Jersey, the ones that came up were the comprehensive health and physical education standards, which includes some of the sex education and gender education, and this was a real hot button issue for them. They came out really hard and fast with disinformation and propaganda. So we needed an organization to get the facts and the knowledge out there to people who were unfamiliar with what was really going on. 

[00:03:35] Jon M: What are some of the things in the sex education curriculum that that have been the hottest issues? 

[00:03:42] Mike G: Well, the change came really in three different grade levels. The first one was K through two, and there were two things in that, and the whole new standard is designed for safety of school children. So the first thing was that It requires children to be told the actual anatomic names of every part of their body, including the sexual portions of the body. And the reason that’s done is so that, God forbid, there’s sex abuse, the children will have the necessary words to describe what’s happening to them. 

The other portion of that curriculum dealt with gender identity, and it was really simple stuff that was implemented in the classroom. For instance, boys play with trucks and girls play with dolls. But you know that girls can play with trucks and boys can play with dolls and boys like to be firemen, and girls sometimes are told they should be nurses. And the same thing, you can have whatever job you want. 

So those were the type of things that they were really having a problem with. And they made claims that, you know, we’re sexualizing kids in kindergarten and the teachers are pedophiles and they’re grooming their kids for the sex trafficking industry. And that’s how they came out of the box, with those type of claims, which are obviously incorrect and not what the purpose of the updated curriculum was. 

[00:05:11] Amy H-L: Your founder’s statement and call to action lists 10 tactics for engaging the public and pushing back against candidates and policies that threaten the integrity of New Jersey’s public schools. So with your permission, I’ll enumerate them and then we’ll ask about some of these specific tactics. Would that be okay? 

[00:05:31] Mike G: And, and we, we actually call them committees, but you can use the word tactic too, because it’s the program that we have to engage, empower, and collaborate. 

[00:05:44] Amy H-L: So the first is observing local school districts, engaging parents and reporting to the coalition. Second is writing letters to the editor and opinion pieces. Third is mentoring school board candidates. Attending school board meetings to support speakers. Contacting legislators. Monitoring Facebook discussions. Investigating opposition candidates. Presenting educational road shows. Producing content for social media. And maintaining an online presence.

[00:06:19] Jon M: How do you observe districts, engage parents, and report to the coalition? 

[00:06:24] Mike G: Okay, so one of the things that we feel is that about 60% of the people in our state still are unaware of what’s going on in school elections. And don’t understand the importance of them and why you must investigate your candidates and you must vote. School board elections are a real low priority in many people’s minds, and we can’t allow it to continue that way. So we engage parents through some of the elements of the coalition. So our municipal representatives are educated with the knowledge they need to engage with other parents in their community so that they can explain to them what’s going on and why it’s so important. The same thing with our educational road shows. We have experts that explain what CRT is and why it’s not applicable, go over what SEL is, and things like the fact that studies show that social-emotional learning increases academic performance by approximately 13%, and that it really is about soft skills, one of the most sought after skills in the job market, and it’s teaching people how to basically get along with other people and also how to manage people. So those two particular elements are the ones that we use to get people engaged, to get them aware of what’s going on so that they now place the school board elections at a much higher priority than they may have done in the past.

We then educate them. Through the educational road shows, through going out and speaking, and we have a speaker’s bureau of of experts that, that people can draw upon if they want us to speak at different functions. We’ve spoken for League of Women Voters, National Conference of Jewish Women, and other assorted organizations where we get the message out and we get people educated.

And then the third elementis the collaboration. And as I had mentioned, when I first started getting involved, it was very difficult to get up and speak because there was a big crowd on the other side, and they did everything they could to intimidate people into not expressing a different opinion. And they extended that onto Facebook pages. So they would go onto these local Facebook pages and they would put false allegations up against people. For instance, they claimed I was a disbarred attorney, mentally unstable, a pedophile, and assorted other things. So the collaboration aspect is growing groups in those local communities so that when they go into a school board meeting, they have a certain comfort level with being able to stand up and speak and give their position on the issues. So that’s what the collaboration is, and it also includes collaborations with partnering organizations. I found there were dozens of organizations that had the same viewpoint we did, and we were all duplicating work. So we formed collaborative relationships with other organizations so we sort of divide up the work and divide up what needs to be done, and that way we have economy and we don’t waste time duplicating.

