September 2013 Church & State | Featured

 

Visitors to the website of the Ohio city of Springboro are greeted by a cheery video featuring smiling Mayor John Agenbroad.

            “Grow and prosper in affluent Springboro, a southwest Ohio paradise!” Agenbroad intones, as images of bike-riding children and park-strolling couples flash on the screen. The city is described as “your American dream come true.”

            But for some residents, that dream lately has had more the feel of a nightmare, thanks to the antics of the Springboro Board of Education.

            The city of about 17,000 residents located south of Dayton has suddenly become ground zero in a Religious Right-led culture war, marked by schemes to slip creationism into science classes and bring “Christian nation” seminars on the Constitution to the schools.

How did this all-American town that loves to boast about its summer concert series and theater under the stars get to this point?

Blame it on a Religious Right/Tea Party offensive.

For years, members of the community squabbled about property taxes and funding for its award-winning schools. A few years ago, local parent Kelly Kohls, head of the Warren County Tea Party, won a seat on the five-member board after campaigning on a platform of fiscal austerity.

Kohls was just one voice, but in 2011 two ideological allies — David Petroni and Jim Rigano — secretly began plotting to join her.

If Petroni and Rigano had a social-issues agenda, they weren’t eager to talk about it. They spent the entire campaign discussing levies – local votes many communities use to fix the property tax rate to fund public schools.

“Those two ran on an anti-levy platform,” said Lynn Greenberg, a Springboro resident who has five children in the city’s schools. “That was their only platform.”

But a funny thing has happened since then: There’s been little talk from the board about levies and plenty of talk about divisive social issues.

In May, the board majority began exploring ways to work creationism into the science curriculum. Rigano told the Dayton Daily News that he believes introducing creationism would help the district “ensure we’re not indoctrinating one point of view or another.”

The board sought to sneak creationism in under a new policy covering the discussion of so-called “controversial” issues for classroom discussion. These include, according to board materials, “[s]ex education, legalization of drugs, evolution/creation, pro-life/abortion, contraception/abstinence, conservatism/liberalism, politics, gun rights, global warming and climate change and sustainable development.”

Americans United was quick to inform the board that this was not a good idea.

“The U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have consistently and unequivocally held that religious views on the origins of life, such as creationism, ‘creation science,’ and ‘intelligent design,’ cannot lawfully be advanced in the public schools as alternatives to the scientific theory of evolution,” AU pointed out in a letter to the board.

Parents quickly organized as well.

“People are concerned,” Greenberg said in an interview with Church & State. “I feel like a lot of people are waking up. A lot of people are getting involved. I have someone every day come up to me and say, ‘I had no idea it was this bad.’”

Greenberg and other activists have formed a group called Springboro United for Responsible Education (SURE). What began as a modest effort of about 20 people meeting in homes has blossomed into a sophisticated community-based outreach with a strong social media presence. SURE’s Facebook “likes” are approaching 1,000, and the group has even garnered national attention.

Recalling the formation of SURE, Greenberg told Church & State that she quickly grew frustrated watching the new board put Springboro’s public schools, which have a reputation for excellence, in jeopardy.

“I said that we had to do something,” Greenberg said. “We cannot sit by and let this happen to our schools.”

Greenberg said the board’s antics are a threat to Springboro’s educational system.

“We will definitely have a huge flux of people moving out of this community,” she said. “Many people feel this is not the direction they want to go. This board is making us a laughingstock.”

SURE supporters began attending school board meetings and paying attention to every item listed on board agendas. They also challenged the board, pointing out that any attempt to promote creationism would likely result in legal action.

In the wake of community backlash, the board agreed to shelve the creationism matter for now. But the Tea Party caucus made it clear that they’d like to revisit the matter, and a month later they were back in the spotlight with another controversial proposal.

This time, board members suggested offering a special course over the summer that would purportedly examine the Constitution. The plan was to offer the courses to adults in the community, then integrate the material into the school curriculum this fall.

But when critics scrutinized the proposal, they quickly saw that the course was loaded with far-right material and a skewed interpretation of the nation’s founding document.

 The classes were offered by two groups – the Institute on the Constitution and the National Center for Constitutional Studies. Warren Throckmorton, a psychology professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, did some digging and learned that behind the innocuous-sounding names lurked extreme agendas.

