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For Florida school boards, criticism gets personal as issues intensify

Concerns mount that increased hostility, including attacks on family members, will scare away candidates who might otherwise serve.
Crowds like this one at a recent Pinellas School Board meeting have been larger and often more animated as boards have taken on issues including school masks, race relations and transgender rights. At this meeting on Aug. 24, one defiant speaker was removed from the chamber by security and another called the school district a "criminal enterprise."
Crowds like this one at a recent Pinellas School Board meeting have been larger and often more animated as boards have taken on issues including school masks, race relations and transgender rights. At this meeting on Aug. 24, one defiant speaker was removed from the chamber by security and another called the school district a "criminal enterprise." [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2021) ]
Published Sep. 20, 2021|Updated Sep. 20, 2021

Caprice Edmond knew what was coming before the speaker opened his mouth.

Since she began advocating for a strict mask mandate in Pinellas County schools, the first-term School Board member has sat on the receiving end of criticism — not only of her position, but also of her home and family. It happens in the board room, in the community and on social media, too.

And this time would be no different.

Pinellas School Board member Caprice Edmond.
Pinellas School Board member Caprice Edmond. [ Courtesy of Caprice Edmond ]

The speaker began by talking about how the effort to impose a mask requirement without allowing parents to opt out was “criminal and unlawful,” and then quickly pivoted to how the maker of the motion has “criminality” in the family and it “needs to be exposed.” Edmond’s husband, a civic activist, has faced felony charges in the past, and some of her opponents plastered information about it across Twitter and other outlets.

She said she wished board chairperson Carol Cook had cut off the commentary sooner.

“It’s horrible,” Edmond said of repeated efforts to drag her family into her policy position. But she insisted it did not intimidate her.

“I believe the people elected me for a reason,” said Edmond, who kicked off her 2022 reelection bid on Friday. “I’m going to keep doing my job.”

Related: Florida schools shift pandemic protocols as new cases decrease

The job of school board member has come under intense scrutiny in recent months, as boards have confronted some of the nation’s hottest issues in ways that directly and immediately affect children and families. The topics have included masks, race relations and transgender student rights, and people have gotten angry.

The resulting fights, which occasionally have become physical, have prompted calls from higher-level politicians such as Gov. Ron DeSantis to focus on controlling the local boards to implement preferred policies. Republicans in the state House and Senate have filed legislation to convert the non-partisan board seats into partisan positions.

Political action committees have begun popping up to back candidates. And the efforts haven’t always remained focused on the issues.

Florida School Boards Association executive director Andrea Messina worries that, as board members see their families get pulled into the picture, some people who would otherwise be drawn to public service might turn way.

“The issue really is, in this country we have always valued civil civic discourse,” Messina said. “It has become vitriolic. It has become partisan unnecessarily. And it has become threatening to many members of the community, as well as district staff and the officials. And it is not okay.”

When people run for public office, she said, they understand they are opening themselves to public exposure and accept that criticism can follow. But they don’t necessarily expect their family members will come under attack.

“That has become a challenge,” Messina said.

And it’s happening to board members across the political spectrum.

Pasco County School Board member Megan Harding.
Pasco County School Board member Megan Harding. [ Courtesy of Megan Harding campaign ]

Pasco County School Board member Megan Harding, who has supported parental choice for masks, arrived at a recent board meeting flustered that some residents pushing for a mandate had attacked her on social media over her husband’s Facebook posts.

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They pulled some of his comments relating to guns and government, and called Harding and her husband “Q followers” trying to push a “twisted agenda” onto the district.

“He has nothing to do with my job,” Harding, who is seeking a second term in 2022, later said. “He is my favorite person in the whole world. But it doesn’t mean we always agree.”

She added that she asked her husband to stop posting incendiary material, and he agreed. Still, she argued, his comments should not reflect on her.

Wendy Jaeger, a Zephyrhills parent who shared some of the posts, could not have disagreed more.

“My thought process about any of these board members is, seeing what they are posting online and what their spouses are posting, it’s telling you a whole lot about what they are really like,” she said.

Jaeger called the idea of Harding’s distancing herself from her husband’s views “crap,” and said she expected Harding was “trying to portray herself as something she’s not.”

Like some of the Pinellas residents attacking Edmond, Jaeger said she’d do “everything in my power” to oust board members whom she doesn’t agree with. With some residents showing up outside board members’ homes to protest, some wonder how far that might go.

“I’ve got 2 million followers on Facebook,” Pinellas County anti-mask activist Jonathan Riches told the board there during one meeting. “We’re sharing these videos. We talk about you guys. ... We have pictures of you without masks. We know who you are.”

Riches also is an internet personality who served time in prison for wire fraud, once pretended to be the uncle of the man who killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary, and bragged to a reporter about spreading disinformation online so that “vulnerable, gullible people” will help spread it.

He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler.
Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler. [ Facebook ]

Sarasota County School Board member Bridget Ziegler, whose outspoken conservative views have made her a target in her community, said she’s become familiar with personal and family attacks, as well. They’ve gotten worse since her first election in 2014, she added.

Over the years, she’s had people accuse her of dressing her daughter, then 10 months old, as a “little whore.” She’s had people attempt to undermine her regular employment. The other day, she got a message on social media saying “your mom should have gone to planned parenthood.”

“The personal attacks are disgusting,” said Ziegler, who called it “tragic” that civil debate over policy seems to have fallen by the wayside. “There are definitely moments I stop and think, ‘Is this worth it?’”

Like Harding and Edmond, she plans to seek reelection next year. For Ziegler, it’s about influencing the school environment for her own children and their peers.

“I understand the impact these decisions have on real lives,” she said.

Harding said when she becomes discouraged, she remembers her “why.”

“My why is the students and teachers, ensuring they have the world-class education they deserve,” she said. “I wake up every day and I still love what I do, and I’m still in awe that the community chose me to do it.”

Related: Pinellas School Board again turns away request to meet on mask rule

Edmond also looked past her critics, who have accused her husband of illegal activities and protested outside her home. Giving them any attention distracts from the important issues at hand, she said, though she did acknowledge taking steps to protect her family.

“I am not intimidated,” Edmond said, taking heart from her “extremely supportive” base in southern Pinellas County. “When issues arise, I’m able to advocate on their behalf. The love is real.”

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