[00:09:45] Jon M: I have a question about the shows. What are these like? Who are some of the presenters and who generally comes out to them? How do you set them up? 

[00:09:53] Mike G.: We do them county by county. We started doing them live before the pandemic really set in and then started doing Zoom meetings, and we basically posted on our Facebook page. We send out targeted emails, and they’re designed for everyone from concerned parents to empty nesters to seniors and even to administrators and teachers, because they too don’t have all the information. Generally, when we hold them live, we’ll have them at some place like the conference room at the local library. The presenters we have are experts in their fields, so we have someone who talks about this new student learning standard curriculum who actually helped write it. We have professors who deal in SEL and DEIJ as part of their profession who come down and give an explanation of what they’re really about. So we have a whole series of experts that we bring in presenting what we consider to be factual information to dispel the misinformation and disinformation that’s being put out there. We found it to be very successful and a lot of times after we’ve done one of those presentations, we’re then asked. If we can speak at, you know, an individual organization to enlighten their members as well. 

[00:11:17] Amy H-L: And how do you get groups, say seniors, to be interested in these issues? 

[00:11:24] Mike G: Well, seniors, we usually address it from the aspect, to be frank, of the pocketbook. A lot of what’s going on our school boards now are actions by school board members who got elected in this wave over the last two election cycles, and now they’re frankly doing stuff that we consider to be ethics violations, violations of the education law, and also violations of the sworn oath that they took when they took office. And those have impacts. One impact is there are a lot of ethics complaints being filed, and there are a lot of petitions being filed with the commissioner of insurance, and that costs districts a lot of money to defend. The flip side is it can impact on the rating of the school district. So when we engage seniors, we let them know that there’s the potential for a budget gap because our Department of Education has also indicated that it may affect your funding and also they have issues with Title IX. And at the same time, if the school rating goes down, it may impact your property value. So it’s a double-edged sword, and it’s important for you as seniors to recognize that, when your home may be the most valuable asset you have, and these actions can have a negative impact. 

[00:12:47] Jon M: You mentioned Title IX. Can you explain for people?

[00:12:50] Mike G: Well, all, I mean, all of the equity issues in Title IX, and the requirements for inclusion and also, in particular, special education provisions. We have one district that cut their budget for no reason whatsoever and eliminated some of the special services for special education students. So those type of actions can affect the federal funding and Title IX funding the districts get. 

[00:13:20] Amy H-L: Which districts have you been the most involved in observing and why? 

[00:13:26] Mike G: Okay. The way we work is we have an online reporting form called Report Questionable Activity. So we get the information from our municipal representatives and we’ve kind of become an early warning system. And in fact, that’s how we’ve presented ourselves to the governor’s office, Department of Education, and the attorney general’s office, so we get the information from them. Some of them have really, really egregious things going on. For instance, there’s one district in, I believe it’s Millstone, where one of their board members had a Twitter account under a pseudonym and was posting extremely horrific homophobic, transphobic, and racist remarks. They were able to tie this in with that particular board member. So we entered the scene and helped them with, with scripts that they could use with talking points. Eventually, what happened is this particular board member got an attorney and filed a federal lawsuit claiming that religious fanatics on the board were attacking her. And at the very last meeting at this board, the board voted to file an ethics complaint on behalf of the board against this board member. So that’s one of the districts that we’ve had a real eye on. 

Another one is Hamilton, New Jersey. In Hamilton, they’re having problems with book challenges, book removals, books that people want to get banned. And right now they have not one, not two, but eight books that are being challenged. We did an Open Public Records Act request so that we could get copies of these challenges that had been submitted. And what we found is they were very, very professionally crafted, citing a lot of case law, citing a lot of precedent. And the aim of these was no longer at the age appropriateness of these books. It was aimed that claiming these books are obscenity in child pornography. And we’ve concluded that outside organizations are drafting these for local residents because they’re too professional, and the whole concept of obscenity and child pornography is a concept that’s being pushed by Moms for Liberty right now. So it’s our feeling that Moms for Liberty is in the trenches in this particular district. And they’re pushing this whole attempt to get books that are about the LGBTQ experience or written by LGBTQ authors. And again, that’s one of the aims of these national organizations that are pushing back against the LGBTQ community.

