Love it or hate it, social media is a tool for communication that many rely on. Tons of elected officials use social media accounts to communicate to constituents. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Congressman Jimmy Panetta and all five Monterey County supervisors are just a partial list of elected officials with an active social media presence that come to mind.
So the fact that Carolyn Swanson, a member of the board of trustees of the Pacific Grove Unified School District, has a Facebook page is utterly unsurprising. The fact that her fellow board members don’t want her to have her own Facebook page is puzzling. But it became a major topic of conversation on Saturday, Sept. 25, when the board met for a study session on governance and protocols.
For 20 minutes, Swanson’s four colleagues laid into her use of Facebook to communicate with constituents with varying degrees of scorn. “I’m not happy with Trustee Carolyn’s website,” said Trustee Cristy Dawson. “As a board, we need to speak with one voice… I think it’s absolutely inappropriate for an individual board member to be communicating their opinions, their feelings, their thoughts separate from the entirety of the board.” Board President John Paff said he would never post something taking credit for something the board had approved, even if it was something he supported. Trustee Brian Swanson (no relation to Carolyn) was worried that people may rely on her page for information and then someday, she would no longer be on the board. (Suggested fix: You could all create a social media page to communicate.) Trustee Frank Rivera III was frustrated that because of public meetings rules, he’s not allowed to post comments on her Facebook page and engage in a discussion there.
After 20 minutes of talking around matters of decorum and speaking with “one voice,” the real underlying issue finally came out. Swanson’s page, appropriately titled “School Board Nerd,” is almost entirely basic newsy posts – things like the schedule for football games, Covid safety updates, links to upcoming board meetings.
But it was one post in particular that had her colleagues so worked up. On Aug. 20, the day after a particularly emotional board meeting, Swanson posted: “We have work to do. Last night, I was able to get consensus from the board agreeing to a review of discrimination policies and training for staff and students. We have a serious problem of bias and racism and it needs addressing in a long-term, consistent manner… .I am so sorry for the pain and hurt that this bias incident has caused.”
About that incident: Images showing a white P.G. High student holding a Confederate flag and mock weapons prompted fellow students to launch a petition calling for him to resign from as president of the Associated Student Body. At that Aug. 19 board meeting, he announced his resignation. And students from P.G. and from other schools shared disturbing stories of pervasive racism in their community, stories that should have had the board of trustees issuing bold statements and demanding an action plan. At a minimum, they should have apologized to students of color after learning what they are subjected to.
Instead, other board members and the superintendent spoke in defense of the white student, as if he were the victim. It was painful for me, as a white person, to hear their comments – defensiveness where there should have been empathy. He gets to return to his normal life after this experience. The Black students continue living with racism.
Swanson was the only trustee to apologize. Instead of taking a cue, her colleagues came for her Facebook post a month later. “I found it very hurtful – her against us, trying to move us in a direction,” Dawson said. I hope Swanson does succeed in moving the board in a better direction. In her Aug. 19 remarks, Dawson had no words of compassion for students of color. Instead she tried to talk the petition signatories down: “Take a breath,” she said. “Let the system work.”
Unless the people leading the system inspire confidence, there’s no reason to believe it will work.
District staff are working on an equity plan to present to the PGUSD board in November. Here’s hoping they receive it with an open mind.