Throckmorton pointed out on his blog, wthrockmorton.com, that the Institute on the Constitution was founded and is directed by Michael Peroutka, the 2004 presidential candidate for the Constitution Party. Formerly the U.S. Taxpayers Party, the Constitution Party is a far-right outfit on the fringes of American politics. The Institute leans heavily on material produced by “Christian nation” advocate John Eidsmoe and discredited writer David Barton.

The Institute, Throckmorton wrote, has ties to an even more extreme group called the League of the South. The League is a radical outfit that seeks to preserve the “Anglo-Celtic culture” of the South and that pines for the days of the old Confederacy. In fact, the League actively promotes retro-secession. It has been labeled a racist hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Wrote Throckmorton, “As it stands, the Springboro School District is offering to the public a course in the Constitution developed by members of an organization who desire to promote the dominance of the Anglo-Celtic people, the secession of Southern states from the nation, and align themselves with the pro-slavery fire-eaters of the Confederate South.”

Both Eidsmoe and Peroutka spoke at League of the South conferences in 2012 and 2013. Throckmorton’s blog contains a video clip of Peroutka at the 2012 event, standing in front of a backdrop festooned with various Confederate flags.

After a stormy July 3 meeting, the board agreed to put the classes on hold.

But tensions in the district remain high. Last year, Superintendent Gene Lolli resigned, citing philosophical differences with the board. Four other administrators have also departed as well as several teachers.

The board is also slashing certain curriculum offerings. Greenberg notes that 18 electives have been dropped in areas such as history, social studies and English.

Board meetings continue to be contentious. Springboro resident Nimisha Patel, who has been blogging about the board and its activities, wrote about a July 11 board meeting that featured comments by Sonny Thomas, a local Tea Party activist. During his remarks, which were in support of the Constitution classes, Thomas unfurled a large Confederate battle flag, a move that disturbed some residents.

Patel wrote that Thomas also unleashed racially charged rhetoric, at one point asserting that African Americans are fortunate to live in the United States rather than in “Black countries” that feature “genocide.” (In 2010, Thomas came under fire for issuing a tweet that used a racial slur to refer to Latinos.)

Despite his fiery spiel, Thomas was permitted to exceed the amount of time normally allotted to speakers. But a parent who wanted to express opposition to the board’s recent actions was asked to leave or be escorted out.

Refusing to be intimidated, concerned Springboro residents continue speaking out. On July 2, a group of alumni sent an open letter to the board.

“The intention of this letter is to demonstrate that a significant portion of the alumni population does not support recent decisions by the school board,” observed the missive. “Constructive legal arguments have already been made by others and subsequently ignored. We are not making policy recommendations. We are not demanding resignations. What we demand is that the board please respect and integrate the wishes of its constituency, and act within the law. What we request is the greater inclusion of the community in school policy and curriculum through the formation of a citizen advisory com­­mittee or organization of a special board meeting in which these topics may explicitly be addressed. We aim to illustrate, above all, the dissatisfaction of many of Springboro’s graduates.”

School board elections will be held in November. Two seats, including Kohls’, are up for grabs in the non-partisan elections. Greenberg said the results could steer the board in a more moderate direction.

Meanwhile, the current board seems to be anticipating some type of trouble in the future. Greenberg said the Tea Party faction has been entertaining offers of defense from Religious Right legal groups, and Patel noted that one board agenda contained a reference to the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based organization that assails church-state separation.

Not long after that, an actual contract surfaced outlining what services the Liberty Institute would provide to the board. Titled “Contract of Legal Representation,” the document states that Liberty Institute will “provide advice, counsel, and investigation regarding the constitutionality” of two proposed board policies – the one dealing with “controversial issues” and another concerning “Religi­ous/Patriotic Ceremonies and Observances.”

Greenberg , who moved to Springboro six years ago with her family in large part because of the city’s reputation for excellent public schools, said the experience with the board has been eye-opening. She has networked with other activists in nearby communities and linked up with statewide groups that are working to resolve problems with public school funding in Ohio.

She has some advice for activists in other parts of the country who want to make sure that public schools remain free from sectarian influences.

“Get informed,” Greenberg said. “Get together. And then start talking. Know that you are not alone. Other people feel the same way you do. Share information. In our case, it got the community fired up.”