Orlando Sentinel | By Leslie Postal | February 17, 2022
A Lake County School Board member resigned this week with two years left in her term, saying “the general political discourse and divisiveness is just too much for me to continue in my seat at this point.”
Kristi Burns, in the middle of her second four-year term, said she is stepping down effective May 1. Other candidates now can run for her seat in August, when school board elections are held across the state.
Her decision may be a sign of things to come in Florida.
Though no other Florida school board members have resigned recently, a number of veteran board members likely will not run for re-election this year because, like Burns, they are upset about the loss of “civil discourse,” said Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, school board meetings across Florida, and the nation, became tense affairs, fueled mostly by debates over face masks, though arguments about “critical race theory” contributed, too. In some counties, board members faced threats and feared for their safety.
“The discord, board members are prepared for. The animosity combined with that they did not sign up for,” Messina said. “I really feel this election cycle we are going to lose some senior board members.”
Burns in a phone interview said no one event prompted her decision to resign.
Rather, there was a slow “build-up” of things that convinced her it wastime to leave, from personal attacks during debates about face mask rules — she favored stricter rules than her board colleagues — to a Nazi symbol on a Facebook post about her, to disagreements that devolved into “two sides just screaming at each other.”
The attacks came from the public, she added, not the four other members of the Lake school board. “I think our board really did try this year to keep things … reasonable.”
Efforts by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the GOP-led Florida Legislatureto scrutinize school library books and limit school discussions about race and LGBTQ people played a role in her decision, too. Burns said she did not want tohaveto defend rules she views as contrary to “fundamental American values.”
Burns announced her resignationat the end of the board’s Monday night meeting.
“At this point, I’m just going to step back from all this divisiveness and really be able to focus on my family,” said Burns, the mother of four children ages 9 to 15.
Lake County Schools shared the news on its Facebook page and some of that divide was soon evident. Many wrote they were sorry to see her go, saying she had been a “voice of reason” on the board. But others delighted in her announcement and accused her of having “temper tantrums” when her views did not prevail.
Monday night, the news seemed to stun her board colleagues.
“I don’t render myself speechless very much but you’ve done that,” said Chairman Stephanie Luke.
A few minutes later Luke added, “I understand where you’re coming from. I think everybody that is an elected official right now is feeling that pressure and that hatefulness, and we’ve certainly seen our share of that ugliness out there.”
Board member Marc Dodd also said he struggled with a response but then told Burns, “I think you’ve brought a great perspective to this board.”
He added, “The five of us have maybe not agreed on everything at every time but maybe there’s some beauty in that.”
Burns grew up in Lake County and graduated from Eustis High School as salutatorian in 1995, according to the school district. She earned her undergraduate degree from Tufts University and a doctoral degree in biochemistry and chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.
For a time, she worked for the Dupont Corporation and lived in California but then moved back home to Lake.
When her oldest was in first grade, she realized he was not getting recess and became active in the parent-led push for it to be reinstated in elementary schools. She successfully ran for school board in 2016 and again in 2020
In her first term, partisan politics did not often influence debates in school board chambers, she said, but that has changed.
“The political discourse has just gotten to the point where we can’t even have conversations together,” she said.