Makeup artist, West Wing, Washington, D.C.
Medical director, Miami Marlins baseball club.
Sanitary engineer, elephant exhibit, San Diego Zoo.
I’d take any of those job titles in a minute over school board member, anywhere.
It’s gotta be the most thankless, time-consuming, frustrating elected office in American life. In most places, school boards are simply the theater of the absurd for a grumpy and anxious society as much as the policy-setters for the education of children.
My favorite New Mexico school board scene happened about 10 years ago when an Albuquerque Board of Education meeting was hijacked by the unscripted performance of the Raging Grannies — a platoon of women dressed in Victorian-era garb. They decided the public comment portion of the meeting was the perfect platform from which to serenade members with an anti-war song.
Frustrated by this interruption, the board president finally regained control and got them to stop. Though Albuquerque Public Schools wasn’t going to war with anyone — other than then-Gov. Susana Martinez — the grannies contended they lifted their voices to express concern about the district’s junior ROTC program, which they claimed was a front for military recruitment in Duke City high schools.
It’s not, but that wasn’t the issue in the first place; it was just a way to make a splash. The Grannies’ real issue was our nation’s bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you’ve got a problem and want some local attention, here’s a helpful hint: The newspaper is more likely to cover a school board meeting than an a cappella performance of “I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be a Soldier” on a street corner.
That kind of sideshow happens a lot at school board meetings, the most accessible and combustible of all political theaters. Up is down, down is up, and issues that sometimes get a lot of notice have only glancing relationships to whether Johnny can actually read.
Before you know it, even the board members get caught up in the show.
And so it was last month when a Las Cruces school board member, Carol Cooper, voted with the majority to change the name of that city’s second-largest high school, Oñate High.
The name you know: Juan de Oñate was the Spanish conquistador who helped settle New Mexico more than 400 years ago by any means necessary. And in Oñate’s day, any means meant any means, including the torture and killing of Indigenous people.
In this long, hot summer — days when bad people and bad acts years in the past are getting a new and often unforgiving examination — the Las Cruces board was asked by some in the community to expunge Oñate from the Home of the Knights.
“Oñate was a symbol of hate and right now is the time of purging ourselves of all these symbols of power and [allowing] the other side [to] be represented,” board member Maria Flores told the Las Cruces Sun-News in explaining her vote in favor of the name switch. “I have no regrets, and I realize there are some students who are upset about it and some families. I know it’s hard to change.”
The vote was 3-1 in favor of removing Oñate, with one abstention. Cooper, new to the board this year, was the surprise vote in favor — even to herself.
“I don’t know where my mind was,” she said this week.
Since the vote, Cooper has spoken publicly about her ardent wish for a do-over. She said she believes the school should still be called Oñate, preferring to believe that name honors the hardy people who settled the Mesilla Valley, not the man himself.
That’ll be a mind-bend for those who oppose her, but that’s her story.
In any case, a few days after the vote, Cooper wrote the school board president, Terrie Dallman, and asked that the board vacate the July decision.
Dallman declined to be interviewed last week, simply pointing to the next board meeting agenda, which revealed only an executive session related to personnel matters. However, there is a special session on Thursday.
In any case, Cooper acknowledges she stepped into it. She said she voted “yes” near the end of a nearly six-hour meeting in hopes of simply ending a lingering controversy so the district could get on to other, more important issues against the backdrop of COVID-19. But she added she regrets the decision; hence, the wish to vacate the first vote.
“I have to say I misjudged the backlash,” she said of the vote and the days that followed. “It just turned my stomach to say those words, I felt so bad. But if I had voted no, the best that would have come out of it … the can would have been kicked down the road and we probably would have had to deal with it again. We may still.”
And so it goes. It’s the song of our school boards.
Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.