Lessons from the Campaign Trail - Melissa Hanlon
I am writing this on the eve of the March 8, 2022 School Board election, without the benefit of knowing whether I will win or lose my bid to gain a seat on the Cooperative School Board. I made the decision to run for office in large part because of my own frustration with the division in our community, and the hyper-partisan debates taking place around our schools. My vision was to keep politics out of the schools and return the focus to our students and teachers. While I still believe that is what our community desperately needs, after living through this election I am not convinced it can be done.
When I first decided to run for School Board, I promised myself that I would be true to who I am and what I believe in. I knew that meant I was unlikely to garner support from the vocal far left - who at least in our community currently seem to view anyone questioning the schools as anti-schools, or the vocal far right – who seemed more dissatisfied than I felt, and were focused on a few narrow issues. I viewed myself as occupying a space somewhere in the middle – I have not agreed with all of the decisions and priorities of the administration or school board, but I have also not disagreed all of the time either. And I just want my kids (and yours) to get a good education, and our teachers to feel valued and supported. I felt like there must be other people like me in our community, and if I could reach them then I would be successful.
I had also done my research and knew the facts to explain the areas that I feel need improvement in our schools. I read years of meeting minutes to understand the programming changes that have taken place, as well as the budgeting decisions. I reviewed all the publicly available information regarding our district on the DOE website. I read the various Collective Bargaining Agreements and employment contracts that were in the public domain. And I reached out to teachers from across the district to have conversations about what they felt was working and not working in our schools. I believed that if I could just share the information that I had learned, people would listen. I thought I could change people’s minds. I now know that was naïve – our community is so entrenched in their own views, facts not only do not matter, they are not even acknowledged as facts. Point out the information from the DOE on our decline in proficiency pre-pandemic – why are you spreading malicious information and lies? Point out that in the meeting minutes that the administration and board acknowledge a persistent gap in math achievement for the past four years – why are you against our teachers and our students? The list goes on and on.
In addition to being surprised at the inability of people to change their own views, I am also shocked at how much this experience has fundamentally changed my world view.
I have consistently voted in our local elections since living in NH, and I was of course aware of partisan campaigning even for small, local positions to some degree. But I never paid close attention to it. I realize now that an intense amount of time, effort and money is put into these local races not just by our local Republican and Democrat organizations – but by State wide groups. And the calculated misinformation in these materials took my breath away. I saw mailers, emails and phone calls saying “the opposition” (which included me apparently because I did not have the blessing of either party) wanted to dismantle our public schools from the inside out by taking over the school boards all in the name of creating school choice in NH. I have spoken with or listened to almost every candidate in this race at this point, and never once did I hear any discussion about school choice or vouchers, let alone some insidious plot to dismantle the schools. Quite the opposite – everyone wants to focus on making the schools better. I have been branded as anti-DEIJ (I’m not) because dared to talk about wanting to improve academics – yet when other candidates on the right “list” mention improving academic rigor it is somehow sincere and not cover for a covert agenda. I am against social emotional learning (not true – anyone remember that mental health forum I organized last year?) I have been called anti-teacher (I’m not – happily married to a fantastic teacher) and anti-student (also not). People who have never spoken to me have I written that I am running to exact vengeance due to my dissatisfaction with COVID policies (also not true). I could go on and on. I had outreach from friends asking if what they heard about me was true (pick any of the above). Strangers have posted online about how I and other candidates are an existential threat to public education.
At a certain point, I was so tired of trying to stamp out the misinformation that I simply stopped trying. Facebook became a toxic place where the people spreading the misinformation had unfettered access to the local town/SAU forums, and anyone trying to set the record straight was quickly deleted or kicked out (with some exceptions and thank you to those moderators). I have largely stayed off Facebook for my own mental health the past week, because the bullying, lies and faux outrage are non-stop. The hypocrisy of people screaming about an entirely locally funded and transparent PAC having the audacity to participate in the election, while simultaneously embracing the endorsements of groups outside of our SAU (603 Forward, Granite State Progress etc.) still shocks me. Political action committees are ok as long as they are on your side, but if they are not then they are evil threats to your children.
After I cast my ballot tomorrow, I am changing my political registration. From this point forward, I will be registered as an independent, and no longer as a democrat. Having witnessed the spin, scare tactics and misinformation that were perpetuated against me and others during this election, I no longer want to be affiliated with either party.
It never had to be this way. We could have had honest conversations, and disagreements, based in fact. Our children and our community would benefit greatly from that. A new school board will be formed tomorrow, and I may or may not be a part of it. Whoever is will have a gargantuan responsibility though, and the best place to start is by stepping away from their own political lens or anchor bias, paying attention to the facts rather than the spin, and pausing to sincerely listen – especially to those who disagree with them. Be brave enough to have the honest conversations and look at the inconvenient facts.
Thank you to those in our community who took the time to speak with me and get to know me. I learned a lot from talking to people at campaign events, while holding my signs, or on the sidelines at my kids’ sports. This was the fun part of being a candidate and I would be remiss for not mentioning it – I met a lot of great people in our community with diverse perspectives and experiences. I gained new friendships while on this journey that I will treasure. I also have tremendous gratitude for everyone that posted a lawn sign, held a campaign sign, sent an email or text, or made a phone call on my behalf. I can never repay your kindness and generosity.
As for me, win or lose I will continue to advocate for my kids and yours in whatever way I can.