The public school district in Ann Arbor, Mich., is looking to hire a new superintendent. It is building several new schools. And it is revamping how it teaches young children to read.
But over the past month, the Board of Education has debated many hours over whether to support a resolution calling for a cease-fire in the Israel-Gaza war.
The closely divided board is now set to vote on that resolution on Wednesday, and could become one of the first public school systems in the country to pass such a statement.
Supporters of the proposed resolution, including the board’s Palestinian American president and a Jewish trustee, have said that the statement is an urgent moral necessity amid a humanitarian crisis. A few opponents of the resolution have said that they oppose a cease-fire because Israel has the right to defeat Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, after the Oct. 7 attacks.
But more often, Ann Arbor parents said that they did not see any role for the local school board in the conflict, despite their own wishes for the hostilities in Israel and Gaza to end. And they worried that singling out Israel for condemnation, in a world filled with wars and suffering, could fuel antisemitism in the district.
The Israel-Gaza war has created huge rifts within education, both at universities and in local school districts, especially in left-leaning enclaves like Ann Arbor.
In Oakland, Calif., some Jewish parents are withdrawing their children from public schools after teachers held an unauthorized pro-Palestinian teach-in last month.
And after a public outcry, a public school in Brooklyn, N.Y., removed a classroom map that depicted the Middle East without Israel, labeling the country “Palestine.”
In Ann Arbor, which is home to sizable Arab and Jewish populations, the debate has been acute. Last week, the City Council endorsed its own cease-fire resolution.
But the University of Michigan, which is in Ann Arbor, took a different approach in December, when it prevented student government votes on several cease-fire statements.
“The proposed resolutions have done more to stoke fear, anger and animosity on our campus than they would ever accomplish as recommendations to the university,” the university’s president, Santa J. Ono, wrote in a letter to the community.
Of the seven members of Ann Arbor’s school board, three have said that they support the cease-fire resolution, two have spoken skeptically about the resolution at a previous meeting, and two have said that they need more time to hear from constituents.
Rima Mohammad, the board president, acknowledged that the cease-fire resolution was “symbolic.”
Nevertheless, the Israel-Gaza war “is definitely something we have to address, especially because I do believe the ongoing conflict abroad is leading to an increase in racism and discrimination locally,” she said. “The Arabs, Muslims, Jews, Palestinians, Israelis are all hurting.”
In addition to calling for a “bilateral cease-fire,” the resolution condemns Islamophobia and antisemitism.
It also encourages teachers in the district to “facilitate informed and respectful dialogue about the conflict, aiming to foster a deeper understanding among students and staff.”
That has become one of the most divisive elements of the proposal. Many established curriculum resources on Israeli-Palestinian issues are created by advocacy groups and are themselves highly disputed.
Marci Sukenic, a Jewish parent of three students in the district, and a staff member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor, said she was “adamantly opposed” to the resolution, in part because “our teachers are not equipped for those conversations.”
“There is a lot of bias out there,” she said. “There is misinformation.”
In the past, she said, her children had been called on in class to “represent the Jewish view” of issues, a role that she did not think was fair. “Our kids could be singled out,” she said.
Jeff Gaynor, the Jewish school board member who supports the resolution, is a retired middle school social studies teacher who once wrote his own curriculum on Israeli-Palestinian issues. He said he trusted educators to not venture beyond their expertise.
And Ernesto Querijero, the board trustee who sponsored the resolution, said he did not think teachers should have to avoid the issue, especially when students were exposed to so much discussion of the conflict on social media.
“We have to make space for students to be able to talk about this,” said Mr. Querijero, an English professor at a community college. “Can you create a space to allow students to voice their own opinions?”
The public has been divided, with parents and students speaking at board meetings about experiences of Islamophobia and antisemitism in the district’s schools.
As of Tuesday, a petition opposing the cease-fire statement had about 1,800 signatures. It states that the resolution is “outside of the board’s scope and authority” and draws time and attention away from “superintendent hiring, special education oversight and ensuring academic excellence.”
A competing petition with about 900 signatures as of Tuesday calls for the resignation of Susan Baskett, a board trustee. At a meeting last month, Ms. Baskett, who did not agree to an interview, suggested that Ms. Mohammad, the board president, could not deal objectively with the cease-fire statement because she is Palestinian American.
Ms. Mohammad is a parent in the school system and a professor at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy. She immigrated to the United States at the age of 5.
“My decision as a board member is not based on personal views,” Ms. Mohammad said, pointing out that the cease-fire resolution was first introduced by a high school student.
That student, Malek Farha, a 16-year old junior, said he drafted the resolution with his uncle. As a Palestinian American, he said, he supported educating students about the conflict so his peers could understand that “it has been going on for decades that Palestinians are oppressed.”
He said most students were getting their information on the conflict from social media and the news. But he disputed the idea, brought up by many adults, that the war had divided his Jewish and Muslim peers, adding, “It never caused conflict between us.”
If that is so, the same could not be said for the adults.
Alain Delaquérière contributed research.