[00:16:16] Jon M: You mentioned supporting speakers at school board meetings. Can you give any examples of places where people were feeling intimidated and you were able to give enough support that they felt comfortable?

[00:16:29] Mike G: I started off going and attending school board meetings. Not that I wanted to drive all over the state and do that. But the problem with that is I’m just as much of an outsider as one of the paid professional speakers that they send in, and we always challenge when they send in speakers from outside. So instead of doing that, we’ve created these scripts and we say to our local people, you don’t have to read it word for word. We want you to look at it and find talking points and put it in your own words, because this is your community and every community is distinct and different, and we want you to speak at your meetings on behalf of your community. Now, there are instances where other organizations that we partner with have sent people, so we have Garden State Equality and they will send speakers to a meeting. We have Answer, which is an organization that educates the sex ed educators. We’ve had speakers from the League of Women Voters come down to meetings.

 What we do is we find out there’s a problem in a district. We put a “squadron alert” on our Facebook page, and that’s a little alert to our members that something problematic is going on in a district, and asking them to attend and support our members. And then we send a targeted email out to every member in that county, alerting them to what’s going on and asking them to go there to support, but not to speak. We want them merely in the room so that the local residents and stakeholders don’t feel intimidated by a large group of people on the other side, and they feel more comfortable knowing that they have a supportive base sitting in that room with them when they get up and speak. 

[00:18:24] Jon M: Do you actively recruit school board candidates, and if so, what qualifications are you looking for?

[00:18:31] Mike G: We do not. We work with another organization called Action Together in New Jersey, and they are vetting and training candidates. We provide to candidates who have a similar viewpoint on public education with one-on-one mentors, somebody that they can call at 11 o’clock at night when an issue comes up and they need some advice. We do not endorse candidates, nor do we reject candidates. We basically consider ourselves a knowledge organization so we can provide people with the knowledge they need to start their own research and get them to understand that it’s important for them to research the candidates. We don’t tell them who to vote for. That’s their decision to make. So we do not recruit candidates. That’s not what our policy is. 

[00:19:28] Amy H-L: So number five on your list was contacting legislators. I’m wondering what role does the legislature play in New Jersey in public education and how you try to influence legislation? 

[00:19:42] Mike G: Sure. New Jersey is somewhat unique, although other states have the same thing. Our Board of Education elections are supposed to be nonpartisan. They have been for many, many years, and what’s happened over the past four or five years is they’re becoming politicized. So you have county Republican committees setting up a website where they’re actively recruiting, training, and funding candidates. So the big problem is we have a School Ethics Act, which is in the nature of a paper tiger. And I’ll give you an example. One of the provisions of the Act is that school board members, people who are currently on the board, cannot accept anything of value from a political party, a political organization, or a political pact. The problem is the very next clause in that Act says, but if they tell us that they were unaware of the fact that this organization might have been trying to influence them or bias them, it gets them off the hook. So it’s ridiculous. It’s a huge hole. And the other problem is it doesn’t even apply to candidates for the Board of Ed who can get tens of thousands of dollars from political parties and political organizations, get elected, and then say, it didn’t influence me. So we have a bill that we’ve drafted to close that loophole, and that’s what we’re reaching out to our legislators about. 

One of the pieces of our legislative agenda is to try to protect the nonpartisan nature of our school election. And one of the reasons this is happening is because some time ago, our elections, which usually took place in April, were switched to November. And the reason they did that is school boards couldn’t get their budgets past their, their residents. So the trade off was if you move your election to November, we will automatically allow you to raise your budget by 2% a year, and you don’t have to get the residents to vote on it. But now it puts them in the same ballot as general elections.

So in a sense, It, it’s causing a party line to occur because the elections are now happening at the same time as the general election. So that’s one of the elements of our legislative agenda. And obviously we have to reach out to our legislators to get them to sponsor these in order for them to become law and be effective.

[00:22:22] Amy H-L: But you’re not supporting specific legislation?

[00:22:26] Mike G: We have actually drafted legislation that we are presenting to our legislators. So we’re not just saying to them, this needs to be done. We’re saying, here’s a bill that we’ve drafted. Take a look at it and see how we propose it be done. 

[00:22:44] Amy H-L: Could you give an example of that?

[00:22:46] Mike G: Well, the one I just spoke about, closing those loopholes, so the bill that we’ve drafted says, removes that second clause so that they can’t just say, oh, I didn’t know that I was gonna be biased. And at the same time includes in that ethics act, people who are running for board, who if elected and you know, had their elections paid for by political parties or political influences are obviously gonna be impacted when they’re seated on the board.

We have another piece of legislation that we’re pushing that deals with bracketing in our state. Candidates can run together. And they can bracket under a single three word motto. When they go to pull, who’s gonna be where on the ballot? If one of the candidates gets number one, the other two get slots, two and three.

We feel that’s discriminatory against candidates who run individually because just as a hypothetical, you have 10 candidates running for the board. They have a 30% chance of getting spots one, two, and three, and every other candidate has a 10% chance of getting spot one. So we feel that that’s discriminatory and it’s really not necessary because they’re gonna put out their lawn signs with their names and motto, and on the ballot it has the motto below their name. So it’s really not too difficult for people to look at a ballot and figure out who’s running together. So we feel bracketing is totally unnecessary and we wanna see it removed. 

[00:24:22] Jon M: Fewer than 10% of voters generally vote in school board elections. Now that may change with the shift from the spring to November, since you’re gonna have more voters at the polls. In addition to that, how do you hope to increase people voting in school board elections and, and, related to that, people’s actual knowledge of what’s at stake in, in the elections? 

[00:24:46] Mike G: Well, that’s the whole thing with our motto. We have to engage them, and the way we engage them is by getting our local representatives on a local district by district basis. You know, getting out there and maybe doing a presentation at the local library explaining why school boards now count because we’re talking about how we’re educating our kids, and in addition, school board members become town council members. Town council members become county commissioners. County commissioners become state legislators. And in fact, the other side has a campaign called Lift the Ballot. I mean, they have media pieces, they have a logo, and their whole point is they not only want to change the the nature of school board election, they want to push their candidates up the ballot and push their agenda into other things besides school boards. We just have to do it on a grassroots basis and constantly be out there appearing in all of these local districts. And then once we get people to know, oh boy, I need to be involved, there is a problem, then we need to provide them with the facts. And that’s the education aspect. And then, as I said earlier, then we have to get them to collaborate with each other and form groups so that in effect, they produce these local power bases that they can use to rerun the cycle and engage more people and educate more people. 

[00:26:24] Jon M: How can people get in touch with you? What’s the main way that our listeners could connect with you if they wanted to?

[00:26:31] Mike G: We have a Facebook page. It’s That’s how we got started. Yesterday, we just celebrated our first anniversary. We went live on May 1st of last year. We have 1500 active members at this point. We also have a webpage. It’s still in the process of being built out, but it’s there. It’s available, it’s it’s, and on there we have a form that can be completed. If you want to be a local municipal representative, we have a form that you can fill out. That’s a member registration form. And we also have a form that can be completed and submitted to let us know if something wonky is going on in your local district. You can give us your name, email, phone number, which district and county you’re from, and what you think is going on that may be improper. So all of those links are from the webpage, and our Facebook page is just a constantly updated Facebook page with what’s going on at the county, municipal, and state level that impacts public education in the future of public education.

[00:27:46] Amy H-L: And Mike, I assume that if listeners from other states want to start coalitions, that you’d be happy to speak with them. 

[00:27:54] Mike G: We have actually been contacted by people from about eight or nine other states. We actively helped a group get started in Maine and we continue to help them. And basically, they can learn from the experience that we had. We can give them scripts that they can use and, and, and other educational information that they can use. I actually never even thought about the fact of creating similar coalitions in other states, but because we have been approached. I went out and reserved the business name, Public Education Coalition of America. Our primary concern right now is New Jersey, but if there’s a demand for it, we will happily help people and teach them about the model that we’ve used in our state that’s been pretty successful. 

[00:28:41] Jon M: Thank you, Mike Gottesman of New Jersey Public Education Coalition.

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